This Saturday, May 31, marks the 195th birthday of America’s greatest poet and perhaps even its greatest citizen to have ever lived: Walt Whitman. “Leaves of Grass,” as one contemporary reviewer put it at the time, was “an explosion in a sewer.” The reactions to Whitman’s work, at least in most circles, were largely unpleasant. One reviewer even suggested that Walt Whitman commit suicide.
“Leaves of Grass” was so offensive that it cost Walt several jobs, and by the end of his life, the poet died nearly in poverty, relying on the kindness of Britain’s literary elite just to survive and be buried.
I had the chance to visit the Walt Whitman home on a mini-Sabbatical in 2012. The caretaker there in Camden pulled a letter out and read it aloud to me. It was written by a middle-aged woman from England on September 11, 2001. As she watched the twin towers fall, she was uncertain how to express her grief and outrage—or even where to direct those thoughts. She chose Walt Whitman and eloquently expressed her love of America’s democratic spirit, stating there was no other place for her to lodge her thoughts than with Walt Whitman. The letter was powerful and brought tears to my eyes.
I wonder, how can it be that so many Americans some 200 years later have still failed to catch this man’s vision? Egotistical, licentious, rude, brazen—all of these are undoubtedly true of Whitman. He once said that the American hide was so thick that one had to beat it relentlessly in order to be heard. And he did, in poem after poem. It’s no wonder that he earned so few admirers.
Walt Whitman was probably above all committed to a celebration of the human body. His initial poetry, written several years before the Civil War, was submitted with a sincere belief that he could arouse enough compassion in his countrymen to prevent the war altogether. As the war broke out, Whitman saw it as a “war on the body,” and he believed his poetry was a failure. He “retired” from writing and spent several long months as a volunteer nurse in Civil War hospitals, and to this day, the poet has nursing awards, hospitals, and medical centers named after him.
Whitman believed if every American could somehow come to view the body as sacred that we might prevent men from “mutually butchering one another.” His celebration of sinew, crotch, and armpit pushed the 1850s moral majority into a frenzy. “The scent of these armpits,” Whitman would write, “is an aroma finer than prayer.” Again, how could we be surprised by the vehemence some mustered against his writing? What a daring statement, to believe that God loved the human body so much…that even the most base forms of the human experience were worthy of sacred love? Why, one might think such a God would even assume human form…were such a God so inclined.
In his last will and testament and in what I believe was one final act of both love and defiance, Walt Whitman bequeathed the bulk of his possessions, including forthcoming profits from his work “now and forever,” to his mentally disabled younger brother who was committed to an insane asylum. The brother could scarcely dress himself or use the bathroom without assistance. The reason for such a bold action is captured in his writing:
In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself, I say of them.
For Whitman, American democracy meant caring for all individuals regardless of any perceived illness, sin, ethnic background, or income level. Scandalous? For certain: in his time and in ours…but then again, so is a cross.
I wonder on this 195th birthday of the good gray poet, what he might think to see us now: over-fed, under-educated, apathetic? Addicted to pleasure, commodities, and self-absorbed in all the wrong ways? I wonder what he might think to see personal strength and vivacious generosity held hostage to our fears and anxieties? To see leaders sabotaged by a call to empathy and to see, most ironically, those truly worthy of our empathy believe that their existence has no meaning?
I wonder how many of us will lay our heads this Saturday with absolutely no recognition or remembrance of the man who at the expense of his own health and well-being worked desperately to connect us to the selves that most frighten most? The one who called us to the selves that skirt along the edges of social niceties and rudimentary make-shift law?
Or how many of us will think to look at the book (“Leaves of Grass”) that Ralph Waldo Emerson once said in a private letter was “a non-descript monster with terrible eyes and buffalo strength: American to the bone.”
It would, I think, prove to be much easier and safer for us to watch a sitcom. Sadly, that’s where the majority of us will rest before turning out the lights. Our “barbaric yawp” has become every bit the whimper that T.S. Eliot said it would:
This is the way the world ends,
this is the way the world ends,
this is the way the world ends,
not with a bang, but a whimper.
But to those who might be willing, consider the call of the man who was once considered “a lunatic raging in pitiable delirium:”
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
David Allred is the lead pastor at High Places Community Church.