Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
American Revolution, The
Author:
Blake, David Haven
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman hinged his claim to the title of national bard on his being the natural aesthetic outgrowth of the American Revolution's political ideals. Like many of his contemporaries, the poet regarded the revolution as not simply the heroic birth of his country, but as a perpetual mandate for democratic change. Whitman saw in the "haughty defiance of '76" the triumph and promise of New World democracy, and in both his poetry and prose he measured the reality of antebellum America against the founders' generative vision (1855 Preface 7). As the prospect of civil war intensified debates over the nation's civil ideals, Whitman deployed the revolution as a means of expressing his genuine political concerns and demonstrating the value of his literary translations of them.

The event's most significant influence on Whitman may have been in his remarkably civic ambitions for Leaves of Grass. Framed by the adoption of two national "compacts," the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution, the American Revolution offered a compelling precedent for how literary performance could announce and effect cultural change. Both texts came under increasing scrutiny when conflicts over states' rights and slavery erupted in the 1850s, and as Kerry Larson has argued, it was during this historical crisis that Whitman's admiration for the Constitution evolved into a literary rivalry. If the Constitution strained under the burden of keeping the nation together, if it struggled to balance individual rights with civic unity, then the "great psalm of the republic" would emerge to create a more stable, comprehensive Union (1855 Preface 8). As Whitman suggests in section 9 of "By Blue Ontario's Shores" (1856), the poet alone could fuse the states into "the compact Organism of a nation." To the government's effort to "hold men together by paper and seal or by compulsion," Whitman promoted a more cohesive "living principle," a force akin to "the hold of the limbs of the body or the fibres of plants." Leaves of Grass promised to create the necessary adhesiveness.

Along with these effusive gestures toward the country's most sacred texts, Whitman's interest in the revolution centered on episodes of heroism and camaraderie. The poet, in this respect, appealed to the reverence many Americans felt toward the founding fathers. Sections 35 and 36 of "Song of Myself" (1855), for instance, incorporate the story of John Paul Jones's capture of the British warship Serapis. While the poem dramatically recounts Jones's resilience in winning the battle from his sinking ship, it also highlights the suffering neglected by most myths of national heroism. The reader learns that "stacks of bodies and bodies" line the decks; the masts and spars are spotted with "dabs of flesh"; beside the captain's feet lies the cabin boy's corpse (section 36). Whitman not only declines to identify the celebrated battle by name, but he concludes the scene with a chilling description of a surgeon amputating a sailor's limb. The images of "gnawing teeth" and the "swash of falling blood" suggest the body politic's basic vulnerability to its own heroic stands.

Whitman's ambivalence toward the war surfaces again in section 5 of "The Sleepers," another poem included in the 1855 Leaves. The section couples accounts of Washington's loss at the battle of Brooklyn (1776) with his emotional farewell to his officers at the war's end (1783). Both scenes emphasize the general's attachment to his men, and the tears he sheds for his "southern braves" as they lie slaughtered on the ground become tears of affection wetting the soldiers' faces as they receive his embraces and kisses. Whitman's juxtaposition of these historical events has aroused divergent critical responses. James Miller suggests that both stories depict the spiritual affection binding democratic men, and in Washington's departing embrace he sees an early version of the "Calamus" poet professing comradeship and love. Larson argues that Washington's anguish in Brooklyn overshadows his triumphant farewell. The general emerges from the poem as a representative mourner, a patriarch stricken with grief as he watches his children die. In Larson's analysis, Whitman's use of Washington foreshadows the mood of "Drum–Taps" more than that of "Calamus." The great father warns his descendants against the horrors of internal conflict.

Before writing "The Sleepers," Whitman had used the revolution for a similar admonitory effect in the satire "A Boston Ballad (1854)." One of the earliest works included in Leaves of Grass, the poem responds to the 1854 capture and trial of a fugitive slave in Boston and his subsequent return to the South. Whitman mockingly contrasts the revolution's moral and political idealism with the orderly compliance of antebellum Boston. While "the president's marshal" clears the streets for an invading government cannon, the dead rise from their graves and weep at the city's submissiveness. The satire's political force, as Betsy Erkkila has commented, depends on the ironic equation of the federal government with the British crown. The poem's speaker ridicules the heroic phantoms, and as he commands them to return to their graves, he summons from across the ocean the corpse of King George. The ironic voice of "A Boston Ballad (1854)" sharply contrasts with the sensual dreamer of "The Sleepers," but both poems use the revolution to chide the American people for abandoning their republican heritage.

Like Abraham Lincoln, Whitman was keenly aware of the American Revolution's rhetorical power, and he returned to the figure of Washington in the Civil War poem "The Centenarian's Story" (1865). The poem describes the interchange between a revolutionary war veteran and a "Volunteer of 1861–2." Watching a group of Union recruits drilling in front of a cheering crowd, the feeble veteran recalls the battle of Long Island (1776) and the terrible defeat Washington suffered only weeks after reading the Declaration of Independence to his troops. The veteran recalls the general's confidence even in retreat, and the volunteer pledges to spread the story across the land, calling himself a "chansonnier of a great future." As M. Wynn Thomas observes, it is the poet who ultimately assumes responsibility for the volunteer's oath. In connecting the past with the present, however, the poet also aims to preserve Washington's resolute vision that the veteran witnessed at sunrise.

The poem's effort to turn the revolution into a source of national strength remains inextricable from its description of Washington weeping at the massacre of his Maryland and Virginia brigade. "The Centenarian's Story" is typical of Whitman's treatment of the American Revolution in emphasizing the interplay between democratic heroism and an awareness of human sacrifice. Whitman's portraits of an affective, highly sensitive Washington distinguish the martial patriarch as a man of feeling as well as the leader of a revolutionary cause. Whitman admired the spirit of rebellion, and like Thomas Jefferson, he considered it to be a necessary, universal force. However, while that respect surfaces throughout the poet's rhetoric about American independence, it is significant that even before he adopted the role himself, Whitman was as attracted to the wound-dresser as he was to the defiant founder.

Bibliography

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Larson, Kerry C. Whitman's Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Rule, Henry B. "Walt Whitman's 'Sad and Noble Scene.'" Walt Whitman Review 27 (1981): 165–170.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. 1855 Preface. Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass": The First (1855) Edition. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking, 1959.

____. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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