Selected Criticism

Asselineau, Roger
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's faith in democracy was based on three principles which he inherited from the age of enlightenment: liberty, equality, fraternity—or comradeship, as he preferred to call it. As early as 1855, he proclaimed in Leaves of Grass: "Great is liberty! Great is equality! I am their follower..." ("Great Are the Myths"). In 1860 he kept repeating: "I announce uncompromising liberty and equality" ("So Long!"); "Of Equality—As if it harmed me, giving others the same chances and rights as myself—As if it were not indispensable to my own rights that others possess the same" ("Thoughts. 4"); and "O equality! O organic compacts! I am come to be your born poet" ("Apostroph"). He thus insisted with as much vigor on the fundamental equality of all men as on their right to liberty.

Whitman's championship of equality was also based on the teaching of Christ as he had seen it practiced by the Quakers: "I wear my hat as I please indoors or out" ("Song of Myself," section 20). Holding himself up as a point of comparison, he declared: "In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less. . ." ("Song of Myself," section 20). He could therefore say "indifferently and alike How are you friend? to the President at his levee" and "Good-day my brother, to Cudge that hoes in the sugar-field" ("Song of the Answerer," section 1). He refused to make any discriminations, for, according to his philosophy, the mere fact of living conferred a divine character even upon the most despicable being, since every man is the supreme outcome of the evolution of the universe for thousands of years: "Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float...For you only, and not for him and her?" ("I Sing the Body Electric," section 6). Besides, he knew from his own experience that education and social origin were of little importance and the most humble being contained infinite potentialities of grandeur: "Always waiting untold in the souls of the armies of common people, is stuff better than anything that can possibly appear in the leadership of the same" (Comprehensive 733). So by 1860 Whitman had quite naturally arrived at the notions of "average man" and "divine average," which from that time on were everywhere present in Leaves of Grass: "O such themes—equalities! O divine average!" ("Starting from Paumanok," section 10). He went so far as to affirm in 1876, "You average Spiritual Manhood, purpose of all, pois'd on yourself—giving, not taking law" ("Song of the Redwood-Tree," section 1).

Nevertheless, although he proclaimed the equality of all men and extolled the average man with genuine fervor, Whitman celebrated great men almost in the same breath: "A great city is that which has the greatest men and women..." ("Song of the Broad-Axe," section 4); "Produce great Persons, the rest follows" ("By Blue Ontario's Shore," section 3). The contradiction, however, is more apparent than real, for the great men whom he admired were not like those celebrated by Thomas Carlyle, not statesmen and temporal chiefs "who do not believe in men" ("Thought [Of obedience...]"). To Carlyle's heroes Whitman preferred thinkers and prophets—poets like himself, in short, who inspire the masses, or true heroes who sacrifice themselves for the people, or great engineers who work for their well-being. In opposition to Carlyle's hero-worship he offered in 1871 a "worship new" of "captains, voyagers, explorers...engineers...architects, [and] machinists" ("Passage to India," section 2). He thus considered that even in a democratic society of equal men, spiritual and intellectual elites are necessary. He re-affirmed it in Democratic Vistas: "[I]t is strictly true, that a few first-class poets, philosophs, and authors, have substantially settled and given status to the entire religion, education, law, sociology, &c., of the hitherto civilized world...and more than ever stamp, the interior and real democratic construction of this American continent to-day, and days to come" (Prose Works 2:366–367). For if, as a utopian poet, he unreservedly sang the "divine average," he was quite lucid and illusionless in the prose of Democratic Vistas concerning the darker side of human nature. There he admits that "general humanity...has always, in every department, been full of perverse maleficence, and is so yet" (2:379). Nonetheless, the Civil War revealed to him the heroism of the average American and confirmed his faith in man "en-masse." When the war was over, he proclaimed the grandeur of the average man: "Never was average man, his soul, more energetic, more like a God..." ("Years of the Modern"). He thus wavered between an idealistic and a realistic conception of man, yet firmly concluded that, all men being fundamentally equal, the universal suffrage must guarantee the rights of all and that democracy is the only regime that can ensure the development of a just society: "[G]ood or bad, rights or no rights, the democratic formula is the only safe and preservative one for coming times. We endow the masses with the suffrage for their own sake,...perhaps still more...for community's sake" (Prose Works 2:380–381). Even if democracy is imperfect and only a lesser evil, it respects what Whitman calls "equal brotherhood." Alexis de Tocqueville, though an aristocrat and a conservative, had to acknowledge that the system worked. He admired the social equality he observed in the United States when he visited it in Whitman's time.

Whitman believed in equality because he was an individualist, an upholder of "personalism," who wanted above all to safeguard the rights of the individual, i.e., himself, but he failed to realize that there is an incompatibility between liberty and equality. As Plato pointed out in the Republic, in a given society individuals are born intelligent or stupid, good-looking or ugly, dexterous or crippled, strong or weak. Equality is contrary to facts and unnatural. If you want nonetheless to enforce it, you must impose a general leveling down and deny personal liberty, as was done in totalitarian countries. Equality as conceived by the thinkers of the age of enlightenment was equality of opportunity, equality of rights, not complete equality on all planes, as demagogues claim and pretend to believe. Men can be equal only in rights; they can never be totally equal physically and intellectually. If a government wants to impose equality, it will have to impose it by force at the expense of liberty. So the three elements which make up democracy, the three values on which it is based, must be carefully measured. A delicate balance between liberty and equality must be maintained. It is very precarious and rarely obtained. Perfect democracy exists only in Leaves of Grass—thanks to Whitman's emphasis on brotherhood.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Book. Trans. Roger Asselineau and Burton L. Cooper. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962.

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

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

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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