Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Heroes and Heroines
Author:
Baldwin, David B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

A search for men and women Whitman saw in a heroic light yields fewer names than might be expected. Whitman admired many, with characteristic generosity of spirit, whether obscure or well known. But the usual idea of the heroic must be altered to accommodate his lifelong vision of humanity.

Historically the heroic has suggested behavior beyond the capacity of ordinary men and women. The classical hero was expected to accomplish superhuman feats for a far-reaching public cause and to be held in reverence by the public. Whitman did participate in some such hero worship common in the nineteenth century. He wrote poems about Christopher Columbus, Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, certain opera singers. Yet he also wrote about more humble, obscure people such as the ox-tamer. These were the sorts of men and women whose fragmentary biographies are scattered liberally throughout Leaves of Grass in a treatment far from heroic. Even the public figures were treated in a way to stress their modest human traits.

Of the two genders, it was women that Whitman idealized and championed all his life. Women's maternal side commanded much of his attention, although not all. Frances Wright, the Scottish reformer, whose lectures stirred up stormy controversy, greatly appealed to him as a young man. But the root of his admiration for women, which could be seen as a kind of hero worship, was his mother. (For a negative view of his mother's influence, see Edwin Haviland Miller's work.) His father, apparently a dour and taciturn man, left little evident impression on Whitman. In his later years the traits of his mother that he singled out were the simplicity, reality, and "transparency" of her life. She "excelled in narrative," had great mimetic power, was "eloquent in the utterance of noble moral axioms" as well as being "very original in her manner, her style." Moreover, Whitman credited her with an enormous influence on his poetry: "Leaves of Grass is the flower of her temperament active in me" (With Walt Whitman 2:113–114). How close to the truth such a statement lies is impossible to say; there is probably a mixture of the nineteenth-century tendency to place women on a pedestal and the natural gratitude of a son for all the nurturing of an attentive mother. In any case Whitman's interest in women was less in their heroic aspect than in their nature as a largely untapped force (see Democratic Vistas). He went so far as to call Leaves of Grass "essentially a woman's book: the women do not know it, but every now and then a woman shows that she knows it: it speaks out the necessities, its cry is the cry of the right and wrong of the woman sex—of the woman first of all, of the facts of creation first of all—of the feminine: speaks out loud: warns, encourages, persuades, points the way" (With Walt Whitman 2:331).

Of the men that Whitman admired, heroes were few, common representatives many. One of the few public figures Whitman praised over a long period was Ralph Waldo Emerson: "I believe Emerson was greater by far than his books" (With Walt Whitman 6:23). He took the same approach to Abraham Lincoln, whom he never actually met, but on the Washington streets the two exchanged "bows, and very cordial ones" (Prose Works 1:60). When the time came to memorialize Lincoln, Whitman chose images, symbols, and figures that brought him down to a human level. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" softened what might have been a heroic image. It scarcely mentions Lincoln at all till the end, when the poet refers to him as "the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands" (section 16). It is unlikely that a conventional hero would expect to be called "sweet."

"Song of Myself" roams freely among Americans, their occupations, activities, relations, natures. No particular individual is lingered upon as heroic. Whitman had found a way of celebrating the human spirit differently: through his own persona, linking it to the reader's—"And what I assume you shall assume" (section 1). The attentive reader of "Song of Myself" can end the 52 sections as the poet's companion. Any need for the heroic will have been transformed into something more important to Whitman: the stimulation and enrichment of the reader's soul.

Whitman's dream of brotherhood and sisterhood was everywhere in Leaves of Grass, not least in the "Children of Adam" and "Calamus" sections. His own sexual orientation mattered little. He would celebrate the physical and erotic attributes of men and women with candor. Poet and reader are together imaginatively in a central human experience; the exceptional becomes the common, the universal.

The Civil War poems, "Drum-Taps," extend Whitman's effort to bond with the reader. Now the soldiers become, as it were, the readers, as Whitman is able in fact to reach out and touch those his emotional needs yearn for. His three years nursing in the Washington hospitals were surely heroic in humanitarian terms. It derived from the same impulse that created the war poems, which sought to ennoble the men of the conflict not in terms of heroics but of courage, loyalty, endurance, and suffering.

Though not a Christian, Whitman understood the example of Christ's suffering, as seen in "A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim." In "To Him That was Crucified," he links himself completely to Christ in their common purpose: "till we saturate time and eras, that the men and women of races, ages to come, may prove brethren and lovers as we are." Whitman's vision for humanity was much closer to the Christian than to any classical or romantic view of the heroic.

If there is any thread running through Whitman's work, beyond that aura of freedom saturating it, it is that of the essentially equal worth and potential of all men and women. The search for heroes and heroines ends with any responding reader.

Bibliography

Kummings, Donald D. "The Vernacular Hero in Whitman's 'Song of Myself.'" Walt Whitman Review 23 (1977): 23–24.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. New York: New York UP, 1969.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908; Vol. 6. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982.

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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