Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Immigrants
Author:
Harris, Maverick Marvin
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Ever the humanitarian, ever the Singer of Democracy, Walt Whitman defended—even promoted—immigration and descried the plight of immigrants and the discrimination these "poor creatures" often suffered. Indeed, he could not understand how anyone with a heart could feel less than compassionate for the needy ones coming from Europe's closed society to America's plentiful storehouse. Immigration and free trade, he felt, would serve to break down barriers between peoples. He even wanted the nation's presses to cease using the word "foreigners."

As the young (age 22) editor of the New York Aurora, Whitman welcomed immigrants, though he did warn them not to try to enforce upon the developing democratic nation their old, outmoded ideas and practices. Believing as he did in the genius and greatness of America, he exclaimed, "Restrict nothing—keep everything open: to Italy, to China, to anybody" (With Walt Whitman 1:113). In "Salut au Monde!" he greeted the continentals of Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia, as well as those on the many islands of the archipelagos, with warm affection: "Health to you! good will to you all, from me and America sent!" (section 11). In the Preface to As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free America was to him "the modern composite Nation, formed from all, with room for all, welcoming all immigrants" (Comprehensive 741).

Whitman was not patient with prejudiced people. He openly opposed the Native American party (the "Know-Nothings") when it venomously argued against "foreigners," especially Irish and German immigrants. The party proposed to deny citizenship to all aliens and even went so far as to recommend an end to all immigration for fear that immigrants would become a threat to the republic and Western settlement. Taking the contrary position, as he also did with the proposals for restricted trade and the introduction of slavery in new territories, Whitman considered the outlawing of immigration a social evil. He saw the masses of immigrants as supplying the increasing need for laborers as westward expansion continued to draw multitudes from the industrialized eastern areas. But he did not stop there. He wanted many of these newcomers themselves to travel on to the far West and there take advantage of the riches ready for the taking by industrious, deserving men and women of sturdy stock such as he found the immigrants to be. That most did not, he observed, was because many of the "poor things" had exhausted all their means on passage—a problem that could, and should, be remedied by organized means to speed them on their way. This suggestion, he maintained, not only was economically advantageous but also was demanded by necessity and benevolence.

As editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, he sternly countered the malicious gossip that certain authorities in Europe were exporting their paupers and criminals to the United States. He labeled as "legislative nonsense," "utterly ridiculous, impracticable—and, moreover, unnecessary" (Gathering 1:160) a bill introduced by Mr. Seaman, the Whig-Native Representative in Congress, to outlaw the importation of paupers and criminals into the country. To rebut the gossip and its consequent legislative proposal, he reasoned that such undesirables would certainly not be deterred by the required oath that they were not paupers or criminals. Moreover, he wrote, to think that sick and infirm denizens of poorhouses, who had been sent there because they could not work, would survive the rigors of a long, exhausting ocean voyage was ludicrous. However, even if there were a basis for thinking Europe was transporting its unwelcome citizens to the United States—a suggestion he repudiated—the bill lacked merit, for he welcomed to the growing nation those hardy souls stout enough to survive the journey. Years later he told friends that without exception "America must welcome all" (With Walt Whitman 2:34), regardless of their national origin, their financial condition, or their legal status, for America must become an asylum for any who choose to come.

Nowhere is Whitman's admiration for immigrants and his sympathy for their condition more apparent than in an unpublished manuscript titled "Wants," that is, Want Ads. He was struck by the sturdiness of the men and the "patience, honesty, and good nature" (Notebooks 1:89) of the women. Yet he was touched by the sad state of affairs out of which they had little hope of rising. Their ability to accept their condition with determination and good humor may well account for his unwavering defense of his country's open arms to the thousands of immigrants that arrived daily on its shores.

Bibliography

Gohdes, Clarence, and Rollo G. Silver, eds. Faint Clews & Indirections: Manuscripts of Walt Whitman and His Family. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1949.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920.

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

____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.

____. Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora. Ed. Joseph Jay Rubin and Charles H. Brown. State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle, 1950.


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