Selected Criticism

Labor and Laboring Classes
Thomas, M. Wynn
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In the famous daguerreotype frontispiece to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), Walt Whitman chose to appear in the guise of a workingman. In so doing, he both signaled his intention to give the mechanics, laborers, and artisans of America "a voice in literature" (Traubel 143) and proudly proclaimed his own social origins in working-class Brooklyn, New York. He did not again use that picture as frontispiece until 1881. By then the socioeconomic condition of the American laborer had changed profoundly, in ways Whitman's poetry was ill equipped to handle, since it had been specifically evolved to embody an earlier period's dreams of labor.

Whitman was born into an ordinary working family in a year (1819) that saw the first of a series of economic depressions which were to affect the laboring class over the following decades. These slumps were symptoms of a new phase of capitalist development leading to the gradual transformation of the skilled artisan class, to which Whitman's family belonged, into either unskilled, wage-earning laborers or small entrepreneurs. Politicized and radicalized by the threat of change, the workers responded by voting Jackson president in 1828. In spite of its populist rhetoric, however, Jacksonianism failed to arrest, let alone reverse, the effective decline in the social, political, and economic power of the average workingman. Consequently the Democratic party developed a radical "locofoco" wing, consisting of a broad front of campaigners, agitators, and reformers. Simultaneously, embryonic working-class movements appeared in the mid-1830s, only to fizzle out because of deteriorating economic circumstances.

All his life, Whitman continued proudly to label himself a Jacksonian Democrat, a Jeffersonian republican, and a locofoco. He also continued to revere the radical figures to whose work he had been introduced by his carpenter-cum-house-builder father. These included Tom Paine, Fanny Wright, Robert Dale Owen, and William Leggett, all of whom preached that gospel of social, economic, and political egalitarianism which, as Joseph Jay Rubin has shown, permeated both the journalistic writings of Whitman during the 1840s and the poetry of Leaves of Grass (1855). As an influential journalist and editor virtually throughout the 1840s, Whitman steadily, sometimes fiercely, supported the radical Democratic agenda and aligned himself with the interests of labor on such key issues of the day as temperance, business monopolies, paper money, banks, social conditions, the exploitation of female labor—and slavery.

In this latter connection he began, as Martin Klammer has pointed out, by adopting (in Franklin Evans [1842]) the prevailing antislavery and anti-black philosophy characteristic of white labor. By 1848 he was wholly committed to the Free Soil politics of those who wanted to keep the new Western territories free of slave labor, and he joined other radicals at this time in breaking away from a Democratic party that was prepared to compromise with Southern interests on this issue. Here again, his main concern was to protect the status and the rights of white labor (male and female), which would, or so he dreamed, bring a new egalitarian America into being in the West. But as Klammer has demonstrated, Whitman's sympathy with blacks increased appreciably over the next few years, until in "Song of Myself" (1855) he showed himself capable of empathizing with slaves and of portraying a black man as a magnificent representative of American labor.

Scholars are divided over whether Whitman's labor politics was confined to his journalism or whether it also significantly influenced his poetry. M. Wynn Thomas and Betsy Erkkila have argued that the early poetry is not an escape from but a continuation of politics by other means. They point to such features of Leaves of Grass as its sweepingly egalitarian social and spiritual philosophy and the Bowery b'hoy swagger of "Song of Myself." In the same poem, Whitman's early artisanal background is reflected in his depiction of an idealized world of self-sufficient workers contentedly constituting a harmonious community of spontaneously cooperative labor—an artisanal dream from the past, masquerading as a vision of the present, which is reaffirmed in his rousing hymn to labor, "A Song for Occupations" (1855). Here, as in his prose work "The Primer of Words" (1850s, later published as An American Primer), Whitman demonstrates a fascination with the multiplicity of terms for the new occupations spawned by a dynamic capitalist economy. On the other hand, although he was undoubtedly excited by the energy of change, Whitman's poetic imagination tended to treat the contemporary scene as if it were the fulfillment of the labor dreams of a departed age. Indeed, Thomas has ventured so far as to argue that once Whitman's America had, after the Civil War, altered so much as to render such a feat of imaginative adaptation and reconstruction impossible, he was left permanently disabled as a poet.

If Whitman's labor politics is at most an implicit feature of the 1855 Leaves, it is explicitly avowed in his unpublished pamphlet "The Eighteenth Presidency!" (1856). From start to finish, this is an impassioned revolutionary appeal to "workmen and workwomen" to come into their own, to seize the political initiative, to dismiss their morally bankrupt rulers, and to establish a new ideal commonwealth. Steeped though it was in 1830s artisanal ideology, the pamphlet was simultaneously a reaction to the quagmire politics of its time and unconsciously prophetic of Whitman's future attachment to Lincoln, whom he was eventually to see as an artisanlike figure come from the West to save the democratic Union. (The great elegy "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" [1865] gives repeated symbolic expression to this vision.) Whitman's enthusiastic response to the outbreak of the Civil War was largely due to his belief that at last Northern workingmen had risen up not only against the Southern slave owners but also against the Northern business, financial, and political bosses who were their counterparts and allies.

Believing the Northern armies to consist mainly of workingmen, Whitman blamed not them but the un-American elite of the officer class for early military setbacks. The two years he subsequently spent visiting sick soldiers in the Washington hospitals left him utterly convinced, as is apparent in Drum-Taps (1865), Memoranda During the War (1875–1876), and Specimen Days (1882), that the authentic America was to be found among such noble representatives of the laboring masses. His attachment to them, and to the cause of labor, also undoubtedly owed something to his homoerotic attraction to workingmen, which found expression in a cult of comradeship already apparent in the prewar "Calamus" poems (1860 Leaves of Grass). However, with the end of the war came disappointment of Whitman's hopes that the returning troops would transform society into a new artisanal republic. Instead, America emerged from the war as a modern, ruthlessly competitive, industrialized economy. In Democratic Vistas (1871) Whitman rails against the new mania for wealth and deplores the increasingly marked class divisions within postwar society, but he also reaffirms (albeit in poignantly unconvincing terms) his faith in the eventual evolution of America into a genuine democratic community of prosperous working people. The same year (1871) he published a new edition of Leaves of Grass that contained a section, "Songs of Insurrection," specifically designed to arouse resistance to "the more and more insidious grip of capital" (Workshop 229). To some editions of his 1871 collection he also added two annexes, Passage to India and After All, Not to Create Only (later "Song of the Exposition"). In both annexes, but by different means, he sought to celebrate the extraordinary technological advances of his times in terms consistent with his unreconstructed belief in the dignity and the rights of labor.

The increasingly bitter struggles between all-powerful capital and a newly proletarianized, ethnically mixed labor force that marked the Gilded Age left Whitman depressed and ideologically baffled, as is evident from his confused reaction to the Chicago Haymarket riots (1886). Following the great railroad strike of 1877 he wrote an anguished note on "The Tramp and Strike Questions" (1878), warning of the "unjust division of wealth-products, and the hoggish monopoly of a few, rolling in superfluity, against the vast bulk of the work-people, living in squalor" (Prose Works 2:528). But he could not accept the remedies offered by the developing politics of organized labor movements. To the end, his vision of a Union of egalitarian, democratic states was incompatible with the new labor unions, which he saw as socially divisive and as a betrayal of those ideals of artisanal radicalism with which he had been indelibly imbued in his youth.


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

Hodges, Graham. "Muscle and Pluck: Walt Whitman's Working-Class Ties." Seaport 26 (1992): 32–37.

Klammer, Martin. Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of "Leaves of Grass." University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995.

Rubin, Joseph Jay. The Historic Whitman. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1973.

Shulman, Robert. Social Criticism & Nineteenth-Century American Fictions. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1987.

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

____. "Whitman and the Dreams of Labor." Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Ed. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 133–152.

Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 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.

____. I Sit and Look Out: Editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Times. Ed. Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwarz. New York: Columbia UP, 1932.

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

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921.

____. Walt Whitman's Workshop: A Collection of Unpublished Manuscripts. Ed. Clifton Joseph Furness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1928.

Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850. New York: Oxford UP, 1984.


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