Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Tramp and Strike Questions, The" (1882)
Author:
Rachman, Stephen
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Written in 1879 and published in Specimen Days (1882), "The Tramp and Strike Questions" marks a low point in Walt Whitman's hopes for the evolution of a successful New World democracy. Part of a proposed but undelivered public lecture, it expresses Whitman's profound disenchantment with the social upheavals and economic travails that swept across Reconstruction-era America after the crash of 1873, and it stands as the inconclusive end of Whitman's remarks on the growing divide between rich and poor in Gilded Age America. What he described in passing in Democratic Vistas (1871) as "that problem, the labor question, beginning to open like a yawning gulf, rapidly widening every year" (Complete 990), has become the "grim and spectral dangers" (1063) of tramps and strikes. After a span of years which had endured the failed Long Strike in the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania and the terrorist activities of the Molly Maguires, the great railroad strike of 1877, the use of federal troops against civilian Americans, the riots of the unemployed in Tompkins Square, New York, and, in Whitman's home city of Camden, the many sufferings of working people, Whitman had come to fear that the intractable problems of the Old World were infecting the United States. No longer was the "abstract question of democracy" most pressing but rather those "of social and economic organization, the treatment of working-people by employers, and all that goes along with it–not only the wage-payment part, but a certain spirit and principle, to vivify anew these relations" (1064).

Casting the American and French Revolutions as "great strikes," Whitman hints of the impending "homœopathic" cure (1064) that the "vast crops of poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, miserably-waged populations" might inflict upon the diseased nation, and if the status quo continues, he laments that the republican experiment must be considered "at heart an unhealthy failure" (1065). As Newton Arvin has observed, it was in this same humor that Whitman created for his sixth edition of Leaves of Grass the eventually discarded cluster "Songs of Insurrection," calling for healthy revolt in the "more and more insidious grip of capital" (Workshop 229). In "Tramp and Strike," Whitman, who had long celebrated and sympathized with workers and laborers and captured the vigorous spirit of the artisan "roughs" of 1850s New York, recorded his puzzlement at this new class of working poor. The piece concludes with a diary entry from February 1879 in which Whitman is astonished by the sight of three "quite good-looking American men, of respectable personal appearance, two of them young" (Complete 1065) tramping along, scrounging for scraps. Dismay and bewilderment predominate. Because he cannot reconcile the healthy workingmen's bodies with their broken spirits, Whitman, who would have placed these setbacks within the context of a country evolving toward a visionary democracy in Democratic Vistas, can neither defer these "questions" nor offer poetic or practical solutions to them.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Arvin, Newton. Whitman. New York: Macmillan, 1938.

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

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

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

____. 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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