Selected Criticism

"Quakers and Quakerism"
Dean, Susan Day
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's Quaker antecedents can be summarized briefly. In his early years on Long Island and in Brooklyn (1819–1841) he grew up near Quaker relatives and neighbors. During his final years of illness in Camden, New Jersey (1873–1892), he enjoyed free-ranging conversations with local Quaker acquaintances.

His maternal grandmother, Naomi Williams (Van Velsor), brought Quaker culture from the Williams home when she married Cornelius Van Velsor. Her daughter, Louisa Van Velsor (Whitman), absorbed Quaker lore and language from her, and passed it on to her own children when she married Walter Whitman. Walt seems to have absorbed her affectionate regard for the culture.

Neither of Whitman's parents was a member of the Society of Friends (the formal name for Quakers), but they were both admirers of the radical Quaker Elias Hicks, their Long Island neighbor (1748–1839). Hicks was at the center of a controversy that developed in the Society in the 1820s, between the radical Hicksite Quakers, who wanted to keep to the "pure" (radical, un-orthodox) spirit of the movement's seventeenth-century founder, George Fox (1624–1691), and the orthodox Quakers, who wanted to move Quakerism closer to other evangelical Protestant churches. In 1827 the dispute climaxed in a formal separation which split the Society of Friends in the United States for over a century. The aging Hicks, endorsed by his local meeting, continued to make his living by farming and to travel as a visiting minister to distant meetings of the Society of Friends. In 1829 Whitman's parents attended the last public sermon that Hicks delivered before his death; Walt, ten years old, was indelibly impressed by his earnest eloquence.

Years later, in a letter to his mother from Washington, Whitman invoked Hicks. He was explaining why his own volunteer ministry with wounded soldiers was of a different order from the professional efforts of government agents and chaplains. Elias Hicks would call them hirelings, he told her, expecting her to understand that he, like Hicks, would minister to the world's needs out of love rather than for money.

The biographical record shows these impressions made by Quakers. Critics disagree as to their critical significance. The Quakers were an influence on Whitman's world view, undoubtedly; but what kind of influence, and where? The references to Quakers in Whitman's verse seem self-contained and of minor importance: the "mother of men" in "Faces," who may have been modeled on his grandmother Naomi, and an allusion to George Fox in "An Old Man's Thought of School." More informative are the references to Quakerism in the prose coming out of Whitman's Camden years: memories of Long Island Quakers in Specimen Days; positive remarks made to Traubel about a felt affinity toward Quakers and Quakerism; and in 1888 a pair of biographical essays on Elias Hicks and George Fox.

In both essays what Whitman most admires is the respect that each Quaker accords to individual subjectivity. The traditional core belief of Quakers is usually worded as "there is that of God in every person." Whitman notes the version of this belief as preached by Hicks, that "the fountain of all naked theology, all religion, . . . all the truth to which you are possibly eligible" lies "in yourself and your inherent relations" (Prose Works 2:627). Whitman shows that the same idea was preached by Fox, who came to "direct people to the spirit that gave forth the Scriptures" (Prose Works 2:650)—the Holy Spirit implanted at creation in each human being. The imaginative consequences of this idea ("there is that of God within every person") are profoundly democratic. Quakers imagined "that" as neither male nor female but as an elemental form of generative energy: a seed, an inner light, a spirit-within corresponding mysteriously to the Universal Spirit that created it. Thus, each human soul is as uniquely precious to the universe, and as divinely equal, as any other; and thus it is wrong for any human being to defer to, or to do violence to, any other. There is a clear affinity between the democratic meanings in the radical Quaker world view and the democratic meanings Whitman expresses in a poem like "Song of Myself": "Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems" (section 2).

Both Fox and Hicks were willing to endure massive disapproval from the external world because of their loyalty to their own internal intuition of truth. With his truth George Fox founded a minority sect; with his, Elias Hicks split it in two. Whitman notes at one point in the Hicks essay that there are no longer "any such living fountains of belief" (Prose Works 2:647) being offered by the sects and churches of the late nineteenth century—a generalization which includes the Society of Friends. Thus in 1888 Whitman was drawn to the radical vision of a Fox and a Hicks, but not to the outlook of the orthodox to whom they were the exceptions. This outlook, which tended to judge the world in moralizing categories of "bad" and "good," he associated with the Quaker-poet John Greenleaf Whittier. If orthodox Quakers were dull to the radical force of their group's most inspiring idea ("that of God"), then Quakerism had become a dormant culture whose chief contribution to democracy lay in the past.

In 1889 one of Whitman's supporters, William Sloane Kennedy, undertook to write about Whitman's Quaker traits. He produced a brief list of common resemblances, concluding that Quakerism conferred only a somewhat perceptible "tinge" to Whitman's writings. Since Kennedy's account was edited and approved by Whitman, it is understandable that subsequent critics also would treat it as a "tinge."

But Quaker influence is being reevaluated. Since the 1960s Americanists are increasingly realizing the power of minority cultures to preserve and release energies for social change, and are looking more closely at the cultural background of nonconformist writers like Whitman. Once Whitman critics begin to trace unconventional forms and features in Leaves of Grass back to the exchanges that Whitman may have had with minority cultures such as Quakerism, they discover that such exchanges typically occur gradually, through diffusion beneath the level of consciousness, rather than in moments of conscious decision.

Critics of intercultural exchange look at Quakerism not only as a belief system but also as an active culture. They ask not only what its ideas could have meant to Whitman but also how the example of its activism might have influenced him. Both aspects of Quakerism, its historical beliefs and its activist history, were there to support Whitman in his lifelong effort (implicit in the verse, explicit in his prose) to move readers to accept and trust and treasure their sexual natures. For the radical Quaker belief in "that of God" leads to the further belief that nature and human nature are infused with God's Spirit. It is this belief that Whitman appeals to in one of his most extended treatments of sexual frankness and censorship, "A Memorandum at a Venture" (1882), which to support its arguments for tolerance invokes the biblical story of creation, in which God looks upon all that he has made and finds it good.

Quakerism's history of cultural activism is directly relevant to Whitman. In the seventeenth century English Quakers insisted on the right to dress, speak, and behave in symbolic accord with their religious beliefs. Their group testimony included not only public demonstrations but also the punishments that they drew down upon themselves, their nonresistance to those punishments, and the reasoned protests, defenses, and explanations that they wrote and published to the world. After four decades of this irrepressible testimony, the public toleration and freedoms they sought were secured for them and others in a far-reaching Act of Toleration (1689). An exemplary precedent was established: a "Friendly" minority brought about a major change in the attitudes and laws of the majority by nonviolent persuasion.

This example, which Whitman knew because he praised it in his Fox essay, was a silent presence giving psychological as well as legal protection to his life-experiment of writing truthful, liberating, self-liberating poetry. A dual appreciation of Quakerism, as an activist culture with an activating faith, shows how much Whitman resembled the Friends. It illuminates not only his unorthodox ideas but also the unorthodox confidence with which he persisted in bringing those ideas to public attention and keeping public orthodoxy from ignoring them—like an irrepressible Friend.


Brinton, Howard H. Friends for 300 Years: The History and Beliefs of The Society of Friends since George Fox Started the Quaker Movement. 1952. Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill Publications, 1965.

Dean, Susan. "Whitman's Democratic Vision in Multicultural Perspective." Unpublished manuscript, 1995.

Kennedy, William Sloane. "Quaker Traits of Walt Whitman." In Re Walt Whitman. Ed. Horace Traubel, Richard Maurice Bucke, and Thomas B. Harned. Philadelphia: McKay, 1893. 213–214.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 1908. Vol. 2. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1961.

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


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