Selected Criticism

Panish, Jon
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's adulthood coincided with an extremely tumultuous time in American politics and society. From 1840 onward, politically active Americans like Whitman were energized and agitated not only by the burgeoning, robust debate over slavery but by such vital and divisive political and social issues as dirty tricks and corruption, the prohibition of alcohol, and women's rights. Disagreements over these and other issues contributed to the increasing fractiousness among Americans along class and ideological lines. While Whitman's ideas on many of these issues put him among those people who were categorized at the time as "radical," his identity as a political and social radical is actually complex, as Whitman himself indicated when he told Horace Traubel, "Be radical—be radical—be not too damned radical!" (Traubel 223). As one might expect from a figure whose persona is "large" and "contain[s] multitudes" ("Song of Myself," section 51), Whitman's connection to radicalism in his life and work is flexible and, frequently, contradictory: at times he uncompromisingly stakes out positions on the margins, at other times he holds positions that seek a delicate balance between the extremes.

The evolution of Whitman's participation in the national conflict over slavery provides the clearest example of his complicated connection to nineteenth-century political radicalism. From early in his journalistic career (as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle), Whitman wrote articles expressing his strong opposition to the spread of slavery. Faithful Democrat that he was at this time, Whitman initially espoused views on slavery that were close to the party's mainstream. However, as Democratic leaders began to make compromises that Whitman believed were morally wrong—such as President James Polk's opposition to the Wilmot Proviso–he aligned himself with the radical wing of the Democratic party, referred to as the "Barnburners." In 1848 Whitman left the Democratic party altogether to join the Free Soil party (he even attended their national convention), whose members were unflinchingly opposed to the spread of slavery into any newly acquired territories. A few years later, after Whitman realized that there were no political leaders with the will or integrity to confront the slavery issue without compromising on essential moral questions, he fled party politics entirely.

This brief chronology of events in Whitman's political evolution indicates the principled position he took regarding the issue of slavery: believing that this institution was not morally tenable, Whitman rejected any compromise on its extension beyond the South. Whitman's radicalism on slavery, however, was limited to this single dimension. For a variety of reasons, Whitman took less radical positions on such issues as the abolition of slavery, the return of fugitive slaves, and the necessity of disuniting North from South. To a great extent, Whitman's views on these other critical issues were greatly influenced by his belief in American democracy and his fear of disunion. Thinking that extreme positions on these key issues threatened to rip the country and its institutions apart, Whitman was unwilling to sacrifice the nation's present and future existence to uncompromising stands on these issues.

However, Whitman's willingness to resolutely oppose slavery's extension but not to support immediate emancipation, the unconditional return of fugitive slaves, or principled disunion also reflects his inability to fully transcend the racism that was widespread in the nineteenth century. Although Whitman's later poetry in Leaves of Grass reflects his humanitarian belief in the value of all human beings, his deepest sympathy was with white workingmen and thus he took positions on slavery that put their interests first. Extension of slavery was the single most important issue for Whitman because of its potentially devastating effect on the status and livelihood of white workingmen.

Whitman's position in the debate over slavery was truly only marginally radical. Although he held his strong position on the extension of slavery, he did not at any time join with the abolitionists. After the Civil War, moreover, Whitman's political writings suggest that he has become more conservative. Democratic Vistas, Whitman's 1871 reply to Thomas Carlyle's writings attacking radical democracy, for example, reveals that Whitman has become more disenchanted with contemporary American society and less sure that the promise of American democracy will be fulfilled in the future. Whitman's rhetoric in Democratic Vistas borders on the apocalyptic in his warnings about the possibility that the American experiment will fail. Moreover, this essay includes Whitman's endorsement of American "business energy" (Democratic Vistas 487) and its essential contribution to the establishment of an ideal democracy.

Whitman's radicalism is not, however, simply a matter of politics. At least three other elements of Whitman's life and work must be examined in connection with the topic of radicalism: his literary style, sexuality, and humanitarianism. When Leaves of Grass is compared to the work of Whitman's poetic contemporaries—John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—there is no underestimating the revolutionary nature of his literary achievement. While these poets composed verse on topics and in forms that owed at least as much to British tradition as to American experience, Whitman depicted everyday American life in language that was informal and rough, thereby staking out literary territory on the margins of the nineteenth-century literary establishment. Although Whitman's poetry was widely published and positively reviewed during his lifetime, his unquestioned inclusion into the pantheon of American poets would have to wait until the twentieth century.

Similarly, Whitman's frank poetic examination of his own sexuality, although containing elements (such as friendship among male comrades) that were familiar to readers of his time, marks a radically open stance to topics that continue to cause great controversy in American society. Whitman's determination to claim a homosexual identity in the "Calamus" poems (and elsewhere in Leaves of Grass) is more evidence of his courageous, radical spirit. Further evidence of the revolutionary nature of Whitman's asserted sexual identity in his poetry is provided by the generations of readers who have refused to read his work as proclaiming anything other than a platonic love for men.

Constant through all of Whitman's work is a humanitarianism that is radical in its unyielding commitment to the common man and woman. Whitman's belief in the ultimate triumph of American democracy is fundamentally a profound faith in the ability of the American people to construct institutions that will allow and encourage the formation of a moral and spiritual society. This radical humanitarian spirit even comes shining through the cynicism and doubts Whitman expresses in Democratic Vistas: in this extraordinary document Whitman calls for men and women to rise above tradition and convention to fulfill the promise of democracy.

A final measure of Whitman's radical spirit is provided by the overwhelmingly positive responses of later self-styled radical writers and thinkers. From Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence to Allen Ginsberg and June Jordan, Whitman's admirers have claimed and celebrated the most controversial aspects of his life and work. Perhaps Whitman's greatest impact and most profound legacy can be found in his appeal to those Americans who heed his "barbaric yawp" as a call to arms.


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

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Martin, Robert K. "Whitman and the Politics of Identity." Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Ed. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 172-181.

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

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

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 1905. Vol. 1. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961.

Whitman, Walt. Democratic Vistas. Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose. Ed. Lawrence Buell. New York: Modern Library, 1981. 468-524.

____. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.


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