Walt Whitman on American community.

I sometimes ask my black friends, "What would an integrated America look like, if we could get there?" We know in a general way the rules we would like to see observed--rules that would lead to free and equal intercourse between blacks and whites in all fields, political, economic, and social. That is what liberalism requires. It would be in our long-run self-interest. It would set a good example to the world. Altogether, no mean achievement.

But freedom and equality can be cold. People may be free and equal—and strangers. Integration means "to form into one whole; to complete; to perfect." That goal embraces and lies beyond freedom and equality. Roy Wilkins used to say that what he wanted to see was "pepper and salt." A suggestive metaphor; surely better than "melting pot," But what would that mixture mean to the inner life of these diverse human particles? How would it change them? What good would it do them? What good would it do the country?

The questions are not new. Integration is the current form taken by one of the first objectives of the American Republic, "consolidation of the Union," in the words of George Washington. The founders had sought to establish a regime of republican liberty--that is, a government which would protect the individual rights of person and property and which would be founded on the consent of the governed. Such a regime suffered from a central weakness. History and theory warned that republican liberty could destroy itself by reason of the diversity that liberty must breed. The task of government was to concert the power of the people in defense of their liberties. But as their interests multiplied and their opinions divided, how could a government responsive to these interests and opinions achieve such a concert? By what dialectic could the regime of liberty generate the union necessary for its survival?

There was another line of thought holding that diversity could itself be a source of union. The essential idea of a social aggregate in which diverse but complementary parts bring and hold together the whole is as old as Plato. In the history of Western thought it has appeared in many contexts, religious and secular, hierarchical and egalitarian, political, economic, and sociological. From fairly early in the nineteenth century this old hypothesis, transmitted by the romantic movement and adapted to our new democratic circumstances, found expression In American politics and literature. Surely the most powerful version was set forth by Walt Whitman, "the supreme American inheritor of Romanticism," as Justin Kaplan calls him, during the climactic years of the great effort to subvert the Union.

In Whitman's rich utterance, of course, one can find levels of meaning other than the political and social. Yet his vision of the American Union was a passionate and pervasive concern. And what he said is still instructive today. My purpose is not to trace its sources or its influence, but to explore its descriptive and explanatory power. That means taking Whitman seriously as a kind of social scientist.

Both his personal and his professional life stimulated a lively interest in politics. Like his father an ardent Jacksonian Democrat, he became a Tammany regular and stump speaker at an early age. His employment as a journalist in a day when newspapers were highly partisan reflected his political interests. In 1848 he was a delegate to the national convention of the Free Soil Party. In the same year he was fired as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, because he had taken up the Free Soilers' opposition to the extension of slavery. In 1856 he supported the first candidate of the Republican Party for President and, of course, the party's second candidate became his political idol and, later on, the subject of his matchless elegy.

As the crisis of the Union deepened, the minds of Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln converged, one moving from the negativism of the Jacksonians, the other from the elitism of the Whigs, toward the democratic nationalism of the new party and toward deeply similar conceptions of the Union and what had to be done to preserve and consolidate it. In these same years the genius of Whitman suddenly crystallized into the unique mold that produced Leaves of Grass. In the prose in which he explained what he had meant to do and had done in his poetry, from his first sketches of Leaves of Grass to "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" in 1888, his nation-centered purpose predominates.

In the 1855 preface, announcing his purpose. Whitman declares, "The United States are themselves the greatest poem … unrhymed poetry … [which] … awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it." In his long prose work of 1871, Democratic Vistas, after fiercely attacking the vices of the day, he calls on the literature of the future to express that "intense and loving comradeship," that "adhesive love, at least rivalling the amative love hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it," which is "the most substantial hope and safety of the future of these States."

At the time of the first Centennial, he says that in Leaves of Grass he has sought to express "this never satisfied appetite for sympathy, and this boundless offering of sympathy, this universal democratic comradeship, this old, eternal yet ever new interchange of adhesiveness, so fitly emblematic of America … ," by which "the United States of the future … are to be most effectually welded together, intercalated, anneal'd into a Living Union." Finally, only four years before his death, he concludes "A Backward Glance" with Herder's comment to the young Goethe "that really great poetry is always … the result of a national spirit and not the privilege of a polish'd and select few … “

This view of the function of the poet makes him more an observer and reporter than a teacher, moralist, or prophet. We see its significance if we contrast it with other conceptions of the poet as the archetypal "maker" whose gift enables him to generate new forms and impose them on the world. Shelley's poet-legistator, for instance, is an exceptional figure who, enjoying privileged inspiration, draws from his solitary imagination new values and species of possibility. Whitman did prescribe and moralize; he wanted to influence events. But for him the democratic poet drew his inspiration from, and returned the fruits of it to, his society. Stressing this representative and reportorial role. Whitman says of "the greatest poet": "He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome. What I tell I tell for precisely what it is … What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me."

D.H. Lawrence attacked Whitman's poetry for the "provoking of mental reactions." Whitman was not an intellectual in the sense of being a system-builder or academic philosopher. After years of professional journalism, however, he was a penetrating observer, social historian, and political thinker. As a poet he expressed himself primarily in metaphor. But the insights of significant science often begin in metaphor and sometimes end in it.

At the start of Leaves of Grass he states the problem of liberty and union in this paradoxical couplet:

“One's-Self I sing, a simple, separate person, / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.”

In the American Republic, as he observed it, persons, individual and separate, were yet united with one another En-Masse. The members of this En-Masse were diverse, variegated, heterogeneous. Whitman observes and approves. "The greatest lessons of New World politics and progress," he says, are "the lessons of variety and freedom." Singing the praises of his own composite self, he exclaims, "I resist anything better than my diversity." His portrait of the En-Masse embraces all the pluralisms, economic, sectional, and ethnic of America at mid-century. Thus the many become one in the celebrated opening lines from the first of the longer poems, "Starting from Paumanok":

“Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born, / Well-begotten, and rais’d by a perfect mother. / After roaming many lands, lover of populous pavements, / Dweller in Manahatta, my city, or on southern savannas, / Or a soldier camp'd or carrying my knapsack and gun, or a miner in California, / Or rude in my home in Dakota's woods, my diet meat, my drink from the spring …”

And so on across the continent to that culminating, annunciatory line: "Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World."

Whitman's exclamatory enumerations do not always have the charm of those lines; they sometimes read more like a gazetteer or census tract than literature or social science. For example, a little further along in the same poem:

“Interlink'd, food-yielding lands! / Land of coal and iron! land of gold! land of cotton, sugar, rice! / Land of wheat, beef, pork! land of wool and hemp! land of the apple and the grape! …”

The list continues line after line, specifying the variety of American economic geography.

In their love of nature, romantics often reject civilization, especially its modern branches of science and technology, along with the industrial society they produce. Not so this romantic, who welcomes "steamers steaming through my poems," "cities, solid, vast, inland, with paved streets, with iron and stone edifices, ceaseless vehicles, and commerce. . . ," "the many-cylinder'd steam printing-press. . . ," "the electric telegraph stretching across the continent. . . ," "the strong and quick locomotive as it departs, panting, blowing the steam-whistle." Whitman celebrates the pluralism of American sectionalism and ethnicity. But it is especially in the division of labor of the expanding economy that he finds the diversity that produces union.

He does not deny the material bonds of those "interlink'd, food-yielding lands." The tie that binds, however, is not the economic and instrumental, but that erotic and consummatory bond to which he gives many names: love, sex, touch (the red marauder), fraternity, comradeship, and especially "adhesiveness," a term he took from phrenology. This erotic force is the medium and the motive of the "old, eternal, yet ever new interchange of adhesiveness." Let us look at the "adhesiveness," then at the "interchange." For Whitman's re-enchantment of the bourgeois world arises from his perception of both connection and process.

In his terminology Whitman adopted the distinction drawn by the phrenologists between "adhesiveness," the faculty of friendship or fraternity, and "amativeness," the faculty of sexual passion. In his depiction of the emotional life, however, he recognized, as Freud did later, the erotic nature of the social bond and the continuity of sexual attraction with motivation toward the wider ties of social life. Laying down the premises of his outlook near the start of "Song of Myself," he writes:

“Urge and urge and urge / Always the procreant urge of the world / Out of dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex, / Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.”

To anyone who wishes to push the analysis deeper, the next lines are an abrupt stop:

“To elaborate is no avail, learn'd and unlearn'd feel that it is so. / Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braded in the beams. / Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical, / I and this mystery here we stand.”

Freud makes much the same reply to this question. Eros, he says, "aims at binding together single human individuals, then familios, then tribes, races, nations, into one great unity, that of humanity." "Why this is to be done," he continues, "we do not know; it is simply the work of Eros. These masses of men must be bound to one another libidinally; necessity alone, the advantages of common work, would not hold

them together." For Whitman, however, Eros is not merely an urge, not merely an undisciplined impulse of gregariousness. It has a rationale. Eros binds because of what it does and seeks to do. As we might expect of a disciple of Emerson, there is more than a suggestion of the Platonic Eros that moves souls toward perfection by a rebirth in beauty. At times Whitman explicitly uses the language of the idealist logic of identity. As we have just heard him declare: ". . . opposite equals advance . . . Always a knit of identity, always distinction . . . " The process of interchange is the rationale of the connection of adhesiveness. What are the items that are given and received in this process?

One function of those recurring enumerations is to answer that question. In them Whitman identifies the particular things that the poet absorbs from his diverse American experience. Although usually associated with crafts and skills, these items of exchange are not technical, but humane. Whitman calls them "heroic." A true romantic in this respect, he had announced in "Starting from Paumanok" that he would "report all heroism from an American point of view." Accordingly, he asserts in "Song of Myself," "... there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero." In the enumeration of representative American activities in section 15 of the same poem he identifies these heroic traits, usually in verbs and adverbs indicating action, attached to nouns denoting an occupation or activity. Here are five typical lines:

“The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm, / The mate stands braced in the whaleboat, lance and harpoon ready. / The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches, / The deacons are ordained with cross'd hands at the altar, / The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel.”

How would one conceptualize these heroic gifts in a scientific typology? The decisiveness of the pilot; the alert courage of the mate; the prudence of the dck-shooter; the piety of the deacons; the graceful rhythm of the spinning girl? But, of course, no abstraction can equal the veracity of Whitman's particularization. The interchange that he is reporting, as he repeatedly emphasizes, is not of abstractions but of persons. “Logic and sermons never convince. /The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.” Or more to our point: “I do not give lectures or a little charity / When I give I give myself –”

And as a person who did write a book which might be suspected of sermonizing, he reassures us that "Camerado, this is no book / Who touches this touches a man."

The gifts that are exchanged are not merely exemplary; they have power. They are not the skill or science or technique that individuals put to work in their occupations; they are, however, the humane powers that enable individuals to acquire and exercise skills and knowledge. The technology of pilotage does not include the gift of firm decision; but it does take decisiveness to make a pilot. Although the science of spinning is not the gift of rhythmic grace, it takes gracefulness to make a spinning girl. Moreover, these gifts not only empower those who possess them; they also, as the items of social exchange, empower others. One cannot acquire from lectures the courage of the harpooner or the piety of the deacons. But one may be encouraged or elevated by actual examples of brave or pious men and women.

In capturing this process the metaphor of exchange is helpful only to a point. Social exchange is not fully analogous to economic exchange. In economic exchange, what I give I no longer have and what I receive you give up. After that brief encounter, the parties are again as separate as before. In social exchange what they give to one another they also keep. As Whitman promises, when in another poem of the mid-1850s he summons his readers to "travel the open road": “To see no possession, but you may possess it, enjoying all without labor or purchase, abstracting the feast yet not abstracting one particle of it.”

In the "interchange of adhesiveness" the outcome is not renewed separation but closer union. The parties do not have something more, they have become something else. In "Song of Myself" at the end of that long and variegated survey of heroic gifts in section 15, he concludes simply:

“And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them. / And such as it is to be of these more or less I am, / And of these one and all 1 weave the song of myself.”

A fierce egalitarianism pervades Whitman's utterance, as it did the Jacksonian world from which he sprang. This passion came down from what he called "the good old cause," the creed of liberty which denied natural authority to anyone and claimed that each person is capable of individuality--that is, making something of himself. Pervading the diversity that Whitman perceived and celebrated, adherence to the creed of liberty was a massive uniformity in his perception of the nation.

For Whitman, the bonds of union are twofold. On the one hand are the diversities which, so to speak, people the common life. On the other hand are the identities of the American liberal tradition. This collective conscience embodies norms that arouse a passionate response. As norms they define what will and what will not fit into the common life. In those famous debates of 1858, for instance, Stephen Douglas, proclaiming that "our Government was founded on the principle of diversity," held that slavery was included in that diversity. "Why cannot this Union exist forever," he asked, "divided into free and slave States as our fathers made it?" In reply, Lincoln granted that "the great variety of the local institutions in the States, springing from differences in soil, differences in the fact of the country, and in the climate, are bonds of Union." Slavery, however, as "a moral, social and political evil" had no place in those "varieties" which "bind together the different parts of the Union." Slave labor and free labor were not the sorts of diversities that make a complementary national whole.

The exclusions effected by American liberalism are, of course, more subtle than this gross contrast. American liberalism is not British or German or French liberalism, but a distinctive specification of the universals of modern liberty. Whitman sometimes dwelt on these exclusions, as when in Democratic Vistas he gave a list of the "models" of heroic individuality "adjusted to other standards than America's" that have been produced by other cultures. In his prose and poetry, moreover, he captured the nuances of the American tradition. Consider, for instance, his encomium upon "the common people" in the 1835 preface. Or even more revealing his portrait of the "pure American breed" in "Song of the Broad-Axe" of 1860. Those verses seem intended to praise. Their ambiguities also evoke peculiarly American vices:

“Where the men and women think lightly of the laws, / Where the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases,/ Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons, / Where fierce men and women pour forth as the sea to the whistle of death pours its sweeping and unript waves …”


Whitman’s sense of the redemptive possibilities of social experience is balanced by an acute awareness of limits and complexities. Another mid-1850s work, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," further confirms the realism of this great romantic. In that poem he is boldly and hopefully hypothesizing the continuity of the common life, showing how the American experience is sustained over time as one generation is fused with another and pours its meaning into it. Yet the time of day is twilight; the piece was originally titled "Sundown Poem," And when we look more closely at the substance of the common life portrayed, we must be struck by the mixture of success and failure, adequacy and inadequacy, good and evil. In this twilight, the "glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and sounds" are blotched by "dark patches" which are Dante-esque in their variety. They include the failures of finitude: “The best 1 had done seem'd to me blank and suspicious, / The great thoughts as [ supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?”

They include outright evil, the classic vices of "the wolf, the snake, the hog." Not least among these deficiencies of social life is a withdrawal of love which the speaker here takes on himself, confessing that he too:

“Saw many I loved in the street or ferryboat or public assembly, yet never told them a word, / Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping, / Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress / The same old role …”


Unlike some romantics Whitman did not deny these realities. Rather he explored them with sensitivity and fully recognized their presence in the Union. His major prose work. Democratic Vistas, contains a corrosive denunciation of the hollowness, depravity, materialism and corruption of the Gilded Age. Abruptly near the end of his most bouyant summons to social adventure, "Song of the Open Road," he reveals that Eros may fail, leaving a self which, living without love and only for external things, is burdened with "a secret silent loathing and despair."

“Another self. . . skulking and hiding it goes. / Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors, / In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly, / Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere, / Smartly attired, countenance smiling, forms upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skullbones …”

Eros endows mankind with the propensity to exchange heroic gifts, excellencies, and virtues. What the actual citizens of the actual republic do a good deal of the time, however, is to busy themselves acquiring from one another the capacity for follies, villainies, deficiencies, and all manner of vices. Leaves of grass may blossom as fleurs du mal. The common life can be a dangerous place to raise a child.

The common life in any generation is a patchy achievement. What is ironic. but no less true to empirical fact, these deficiencies are intrinsic to the bonds of national identification in time and space. Heroic gifts come into play only if there is need for them. The vignettes of courage in "Song of Myself” –the faithful skipper, the dying general, the matchless rangers, the unyielding captain--emerge from a context of disaster. If there were no danger, there could be no prudence. If no obstacles, no grace. If no sickness, no loving care. The very "agonies" (Whitman's word) that call forth our best efforts for their relief are embedded in the common life and remain on in the memory of it.

As social science Leaves of Grass is a hypothesis about the nature of the American Union. In Whitman's mind the course and outcome of the Civil War confirmed that hypothesis. He had seen the great En-Masse that embraced those millions of domineering individualists, grasping egalitarians, and corrupt democrats. Indeed, reflecting on the test that the outbreak of the war thrust on America, he asked rhetorically: "For who except myself has yet conceiv'd what your children en masse really are." In his eyes, the victory and the way the victory was won by "(the People, of their own choice, fighting, dying for their own idea" vindicated his reportage. "Down in the abysms of New World humanity," he wrote, “there had form'd and harden'd a primal hard-pan of Union will, determined and in the majority, refusing to be tamper'd with or argued against, confronting all emergencies, and capable at any time of bursting ail surface bonds, and breaking out like an earthquake.”


Today the regime of republican liberty displays the same ambivalence. Its diversity is a source of union. Yet the Union cannot be taken for granted. The task of its consolidation remains as urgent in its third as in its first century. Whitman--by the time he joined the Republican Party of Lincoln—believed that there was a major role for government, especially the federal government. Obviously his thoughts cannot provide us with a program; they do suggest a strategy. According to the liberal outlook, diversity is a right and must be protected. Alongside this principle, interest points in the same direction, reminding us that the peculiarities of our own person and group may also need that protection someday. The paradoxical argument of this American romantic is that diversity itself holds out the promise of a common life which may mobilize more consent among the citizenry for the protection of diversity than is accomplished by the calculations of interest or the compulsion of right.

Samuel H. Beer is Eaton Professor of the Science of Government Emeritus at Harvard University. He wishes to thank Dr. Francis P. Glosser, a poet and Whitman scholar, for expertly criticizing drafts of this essay.

By Samuel H. Beer