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Whitman as Compassionate Observer

By Carlene Gadapee, Associate Creative Director and Education Consultant

What causes a poet –indeed, any person—to bear witness and to speak during times of stress and disruption? Walt Whitman- poet, philosopher, nurse, and witness during the divisive times of the American Civil War- was greatly influenced by his contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In many of his writings, Emerson suggested that what America, this new and fledgling nation of just 80 years, needed was a powerful, new voice of the people. Inspired by Emerson, Whitman took up this challenge and became one of the most famous poets and writers of the American literary tradition. As Mark Edmundson wrote in “Walt Whitman’s Guide to a Thriving Democracy” in The Atlantic (May, 2019), “What America lacked was what Emerson called for: an evocation of what being a democratic man or woman felt like at its best, day to day, moment to moment. We had a mind, the mind created by Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders, but we did not know our own best spirit.” 

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is considered by most scholars of American literature to be a unique and energetic voice, championing both the grand and the mundane, the sacred and the physical, in his well-known works of poetry and his Civil War journal writings. Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855, which heralded him as a new voice in American letters. Although highly controversial at the time, his work successfully challenged the accepted forms and ideals of poetry and gave a powerful voice to the common people who did the working and living, singing and fighting. In his famous poem “I Hear America Singing,” Whitman celebrates mechanics and mothers, boatmen and ploughboys, carpenters, masons, and all others who are “Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”

Whitman’s wide range of subject matter and intense focus on common, everyday concerns and people separates him from most poets and writers before him. His poetic eye is truly universal: he “understood that he was a part of one of the greatest experiments since the beginning of time: the revival of democracy in the modern world… [and he knew] that this could not last forever. By sheer force of numbers, or force plain and simple, outcasts and ne’er-do-wells were eventually going to take over the nation” (Edmundson). However, Whitman never gave up hope that a truly democratic ideal would triumph, and that each of us are all “blades of grass” and we make up one grand landscape. His vision was sorely tried by the advent of the American Civil War, an event that threatened to end forever the great American experiment envisioned by the Founders and Framers. Edmundson says that “[Whitman] was horribly downcast as he saw the Civil War gathering. But he never withdrew his hope that America could be a thriving nation not only for some, but for all of its people—and that the country would be an example for others across the world, should they choose to embrace it.”

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