What Walt Whitman Knew About Democracy
For the great American poet, the peculiar qualities of grass suggested a way to resolve the tension between the individual and the group.
When Walt Whitman began conceiving his great volume of poetry, “Leaves of Grass,” in the 1850s, American democracy was in serious danger over the issue of slavery. As we celebrate National Poetry Month this month, the problems facing our democracy are different, but Whitman still has a great deal to teach us about democratic life, because he saw that we are perpetually in danger of succumbing to two antidemocratic forces. The first is hatred between Americans, which Whitman saw erupt into civil war in 1861.
The second danger lies in the hunger for kings. The European literature and culture that preceded Whitman and surrounded him when he wrote “Leaves of Grass” was largely what he called “feudal”: It revolved around the elect, the special, the few. Whitman understood human fascination with kings and aristocrats, and he sometimes tried to debunk it. But mostly he asked his readers to shift their interest away from feudalism to the beauties of democracy and the challenge of sustaining and expanding it.
“ Whitman offers one metaphor for the grass after another, and one feels that he could go on forever. ”
This challenge is what inspired him to find his central poetic image for democracy, the grass: “A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands.” Whitman says that he can’t and won’t offer a literal answer to the question. Instead he spins into an astonishing array of “guesses.” The grass “is the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven”; it’s “the handkerchief of the Lord…Bearing the owner’s name somewhere in the corners, that we may see and remark and say Whose?”
To Whitman, “the grass is itself a child…the produced babe of the vegetation.” “Tenderly will I use you, curling grass,” he writes. “It may be that you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps / And here you are the mothers’ laps.” He offers one metaphor for the grass after another, and one feels that he could go on forever.
But mainly Whitman’s grass signifies American equality: “I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,/And it means,/Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,/Growing among black folks as among white,/Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff,/I give them the same, I receive them the same.” Whatever our race and origin, whatever our station in life, we’re all blades of grass. But by joining together we become part of a resplendent field of green, stretching gloriously on every side.
Whitman found a magnificent metaphor for democratic America and its people. Like snowflakes, no two grass blades are alike. Each one has its own being, a certain kind of chlorophyll-based individuality. Yet step back and you’ll see that the blades are all more like each other than not. Americans, too, are at least as much alike as we are different, and probably more so. America is where we can be ourselves and yet share deep kinship with our neighbors.
And who are our neighbors? Kanuck, Congressman, Tuckahoe, Cuff—Canadian, legislator, Virginia planter, Black man, all of the teeming blades of grass that we see around us. When you stand back far enough, you can’t see any of the individual blades, but look closer and there they are—vibrant and unique, no two alike. We say “e pluribus unum,” from many one. But who could have envisioned what that would look like and how it would feel before Whitman came along?
The grass is Whitman’s answer to the problem that bedeviled his contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson: how to resolve the tension between the individual and the group. Emerson is sometimes hopeful that the two can cohere. When you speak your deep and true thoughts, no matter how controversial, he believed that in time the mass of men and women will come around to you. Each will say, ‘this is my music, this is myself,” Emerson says in “The American Scholar.” But mostly he is skeptical, believing that society is almost inevitably the enemy of genius and individuality.
Whitman’s image of the grass suggests that the one and the many can merge, and that discovery allows him to imagine a world without significant hierarchy. Can any one blade of grass be all that much more important than any other? When you make the grass the national flag, as it were, you get to love and appreciate all the people who surround you. You become part of a community of equals. You can feel at home.
“ We can look at those we pass and say not ‘That is another’ but ‘That too is me. That too I am.’ ”
In “Leaves of Grass,” soon after he offers his master metaphor Whitman rises up to view American democracy from overhead. The poem’s famous catalogues of people doing what they do every day are quite simple: “On the piazza walk five friendly matrons with twined arms;/ The crew of the fish-smack pack repeated layers of halibut in the hold,/The Missourian crosses the plains, toting his wares and his cattle,/The fare-collector goes through the train—he gives notice by the jingling of loose change.”
This is your family, these are your sisters and brothers, Whitman effectively says. In general, we walk the streets with a sense of isolation. But if we can move away from our addictions to hierarchy and exclusive individuality, and embrace Whitman’s trope of the grass, our experience of day-to-day life can be different. We can look at those we pass and say not “That is another” but “That too is me. That too I am.” Or so Whitman hopes.
Of course, the benefits that Whitman promises do not come for free, or simply by reading his poem. We’ve got to meet his vision halfway, by being amiable, friendly, humane and nonhierarchical. This repudiation of hierarchy is not so easy; it’s not clear that even Whitman himself pulls it off. Isn’t he trying to be a great poet, the first truly American bard? But his effort matters. He knew that democracy is always vulnerable, that the best hope for human happiness could disappear from the earth. But Whitman would not let that happen without a fight.
By Mark Edmundson for The Wall Street Journal
—Mr. Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. This essay is adapted from his new book “Song of Ourselves: Walt Whitman and the Fight for Democracy,” published this week by Harvard University Press.