In its demolition of a status quo and in its institution of a new order, the force of revolution makes space for the evolution of thought. With revolution, then, comes a multitude of revolutionary thinkers – one of them being Karl Marx and another being Walt Whitman – who challenge conventional wisdom in two ways: one, by tackling the social constructs that support existing modes of thinking, and two, by proposing a new mode of thinking. By writing freely and candidly on topics of class, race, and sex, and by redefining democracy to include members of all such classes, races, genders, and sexualities, Whitman succeeds in challenging 19th century thought and thus aligns himself with the rest of history’s great revolutionary thinkers.
Thinkers express their thoughts in a variety of ways; for Whitman, though, the style in which he writes is just as unconventional as the larger argument that he proceeds to make. Written as one of the first, true free-verse poems, “Leaves of Grass” broke poetic ground in a nation of poets still grasping on to a strict British model. Whitman’s poetic style is significant not only because it was unconventional at the time, but because it denotes a trend in Whitman’s work: while he rejects old forms of thought (or expression, in this case), he also works to invent new forms of thought or expression.
The criteria in which one may define themselves as revolutionary thinker, then, contains these two components: rejection of the old and invention of the new. In 19th century America, ideas surrounding class, race, and sex were still heavily influenced by division and hierarchy as opposed to equality. But, while on the cusps of American industrialism, the Civil War, and women’s suffrage, the year 1855 – the year of the poem’s publishing – signified an era in which traditional ideas would be challenged by a series of revolutions. Fueled by these forces, Whitman displays the characteristics of a revolutionary thinker by 1. rejecting archaic notions of social hierarchy and 2. inventing a world that celebrates individuality and equality.
Whitman’s first rejection of conventional wisdom lies in his celebration of the “common man.” However, more context is required to understand the first part of his poem – context that is revealed in one of Whitman’s other works, Democratic Vistas. Whitman states that with the rise of American industrialism came a rise in consumerism, materialism, and a heightened respect for the “fabulous farce” of the upper class. And, through ventures made “in vain,” American expansionists and imperialists have worked to suppress social progress, as the Manifest Destiny, giving the nation a “vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body,” has inevitably “left [the nation] with little or no soul” (Democratic Vistas). In “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman rejects this “fabulous farce” and instead exposes the plights of those working in the background: “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes… / The atmosphere is not a perfume” he says on page 15, appealing to the idea that a world – an atmosphere – exists beyond the polluted divisions of class and material wealth. In his expanding society, Whitman zeroes in on the souls of the people, “The souls moving along…” in both the drudgery and excitement of daily life. “…are they invisible?” Whitman asks (Whitman 18). Whitman questions conventional values of economic and technological growth, circling back to this broader “soul vs. body” argument posed in Democratic Vistas. Essentially, Whitman asserts that American society is too deeply invested in material progress than in promoting the common welfare. And, they are so invested, Whitman states, that they cannot see – as souls move along, invisible.
Through his examination of his soul-less society, Whitman redefines what it means to be American. He “gives the sign of democracy” (Whitman 29) in his invention of the common man, stating that “What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me” (Whitman 21). Whitman introduces the idea of self-interest in the capitalization of “Me,” a notion which he later expands upon in his celebration of individuality. Whitman paints society as a collection of souls and invokes in them and a sense of worth, stating, “I am less the reminder of property or qualities, and more the reminder or life” (Whitman 28). By first rejecting the conventional idea that expansion and consumerism were indicative of American progress, Whitman is then able to pave his own path towards social progress through his acknowledgement of the common man and his belief in the human soul.
In a society of many cultures, though, Whitman writes in color. He “acknowledges the red yellow and white” and “considers the green and violet…” (Whitman 20), hues that make up the rainbow of American society. Describing them with a sense of awe, he sees the marriage of a “red girl” to a trapper, noting her “voluptuous limbs” and his “luxuriant beard and curls” (Whitman 19). Whitman is intentional in his diction; he uses words like “voluptuous” and “luxuriant” to paint a picture of positivity – one that rejects racist perceptions of Indians as savage, uncivilized beings. As “Leaves of Grass” was published only a decade before the end of the Civil War, it can be argued that Whitman was also intentional in his depiction of the “negro” as a “calm and commanding… / …picturesque giant” that is worthy of “love” (Whitman 20). Conventional “wisdom” of the 1850’s would paint black Americans as mere property, but Whitman humanizes the “negro” by juxtaposing “calm” with “commanding,” as if to note that even in their bondage, blacks have power. Whitman continues to describe the “negro” with the same reverence that he does the Indians – he views the man as a “picture” to admire and a “giant” to look up to. By acknowledging the power of the black man through awe and admiration, and, ultimately, love, Whitman rejects the very idea that constituted a system of slavery: racial superiority.
In viewing America as a nation stratified by race, then, Whitman seeks to redistribute power to marginalized communities by giving them a voice. The focus of his poem – the grass that symbolizes the cloth of democracy from which we are all cut – is what ultimately channels those voices, as it grows “among black folks as among white / Kanuck Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the / same… I see in them and myself the same old law.” (Whitman 16, 21). In this resounding message of equality, Whitman contends that, like what blankets the earth we tread on, democracy gives life to our nation and that, like grass, the components of American democracy are not entirely homogenous. Different cultures, symbolized by the sporadic, “uncut,” “curling,” “dark,” grass (Whitman 16), come together in Whitman’s world – a world that embraces individuality and difference, but is also unified by our common strengths and goals and concerns.
Additionally, Whitman’s work rejects divisions between genders, which, like in racial hierarchies, give rise to discrimination and constrictive norms. As Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were organizing the nation’s first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, Whitman was likely to have been writing “Leaves of Grass.” His depictions of women in the poem, therefore, appear to be influenced by the revolutionary force of the first women’s movement, as he continually places women on the same plane as men: in the phrases “…dead young men and women,” “old men and mothers” (Whitman 16), males and females are coupled together; they are not divided. In Whitman’s world, both men and women can fight and die, and they can both provide the wisdom of old age or parenthood. Thus, another message of equality is channeled through Whitman’s work, as he sees individuals as “every kind for itself and its own… for me mine male and female” (Whitman 18). Ultimately, as he includes women in his universal message of democracy, Whitman keeps pace with growing social movements, as women continue to convene and discuss topics of suffrage and domestic freedom.
However, it can be argued that Whitman still subjugated women to maternal roles, identifying them mostly as mothers and “mothers of mothers” (Whitman 17). It is necessary, then, to question whether Whitman truly challenged conventional wisdom in regards to sex. The answer is yes, because of this reason: “Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore / Which of the young men does she like the best? / The beards of the young men glistened with wet… / An unseen hand also passed over their bodies…” (Whitman 19). In what is arguably one of the most radical components of his poem, Whitman discusses not only the sexual authority of the woman, but he creates a world in which nakedness among men is acceptable and where sexuality is fluid and – at times – comfortably ambiguous. It is this proposal of sexual ambiguity that truly challenges conventional wisdom – perhaps more than those statements made against imperialism or racial superiority – because, in his mention of sex as an act enjoyed by all people of all genders and in whichever form or fashion they so please, Whitman dares to offend an overtly pious and proper society and thus risks being labeled a heretic or a blaspheme, or worse: gay.
In viewing Whitman’s audience as pious, arguments in favor of Whitman challenging conventional wisdom would be made stronger if they should note his flippant attitude towards religion. “The scent of these arm-pits… finer than prayer,” Whitman says, mocking the system meant to instill in its believers a conventional moral order. In the same tongue, though, he compares himself to Jesus Christ, lifting the “forbidden voices” of prostitutes and thieves and the disabled (Whitman 29), just as Christ dined with sinners (Mark 2:16) and promised a right to Heaven for prostitutes and tax collectors (Matthew 21:31). Whitman is an American, and an American, he contends, “is more than churches or bibles or creeds.” An American is “disorderly fleshy and sensual / no more modest than immodest” (Whitman 29). As previously mentioned, Whitman’s candid discussions of race and class and gender struggles were revolutionary in their own right; but to write to a nation under God, and to speak about the indivisible force of democracy as one that includes not only those of all races and classes and genders, but those who may reject its Christian roots, is a true mark of radical thought.
Through his rejection of social hierarchies, Whitman reinvents democracy. He creates a world in which the common man is celebrated and the soul of a nation (its people) is aligned with its body. He creates a world in which the “negro” and the “red girl” are celebrated and viewed as equals. He creates a world in which women are celebrated as more than just mothers, but as controllers of their own bodies. He creates a world in which sexuality of all forms is celebrated, and religion fails to interfere with freedom. And, ultimately, Whitman expresses this new world through a new language, free verse, which acutely embodies his message of freedom and individuality, a message that was symbolically and appropriately published on the Fourth of July, 1855.
"BibleGateway." Mark 2:13-17, Mt 21:31 - - Bible Gateway. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.
"Walt Whitman: Democratic Vistas." Walt Whitman: Democratic Vistas. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.
Whitman, Walt. Selections from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: A Facsimile of the First Edition. San Francisco: Chandler, 1968.