Whitman has commonly been perceived as one of the few white American writers who transcended the racial attitudes of his time, a great prophet celebrating ethnic and racial diversity and embodying egalitarian ideals. He has been adopted as a poetic father by poets of Native American, Asian, African, European, and Chicano descent. Nonetheless, the truth is that Whitman in person largely, though confusedly and idiosyncratically, internalized typical white racial attitudes of his time, place, and class.
The poet not only grew up in a racist environment, a descendant of slaveowners, but also followed (without always embracing) forms of "ethnological science" that throughout the nineteenth century presented racist arguments contradicting the poet's egalitarian principles. As a result, Whitman's racial attitudes were unstable and inconsistent. The inconsistencies particularly appear in differences between his journalism and unpublished notes, on the one hand, and his poetry and visionary essays on the other—as if Whitman did not trust himself on racial issues and therefore largely avoided them, or veiled his attitudes in the work by which he wanted to revitalize American culture and finally to be remembered as democracy's bard.
Concerning people of African descent, what little is known about the early development of Whitman's racial awareness suggests he imbibed the prevailing white prejudices of his place and time, thinking of black people as servile, shiftless, ignorant, and given to stealing, although he would remember individual blacks of his youth in positive terms. His later experiences in the South apparently did nothing to mitigate early impressions, although readers of the twentieth century, including black ones, imagined him as a fervent antiracist.
Whitman's attitudes to people of African descent must be distinguished from his attitudes toward slavery. In an 1857 editorial for the Brooklyn Daily Times, for example, he articulated his antislavery position in white nationalist terms, opposing "the great cause of American White Work and Working people" to "the Black cause" (I Sit 88). The misnomer "the Black cause," by which Whitman means the slaveowners' cause, betrays the psychological slippage between his attitude toward the institution of slavery and his attitude toward its contemporary victims. Indeed, its victims awaken in him a feeling of dread. Elsewhere he refers to slave labor as a "black tide" threatening white workingmen. At one point Whitman suggested regarding the whole debate over slavery in terms of racial nationalism, as a contest between "the totality of White Labor" and the interference of "Black Labor, or of bringing in colored persons on any terms" (I Sit 90). And yet in his unpublished manuscript "The Eighteenth Presidency!" (written in 1856) he expresses a definite sense of black working people as "American" working people with no less importance to the democratic cause than white workers. Moreover, only a few years prior to his expressions of a racial nationalist stance, Whitman editorialized in the New York Aurora against all immigration restriction, insisting that America must embrace immigrants of all backgrounds, including Africans. He still held these views in the last years of his life.
When Whitman defended exclusion of blacks from the new Western territories, he rationalized his position (which he recognized as morally suspect) by suggesting that separation would best serve both blacks and whites—an argument also made by some black nationalists of the time. He argued, for example, that blacks would only become an "independent and heroic race" if they were out from under the heel of white racism, which he saw as endemic in the United States (I Sit 90).
In fact, if there is one consistent strain in Whitman's confused and contradictory prose meditations on race and slavery, it is an emphasis on the importance of self-determination to human dignity. Late in life, Whitman said that his ambivalence about "ultra-abolitionism," and even his suspicions about black inferiority, derived from his perception that the masses of black people lacked a defiant love of liberty and the drive for self-reliance. (These views, it must be said, matched contemporary racial theories that identified different "temperamental" and "cultural" attributes with different "races.") Particularly in old age, his private argument against African Americans was that he saw little tendency to self-determination in their "group" character. Nor was he disposed to recognize such self-determination where it revealed itself. When reminded of Wendell Phillips's famous oration on Toussaint l'Ouverture, he replied that he thought it exaggerated; and when mentioning Frederick Douglass, he could not help bringing up that eloquent freedom fighter's "white blood." Moreover, in the wake of the Civil War he feared the idea of blacks gaining political power.
After the war, Whitman began wondering whether blacks were innately inferior to whites and bound to disappear. He even considered that fate "most likely" though far off. Contact with the "stronger" and more arrogant white race, Whitman generally suspected, would finally prove fatal. His reading of post-Civil War "ethnological science" deeply influenced Whitman on this issue. To Horace Traubel he said, "The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not" (With Walt Whitman 2:283). His statements along these lines are sometimes hesitant and ambiguous, sometimes quite certain.
One does not find suggestions of the disappearance of the Negro before the Civil War. The early poetry occasionally reveals a view of blacks as being at an early stage of evolutionary development but with the assumption that they will in time reach the poet's side. They have a great future before them, not a tragic or merely pathetic end. In the late 1850s Whitman rejected racist ethnologists' arguments that Negroes were incapable of developing great "civilizations," considering early Egypt a refutation of this view.
Whitman was surely aware of how his racist tendencies belied the fundamental convictions that suffused Leaves of Grass, particularly since some of his most devoted early supporters were antiracists. He admitted to Horace Traubel that he had probably been "tainted" by the "New York" attitude toward antislavery, and he came to blame his split with William Douglas O'Connor upon his own shortcomings in this respect (With Walt Whitman 3:75-76). His solution to the contradiction was to avoid racial issues, much as he would avoid issues concerning the genocide being perpetrated against Native Americans. Clearly, Whitman could not consistently reconcile the ingrained, even foundational, racist character of the United States with its egalitarian ideals. He could not even reconcile such contradictions in his own psyche.
African-American readers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries greatly admired Whitman's poetic treatment of their people; they did not find in Leaves of Grass the condescension and exoticism they found in virtually all other white literature with black characters. They considered Whitman uniquely immune to the racism of his countrymen and a model to black authors themselves, treasuring lines that glorified the "divine-soul'd African, large, fine-headed, nobly-form'd, superbly destin'd, on equal terms with me!" ("Salut au Monde!," section 11). Even "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors," today generally considered stereotypical if not racist in its portrait of an old slave woman, was widely admired by black intellectuals before World War II, and was set to music as a "war song" for World War I by Harry T. Burleigh, a prominent black composer. Black writers lamented that Whitman's influence had been limited by the unpopularity of his poetic form. Only in the mid-twentieth century would Whitman's actual racial attitudes begin to be more broadly recognized by both white and black readers, mainly specialists in American literature.
Just as Whitman suspected late in life that blacks would not survive in the long run, he accepted the dominant view that Native Americans (whom he often called "aborigines" in preference to "Indians") would "die out" in the competition for survival—an idea shared by his friend and admirer Daniel Brinton, at the time America's premier ethnological "authority" on Native American languages. Poems such as "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" and "Song of the Redwood-Tree" suggest that Whitman viewed the displacement of Native Americans by whites inevitable and even fitting. He could admire individual "specimens" of aboriginal humanity—particularly elders who had not been corrupted by white civilization and therefore maintained their rugged "natural" beauty and eloquence; but he appears to have seen no place for them in the future nation of nations. His views are suggested in "Song of the Redwood-Tree," where "a mighty dying" redwood, having " fill'd [its] time, " yields willingly to the axes of " a superber race." He told Horace Traubel point-blank, "The Injun, will be eliminated" (With Walt Whitman 2:283).
Once again, Whitman's postwar social Darwinism clashes with the egalitarian spirit of his poetry. In Leaves of Grass we find a poet who celebrates racial difference and embraces diversity: "Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion" ("Song of Myself," section 16). In "Song of Myself" he tenderly depicts the marriage between a white trapper and a young Native American girl—a portrayal that conflicts with his negative portrayal of "half-breeds" in other contexts. Whitman's "friendly and flowing savage" in "Song of Myself" (section 39), a sort of model American, is a cultural hybrid of "red" and "white" attributes; yet Whitman found many of the Indians he met or saw in "white" towns and cities "degraded" and "shiftless." Even Whitman's idealization of what he often regarded as Native "nobility" and its "relics" could waver during fits of indignation over, for example, reports of an Indian massacre of whites in Minnesota. Whitman never felt driven to take up the cause of the multitudes of Native Americans massacred by white soldiers and settlers throughout his poetic career. Instead, he eulogized the idea of the "vanishing" Indian whose positive traits he hoped would be absorbed by white Americans to help distinguish them from Europeans.
In contrast to his belief in the inferiority of African Americans and Native Americans, Whitman viewed the peoples of Asia in what could be considered an egalitarian light. The poet's great appreciation for the ancient Asian spiritual texts probably accounts for his admiration for those cultures. In fact Whitman's privileging of Asian cultures over African and Native American ones might be based in part on a respect for cultures with a written tradition and a devaluing of those that he believed had not independently developed methods of writing—a crucial distinction to Enlightenment thinkers. In private conversations, Whitman adamantly attacked popular anti-immigration attitudes directed against Asian newcomers. This does not mean he was beyond the influence of long-established stereotypes. Whitman accused Sadakichi Hartmann, a Whitman admirer of Japanese and German heritage, of having a "Tartaric makeup" and embodying an "Asiatic craftiness, too—all of it!" (With Walt Whitman 5:38). Nonetheless, as Xilao Li has observed, Whitman viewed Asia as the origin of the human race and of all religions. In "Passage to India" the final connection made between Old Asia and New America suggests the ultimate fruition of human civilization. Whitman seems to have no trouble fitting people of Asian descent into his personal world vision, or his vision of American identity.
Because of the radically democratic and egalitarian aspects of his poetry, readers generally expect, and desire for, Whitman to be among the literary heroes that transcended the racist pressures that abounded in all spheres of public discourse during the nineteenth century. He did not, at least not consistently; nonetheless his poetry has been a model for democratic poets of all nations and races, right up to our own day. How Whitman could have been so prejudiced, and yet so effective in conveying an egalitarian and antiracist sensibility in his poetry, is a puzzle yet to be adequately addressed.
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____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. Vol. 6. New York: New York UP, 1984.
____. Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora. Ed. Joseph J. Rubin and Charles H. Brown. State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle, 1950.