The Atlantic

Walt Whitman’s Guide to a Thriving Democracy

America had a mind shaped by its Founders, but the country needed the poet to discover its spirit.
Source: Filip Peraić

Walt Whitman, who was born 200 years ago this year, is almost certainly the greatest American poet. In many ways, he is also the most enigmatic. Before 1855, the year that Whitman published Leaves of Grass, he had achieved no distinction whatsoever. He had no formal education—no Oxford, no Cambridge, no Harvard or Yale. His life up to his 35th year had been anything but a success. He’d been a teacher, but he was loose and a bit indolent, and he refused to whip his students. He’d published fiction of a dramatically undistinguished sort. He’d edited a Free Soil newspaper, which opposed the spread of slavery into the western territories. But there was nothing remarkable about his journalism. Much of the time, he was a workingman. He was adept as a typesetter, a difficult and demanding trade. In the summer of 1854, he was a carpenter, framing two- and three-room houses in Brooklyn.

On his lunch break, he liked to read. Whitman was taken with the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson that summer. He surely read “Circles” and “Self-Reliance,” and “The Poet,” an essay in which Emerson called out for a genuinely American bard. Sitting quietly, Whitman read, “We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials.” I suspect that the phrase tyrannous eye puzzled Whitman. There was nothing especially tyrannous about him, nor would there be about his poetry. But as to knowing “the value of our incomparable materials”—maybe that was something Whitman could claim. He had seen a great deal of life. He loved to wander. He loved to look life over. He’d worked many and various jobs.

Emerson was looking for a poet whose vision didn’t derive chiefly from books, but from American life as it was. One sentence in particular in his essay opens the prospect of a new world—a new poetic world, and perhaps a new world of human possibility as well: “Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung.”

Though America had been a nation for nearly 80 years, it was incomplete. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution—those were political documents, pragmatic in their designs for democracy. What America lacked was what Emerson called for: an evocation of what being a democratic man or woman like at its best, day to day, moment to

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