|Photo: Walt Whitman (1819–1892)|
Source: The Letters of Anne Gilchrist
and Walt Whitman, 1918
[mod. Terri Guillemets, 2017]
Thus, the social organism, while it grows to vaster and vaster proportions, is deficient in that in which it should be supreme — deficient in soul. Whitman indeed, despite his joyous optimism and passionate idealism, finds much to deplore in our times and lands. The absence of moral conscience, hollowness of heart, disbelief, hypocrisy, business depravity, official corruption, greed, — these are among the blemishes revealed by the moral microscope with which he examines American civilization.
“Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believed in (for all this hectic glow and these melodramatic screamings), nor is humanity itself believed in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout.... The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater.... The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism.... In business (this all-devouring modern word, business), the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician’s serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents, and money-making is our magician’s serpent, remaining to-day sole master of the field.”
Democracy is not a class war. Democracy is conceived in the interests of all, and will not be best promoted by antagonism and aggression. The poor are not enslaved by governmental tyranny and capitalism alone. Perhaps the real battle, as Whitman hints, is “between democracy’s convictions, aspirations, and the people’s crudeness, vice, caprices.”
Whitman’s pride in and love for his country were not due to a belief in the finality of its institutions. “Others take finish, but the Republic is ever constructive and ever keeps vista.”
No one with keen social consciousness can doubt that, in order to make possible an ideal democracy, grave political and economic changes are imperative; but I claim Whitman’s support for my contention that the impulse to bring about these changes will not result from a purely intellectual appeal. The changes will be an emanation from the right emotion, the right spirit. Many reformers, weary of the apparent failure of ethical and religious teaching, are impatient of utterances with any such implication. Whitman’s inclusiveness should suggest to us that the remedy is not in a propaganda at either pole, but in effort cognizant of the interaction of man and his environment, and which neglects the evolution of neither.
The bearing of comrade-love on democracy Whitman describes so impressively that I quote his words without comment:
“Intense and loving comradeship, the personal attachment of man to man, — which, hard to define, underlies the lessons and ideals of the profound saviors of every land and age, and which seems to promise, when thoroughly developed, cultivated, and recognized in manners and literature, the most substantial hope and safety of the future of these States, — will then be fully expressed.
It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it) that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy and for the spiritualization thereof. Many will say it is a dream, and will not follow my inferences; but I confidently expect a time when there will be seen, running like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and lifelong, carried to degrees hitherto unknown — not only giving tone to individual character, and making it unprecedentedly emotional, muscular, heroic, and refined, but having the deepest relation to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship, without which it will be incomplete, in vain, and incapable of perpetuating itself.”
He declares that “affection shall solve the problems of freedom,” — “those who love each other shall become invincible.”
“The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers,
The continuance of Equality shall be comrades.”
“To hold men together by paper and seal or by compulsion is no account,
That only holds men together which aggregates all in a living principle, as the hold of the limbs of the body or the fibres of plants.”
Whitman beheld... in America a peculiarly favorable field for the growth of true democracy. The underlying principle of the United States Constitution and of the Declaration of Independence; early colonial traditions, — simple, not plutocratic, — in which equality of opportunity was more nearly realized than it has been since; the subsequent fusion of nationalities; — these and other considerations fill him with highest hope for this land of lands. “Here is not merely a nation, but a teeming nation of nations.”
Yet his love of country was never mere patriotism. “O America, because you build for mankind, I build for you!” His love enfolds the world. The recent military achievements of this country are a bitter satire on Whitman’s cordial acknowledgment of contemporary lands, his vision of the “continent indissoluble,” and of “cities inseparable with their arms about each other’s necks.” We have to turn over the pages for a passage more applicable to the present. Here is one:
“I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of weapons with menacing points,
And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces.”
Whitman is ill-pleased with what “the word of the modern” — the word “culture” — has come to represent: “As now taught, accepted and carried out, are not the processes of culture rapidly creating a class of supercilious infidels, who believe in nothing? Shall a man lose himself in countless masses of adjustments, and be so shaped with reference to this, that, and the other that the simply good and healthy and brave parts of him are reduced and clipped away, like the bordering of box in a garden?... I should demand a programme of culture, drawn out, not for a single class alone, or for the parlors or lecture rooms, but with an eye to practical life, the west, the working men, the facts of farms and jack-planes and engineers, and of the broad range of the women also of the middle and working strata, and with reference to the perfect equality of women, and of a grand and powerful motherhood. I should demand of this programme or theory a scope generous enough to include the widest human area.”
It must never be overlooked in the consideration of such a subject as the foregoing that changes of letter are unavailing without a corresponding change of spirit. Does not every radical number one or more conservatives among his friends with whom he finds himself in closer accord than with certain of his own intellectual kin? Solidarity implies much more than mere verbal congruity.
We cannot linger to read all Whitman’s directing posts; we have necessarily omitted many. To me, they seem to point to the supremacy of love in human relations, — to a time characterized by the full expression and reception of individuality, by copiousness of life facilitating soul progression, to a time when mutual helpfulness will replace rivalry, when non-governmental organization will spring up in place of coercive authority, and when natural leadership, based on innate fitness, will supersede officialism founded on adventitious extrinsic conditions, — a time when the social sympathies will be so developed that the regulation of production will be free from monopolistic interference, and the creative ability of the individual, governed by the wisdom that is of the soul, will find full scope and delight in spontaneous work nicely adjusted to the needs of the community, — the desire being to contribute that which shall be a joy and benefit to all. With economics based on an ethical and spiritual foundation, the stimuli which many have found only in the competitive struggle will assuredly arise in the more intense social passion of which we now and then see prophetic examples. Whitman conceives, he tells us, “a community, to-day and here, in which, on a sufficient scale, the perfect personalities, without noise, meet... a community organized in running order, powers judiciously delegated — farming, building, trade, courts, mails, schools, elections, all attended to; and then the rest of life, the main thing, freely branching and blossoming in each individual, and bearing golden fruit.”
By such conceptions are we fortified in our faith that the combined incentive of individual differentiation and collective progress, in its spiritual as well as material aspect, is destined to outdistance the present antisocial form of competition, abolish privilege, and lead to the social harmony in which all discordant notes eventually blend.