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A political Companion to Walt Whitman


Edited by John E. Seery


Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011

Hardcover. 373 p. ISBN 978-0-8131-2654-8. $40.00


Reviewed by Claudette Fillard

Université Lumière-Lyon 2



Through this Political Companion to Walt Whitman, John Seery attempts to make up for a deficiency. Indeed, even though Whitman himself repeatedly claimed to be a “political poet”, and even though his critics readily dubbed him “the poet of democracy” in a wealth of books and articles, most of them were “professors of literature, with at times a knack for history or music”. Betsy Erkkila is no exception to this well-grounded remark in John Seery’s illuminating introduction to the book. However it did not prevent her from breaking a way ahead with her Whitman the Political Poet published in 1989, the significance of which seems to be comparatively overlooked by the editor. But one is bound to admit that hardly anyone followed in her steps, and investigated the significance of Whitman’s conception of his own writings as an exercise in civic education. The truth is that “political theorists, political philosophers, and political scientists have been conspicuous by their absence”. This is what impelled John Seery to appeal to some of the best of them in this collection of thirteen essays which, according to him, ought to be read “on their own rather than as contributions mainly to a whole”. Yet, for clarity’s sake, he chose to group them into three clusters.

The first section, “Individuality and Connectedness” opens up with George Kateb’s essay on “Whitman and the Culture of Democracy”, originally published in Political Theory 18 (November 1990). The author argues that Whitman is a teacher of democratic individuality, leading to solitude rather than connectedness. But the individualism he perceives in Whitman’s writings, far from being the self-absorption of non-democratic cultures, is a right-based individualism. Kaleb’s convincingly shows that the individual potentiality prevailing in Whitman’s work does not preclude a democratic receptivity toward others, with the “democratic grace” characterizing the bard.

The second essay by Nancy Rosenblum, originally published in the same issue of Political Theory as the first one, is clearly a response to its main traits and contentions. Often using Democratic Vistas to analyze Whitman’s thinking, she nevertheless offsets Kateb’s highly theoretical approach in her very apt emphasis on the distinctively aesthetic and poetic quality of Whitman’s vision of democracy. She boldly blames Kateb for never wondering why poetry should be better than philosophy in providing insights into the self. When she complains that Kateb does not pay enough attention to the historical Whitman, her reader may regret her own inaccurate statement that 1826 was the year the last signer of the Declaration of Independence died. Actually, both Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826, which would require at least the use of a plural. Moreover, Charles Carroll of Maryland survived them until 1832. But notwithstanding this slight oversight, she rightfully takes into account the historical reality of property, race and gender in the United States, and wonders how such facts could be accounted for through Kateb’s conception of individuality. She contends that Whitman’s poetry and biography reveal a pattern of attractions and exclusions that would be best rendered through the Hegelian formula of crisis leading to higher unity.

The following essay by Cristina Beltran follows suit as regards Rosenblum’s perception of Whitman’s embrace of diversity and her critique of some of Kateb’s points. Beltran’s resort to Gloria Anzalduas’s concept of “mestiza consciousness” to explore the poet’s agonistic ethos of racial crossing is unexpected and may even seem to be far-fetched. But it actually further intensifies the relationship she unearths between Barack Obama and Whitman, even suggesting that the latter’s poetry helps us understand the American President’s racial strategies, thereby testifying to the enduring topicality of the poet’s writings.

Martha C. Nussbaum’s article on “Democratic Desire” was originally published in Upheavals of Thought : The Intelligence of the Emotions, her 2001 book. In her opinion Whitman’s work is not only an appeal to democratic inclusion, but also a “prophetic call to this-worldly justice”. She celebrates Whitman’s democratically loving vision of citizens, the outcome of an understanding of love which requires an erotic recuperation of the human body and therefore of human finitude. She does not ignore the troubling concerns about race, slavery, gender and sexuality Whitman’s poetry may give rise to, through his “sympathy with teeth”. In this well-structured essay, Nussbaum is not content with disincarnate abstractions but lays bare the “flesh and blood” underlying Whitman’s writings, while rightly responding to his contradictions.(1) Her highly sensitive response to the poet’s “caressing of death”, and her insistence on the eroticism of his poetry of equality, may account for the translation of this essay into French and its publication as “Le Désir démocratique” in Po&sie no. 135 of June 2011.

In the fifth essay Jane Bennett, like Nussbaum, tends to consider Whitman as a latter-day Jesus figure. The originality of her study is to be found in her analysis of  what she calls Whitman’s “solar judgment” a curious phrase John Seery helpfully explains away as “a kind of impersonal and nonanthropocentric form of nonjudgmental judgment, which might arbitrate the competing democratic claims of diversity and unity in new ways”.

As a whole, this section provides variegated, now concurrent and now discordant responses to Whitman’s democratic vision, like so many variations on this theme. But beyond this, the articles, illustrative of the multifaceted relationship between “Individuality and Connectedness”, are conducive to a reconsideration of the polysemous E Pluribus Unum, showing it to be much more than a frozen motto so many Americans will take for granted.

At first sight, the title of the second section, “City Life and Bodily Place”, seems to pave the way for less abstract politico-philosophical reflections. However, one should remember that the etymological meaning of the word “city” (from civitas) refers to citizenship or a community of citizens while at the same time “politics” (from polis) designates the life of the city.

In an essay remarkable for its brevity and clarity, Marshall Berman, adopting a late 20th-century approach, deals with Whitman and Baudelaire as “poets of the city”. The American poet’s celebration of New York and the French one’s writings about Paris are illustrated by well-chosen examples. Through Whitman’s “Manahatta” or “City of Orgies” and Baudelaire’s prose poem “Crowd”, Berman shows how they both conceived of a great city as an emotional complex sexual encounter, and played crucial roles in exalting a desirable collective adaptation at odds with Burke’s denunciation of the crowd as the “swinish multitude” or Jefferson’s distrust of the mobs of great cities as incubators of despotism.

Grounding his remarks mainly on Whitman’s prefaces to the several editions of Leaves of Grass, Jason Frank then shows his acute perception of the evolution of the poet’s thought and practice. The reader here will appreciate his very perceptive remarks on Whitman’s aesthetic democracy whose major insights were to be elaborated in Democratic Vistas (1871). Just like Berman he stresses the originality of Whitman’s poetry of the city and his aesthetics of anonymous urban encounters as opposed to Jefferson’s agrarian pastoral. But in addition to this, he extends this point to the Transcendentalists in their view of the city as an image of alienation and also broaches the idiosyncratic pause of the poet as “flâneur”, both “in and out of the game”.

In all likelihood Michel Shapiro is one of the “professors of literature with a knack for music” referred to in John Seery’s introduction, and he mainly draws upon Whitman’s poetic musicality. But his fondness for philosophy also frequently emerges through an avalanche of names with Ellison, Kant, Deleuze, Walter Benjamin, Plato and Plato’s Socrates and some other names. In each case the allusion is bolstered up by some reliable argument. But when the analysis resorts to some characters in various novels to assess Whitman’s approach, the method becomes debatable. Moreover the surfeit of references makes it difficult for the reader to work his/her way through the essay and, remembering the musical emphasis in the opening remarks, he/she will find it difficult to adhere to the contention that “Whitman is a better reporter than he was a poet”.

Terrell Carver’s essay entitled “Democratic Manliness” is definitely the most refreshing and challenging article in the book. Unflinchlingly based on a serious political reflection, it even provides a careful analysis of the terms of its title. It is a denunciation of the iconization process, as applied to democracy generally speaking, then to democracy in the United States. Carver exposes the flaws in American democracy, beginning from the beginning with the treacherous “We the people” inaugurating the Constitution of 1787. The word “people” is shown to be inappropriate for a political system which did not include all men (the word being only supposedly generic) and definitely excluding women dedicated to birth, motherhood, seductive softness, and occupational domesticity. Carver even denounces the tendentious hagiography devoted to Whitman himself. The “maleness” of the poet leads Carver to doubt the supposed equality in homoeroticism, and maintain that Leaves of Grass is laden with unmarked whiteness. In this bold, iconoclastic essay, Whitman is praised as a political communicator, not as the icon of democracy. Of course this text is written by a British scholar, which makes it easier for him to cast a critical glance both at US democracy and at the poet often supposed to celebrate it. Thanks to its revisiting of commonplace statements this article provides a very apt conclusion to the second section of the book, as it gives so much food for thought.

The third section, “Death and Citizenship” opens up with Peter Lawler’s approach to “Whitman as political thinker”. The author limits his reflections to the prose written after the Civil War which, according to him, evinces Whitman’s most mature thought. This enables him to stress the poet’s vindication of personal, practical accomplishments, a more democratic stance than mere pity for those who cannot help themselves and fail to meet the requirements of the Gilded Age creed. He compares Whitman with Tocqueville and other writers belonging to the political canon, who associate democracy with the religious quest for immortality. He rightly asserts that for Whitman, to live well, people must “die well and find meaning in death” which enabled him to write the great poem of death. This echoes D.H.Lawrence’s claim that “Whitman is a very great poet of the end of life”,(2) with of course a clearly political slant which justifies its presence in John Seery’s book. Convincing as it is, the essay piles up quotations the reader is at great pains to identify while the minimal and sole bibliographical reference to Walt Whitman : Poetry and Prose at the end does little to relieve his/her frustration.

Jack Turner, the editor of A Companion to Henry David Thoreau, clearly perceives Whitman’s conflicting views of materialism vs. immortality, and heroism vs. democracy and his three kinds of responses to death illuminate an evolution overlooked by most of the other contributors. His close perusal of the poems, the major basis of his analyses, enables him to identify Whitman’s serene agnosticism about God, productive of a serene agnosticism toward death. “Who Learns My Lesson complete” acts as an example of the poet’s elaboration on his technique of “faint clues and indirections” which Turner unravels beautifully. He considers that doubt and openness are key elements in a poetry which is characterized by a maximum openness to others and holds that the right time of “a man or woman is always now”.

In the following essay, Kennan Ferguson opposes Richard Roherty’s “futurist” reading of Whitman’s poetics of death with his own “presentist” view of it. Using the Bergsonian concept of “dramatic presentism” he clearly shares Turner’s insistence on the “right-now” of time in Whitman’s poems, as well as the agnosticism about death which enhances democratic citizenship instead of dreaming of a future democratic condition.

Morton Schoolman, in the last and thirteenth essay devoted to “Democratic Enlightenment : Whitman and Aesthetic Education” proffers a very close perusal of Democratic Vistas and its structure. He identifies twelve topics in this prose work, each of which he carefully ponders over. What emerges mainly from this remarkably structured perception of Whitman’s thought is the uniqueness of American democracy as a break with all past societies, its formidable potential which exceeds a nationalist frame but could alter global history. For the author esthetic education is a form of democratic politics which acts as a barrier to Evil and seems to invite the poet to replace the priest. Schoolman contends that as Democratic Vistas progresses it evinces Whitman’s sociological interest in the exclusion of minorities and the extermination of an Other in post-war American society. The approach in this essay is clearly philosophical, which does not preclude Schoolman’s perception of the “faint indirections” identified by Jack Turner, which are named here for the first time in the book. In other words a deep philosophical reflection underlying the essay does not mean that the author is impervious to the “poeticalness” of a prose work.

All in all, this collection of essays successfully takes up the challenge defined in John Seery’s introduction. As maintained by the editor, it may address English professors and political scientists as well as “a democratically disposed readership at large”. As he remarks, each individual essay may be read on its own, for its own sake. But contrary to what he suggests, they also belong to a whole. Several authors argue with each other in an enticing display and epitome of varying responses to Whitman’s poetry and prose, as well as of the diversity of contemporary political theory. But the interpretations of Whitman’s work here proposed raise the problem of poetry’s relationship to politics. That the political message in Leaves of Grass or other writings should be explored logically follows from a book meant to be a Political Companion to Walt Whitman. It implies the focusing of attention on the message itself, rather than on the medium. Nancy Rosenblum hits a major point when she notes that Kateb never expands on why “poetry is essential to democracy”. This statement could easily apply to the whole book. “Réintroduire la poésie dans le débat” was the title of an article published in Le Monde (July 3, 2011). It explicitly referred to Walt Whitman as a good example of how poetry may nourish politics. But very few of the essays published here touch on this topic, which remains a moot point, a nagging question leaving room for further theoretical research.


(1) See « Song of Myself », 51, 6-7 : Do I contradict myself, / Very well then I contradict myself.

(2) In Studies in Classic American Literature, published in 1923.



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