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Walt Whitman American Exceptionalism Essay

Walt Whitman is America’s most renowned, most influential, and many say its greatest, poet ever. He spent his life writing endless prose essays and one book of poetry, his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. But Whitman wanted to be more than just a great poet. He wanted to be the nation’s first great myth-maker. “There could hardly happen anything that would more serve the States,” he wrote, “than possessing an aggregate of heroes, characters, exploits, sufferings, prosperity or misfortune, glory or disgrace, common to all, typical of all — no less, but even greater would it be to possess the aggregation of a cluster of mighty poets, artists, teachers, fit for us, national expressers, comprehending and effusing for the men and women of the States, what is universal, native, common to all.”[1] [Please scroll to the bottom of the page for all footnotes.]

Whitman made it clear that he aimed to be the first “national expresser,” the first poet to put in words what was “common to all” Americans: “I heard that you ask’d for something … to define America … Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.”[2] But he often said that he thought of his work as merely a beginning, inspiring even greater poets and myth-makers in the future. So far, though, no poet has arisen to challenge his preeminent status.

The poems in Leaves of Grass were written over some 30 years. They reflect his vast variety of experiences, moods, and inspirations over all those years. So they hold an equally vast variety of thoughts and ideas. This never bothered Whitman. “Do I contradict myself?,” he wrote. “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”[3]

However there are some basic themes that run consistently through all the poems. One of these is an enormous, enthusiastic love of America, reflected equally in his most famous prose essay about America, “Democratic Vistas.” Whitman’s thousands of lines devoted to America also hold great variety and even contradiction. So interpreters have been able to frame his views on America in many different ways. Sometimes he is seen as an advocate for a traditional American mythology of hope and change — a nation of “rugged individuals” all competing to get ahead, but all joining together to move west and fulfill the nation’s “manifest destiny” in typical mid-19th century fashion.

As I read Whitman, setting his words on America in the context of his whole poetic work, I find something quite different — an alternative mythology of hope and change that still sounds radically new and challenging today, well over a century after his death. What follows is that alternative mythology as I have assembled it from Whitman’s words and my understanding of those words in their full context.

America is a marvelous geographical land, full of fascinating, often stunningly beautiful, places, “from forests of pine in Maine” to “Florida’s glades” to “California’s golden hills and hollows.”[4]

But America is more than a place. It is a project — a process with a purpose. Though Whitman describes that purpose in many ways, he comes closest to the heart of his vision of America when he describes the mission of a true American poet: to proclaim “the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals.”[5] Since he maintains that the true American poet embodies the entire nation, he clearly implies that the mission of the entire nation is to promote “the great Idea,” to create and nurture perfect free individuals — an idea that turns out to be the central thread of his mythology of America.

Sometimes Whitman describes this mission as a goal to be achieved only in a distant future era of perfection, in what is traditionally called the millennium. More often he writes as if he were describing America’s reality in the present.

Of course he knew that reality does not always live up to the ideal; the nation’s actuality from day to day deviates from, and often works against, fulfilling its mission. He knew that America “illustrates evil as well as good,” that “the wrestle of evil with good, the sounding and resounding, keep on and on.”[6] But it is this dynamism, this unending process, that is the essential reality of the present. Precisely because the nation is always moving toward its goal, no matter how distant, the millennial ideal is always part of its life in the here and now.

That ideal is the “unseen moral essence of all the vast materials of America,” Whitman says, the “hidden national will.” America’s “past and present purposes” are “tenaciously pursued,” even if only unconsciously. Those purposes are fixed truths, “unswerv’d by all the passing errors,” which are merely “perturbations of the surface.”[7] Like any myth-maker, Whitman is telling a story compounded of fact and fiction — a subtle blend of how America is now and how it ought to be.

The crucial point of his story is that the process of moving toward the ideal continues, and must continue. Wherever we are, “we must not stop here, However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here.”[8] “It is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.”[9]

Whitman’s most original contribution to the tradition of millennialism is to proclaim that the process has no end. America is constantly fulfilling its mission, constantly moving toward a fuller realization of its purpose: “Others take finish, but the Republic is ever constructive.”[10] The nation’s highest goal is to keep its millennial project alive forever. The road to paradise is itself the American paradise.


But why should America’s project, its “great Idea,” be summed up in those three words: perfect, free, individual? Why should every true American follow the road of becoming an ever more perfect and free individual? Let us follow Whitman’s story by looking in turn at each of those key words.

It is not the earth, it is not America who is so great,
It is I who am great or to be great, it is You up there, or any one …
Underneath all, individuals,
I swear nothing is good to me now that ignores individuals,
The American compact is altogether with individuals.[11]

Why privilege, even glorify, the individual? Because all the ways we usually mark our sense of identity and the meaning of our lives — our families, social groups and institutions, communities and nations — are ultimately nothing but collections of individuals. The individual is the most basic truth:

One’s-self must never give way — that is the final substance —
that out of all is sure,
Out of politics, triumphs, battles, life, what at last finally remains?
When shows break up what but One’s-Self is sure?[12]

Of course our individual identity is shaped, to some degree, by all those collective groupings that existed before us and gave rise to us. They endow us with a basic foundation of personality:

Something long preparing and formless is arrived and form’d in you,
You are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes.
The threads that were spun are gather’d, the weft crosses the warp,
the pattern is systematic.[13]

Those we encounter throughout life enrich our experience and expand our personal identity. So identity is never static; we are always on a journey. And everyone who has ever influenced us (which means everyone we’ve ever known, and many we haven’t known directly) comes with us:

Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them, I am fill’d with them.[14]

This is obviously not the familiar “rugged individualism” that sets each American against all others in a race for wealth, power, and success. Here, each individual emerges from, and remains enmeshed in and “fill’d with”, a vast network of others. To understand this new kind of individualism better, we have to understand those crucial adjectives, perfect and free.

To be perfect does not mean we have no faults or never do anything wrong. Like our nation, we are each always caught in the interplay of right and wrong: “How the whirl, the contest, the wrestle of evil with good, the sounding and resounding, keep on.”[15] So perfection is not a moral category in the traditional sense.

Nor is perfection some far distant goal. Perfection is a kind of experience anyone can have at any moment, by being open to the promptings of “the soul.” Again we come across a familiar word that is used in an unfamiliar way.

The soul is not something inside us that is separate from and opposed to the material body. Indeed there is no difference between body and soul; in “I Sing the Body Electric,” after cataloguing all the body parts of man and woman in loving detail, Whitman concludes: “These are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, O I say now these are the soul!”[16]

Soul is, rather, the entire person in those moments when he or she recognizes their connectedness with every other person and everything. (Some may call this inner spirit, heightened consciousness, fully awakened awareness, or use other words to name it.)

Each individual is the center of an endless web of interconnections, which the awakened soul can feel. This web extends beyond the realm of human relations: “Whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud, And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d universe.”[17] To put it somewhat differently, everyone and everything is a link on the same universal chain, “each hook’d to the next, Each answering all, each sharing the earth with all.”[18]

This awareness of universal interconnectedness is the essence of human perfection. The boundaries that seem to separate one person from another and from all the other realities of the world are seen for what they really are: bridges that connect the individual to everyone and everything else. When the soul evokes even a glimpse of perfection, the individual realizes “the plenteousness of all, that there are no bounds.”[19]

In interpersonal relations it goes a step further, to a realization that we each contain in ourselves everything that is contained in anyone else: “In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less, And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.”[20] “I swear I will have each quality of my race in myself.”[21]


If we are all parts of the same single pool of humanity — if there are no boundaries that actually separate one from another — then there are no limits to define and confine the individual. Moved by a powerful awareness of his soul, Whitman exclaims:

From this hour, freedom!
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute.[22]

Given the awareness of infinite connection — that each of us contains all others — each individual must extend the freedom they feel to all others:

I am for those that have never been master’d,
For men and women whose tempers have never been master’d,
For those whom laws, theories, conventions, can never master.[23]

Each individual is the “purpose of all, pois’d on yourself, giving not taking law.”[24]

All is eligible to all,
All is for individuals, all is for you,
No condition is prohibited, not God’s or any.[25]

The result of all this freedom is not universal conflict and anarchy, though. A man or woman growing to full perfection will be guided by an inner moral compass because he or she will be religious. For Whitman religion does not mean following the creed of any organized religion but “possessing the idea of the infinite,” which is the “rudder and compass sure amid this troublous voyage, o’er darkest, wildest wave, through stormiest wind, of man’s or nation’s progress.”[26]

Why “rudder and compass”? Because the idea of the infinite stems from the awareness that everyone and everything is part of a web of universal relationship. That experience, in turn, evokes a universal sense of concern for others, of “love, that is pulse of all”[27]

This is less a logical deduction than an immediate intuition:

Swiftly arose and spread around me peace and knowledge that pass
all the argument of the earth,
And I know that …
all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women
my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love.[28]

“Underneath all is the Expression of love for men and women.”[29] Universal love insures that, in any conflict, we will transcend selfish impulses and seek an orderly resolution that is best for everyone.

In sum, the perfect person extends perfect love, and accords perfect freedom, to everyone. Perfection and freedom are thus two expressions of the same reality: the individual soul.

The soul, like America, is a project — a process with a purpose: to enhance and deepen the individual’s unique way of experiencing limitless perfection and freedom. The soul is the goal of human life, but it is not a distant end point; it is a process constantly available; the process is the goal of life.

The process of each individual soul began long before birth; it is a product of all that has come before it:

For it has history gather’d like husks around the globe…
For it the real to the ideal tends …
Health to emerge and joy, joy universal.[30]

But the perfect freedom of the soul allows each person to explore limitless new roads and discover their own unique identity, their own optimal health and joy, their own way of experiencing and encompassing the totality of humanity and the entire cosmos.

America’s mission is to create perfect and free individuals by awakening and nurturing the soul of every person. Whitman sometimes addresses the “hidden national will” as its soul, saying that his chant to America is for “the soul in thee, electric, spiritual.”[31] Ultimately, though, there can be no national soul apart from the souls of all the individuals who make up the nation:

O I see flashing that this America is only you and me,
Its power, weapons, testimony, are you and me,
Its crimes, lies, thefts, defections, are you and me,
Its Congress is you and me, the officers, capitols, armies, ships,
are you and me.[32]


The souls who have gathered to make up America have created a nation well suited to its mission. There are a number of distinctive features of American life that make it a land where each individual soul can grow and flourish.

There is no doubt that individualism has been, and remains, a dominant feature of the American culture landscape. Though it is rarely the kind of individualism Whitman calls for, the seed of that ideal — the valuing of individual freedom — is certainly already here.

The political expression of individualism is democracy. American democracy, at its best, recognizes the unique value of each person — that each is an equally important link in the universal chain binding all together. “The ever-overarching American ideas” are “the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood.”[33] So it is only natural that America is founded on the ideal of every individual having equal worth and dignity, and respecting the worth and dignity of all others.

Whitman knew as well as anyone, and could say more eloquently than most, that American democracy has always been, and still remains, tragically limited and stunted, a faint foreshadowing of what a true democracy would be:

Society, in these States, is canker’d, crude, superstitious, and rotten … [with] the depraving influences of riches just as much as poverty … We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. … Using the moral microscope upon humanity, a sort of dry and flat Sahara appears.[34]

But his is a mythic tale. It is not meant to be a snapshot of reality as it exists now. Rather it is a story of the nation’s project, the road that it follows to bring the real ever closer to the ideal, with many “passing errors” and “perturbations” along the way. And there are, in the nation’s past and present, realities that are a partial (sometimes very partial) fulfillment of the ideal. The foundations of the ideal are already set in place, here and now, to point the way.

America has taken some important first steps on the road leading to real democracy. The Declaration of Independence enshrined the “rights of immense masses of people … the American programme, not for classes, but for universal man.” The Constitution, as amended, promised “general suffrage.”[35]

But democracy means much more than just the right to vote:

To be a voter with the rest is not so much; and this, like every institute, will have its imperfections. But to become an enfranchised man, and now, impediments removed, to stand and start without humiliation, and equal with the rest; to commence, or have the road clear’d to commence, the grand experiment of development, whose end … may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman — that is something.[36]

“The main thing,” Whitman writes in the culminating words of “Democratic Vistas,” is “the average, the bodily, the concrete, the democratic, the popular, on which all the superstructures of the future are to permanently rest.”[37] Earlier in the same essay he warns: “Of all dangers to a nation … there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.”[38]

(As part of America’s process of ever-expanding equality, he calls for “a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort — a vast, intertwining reticulation [network] of wealth” and a recognition that woman is “as great, at any rate, as man, in all departments.”[39])

Whitman claims, quite rightly, that American society has already gone far toward prizing the “divine average” person. Often enough, in our literature, film, television, news reports, and the like, the heroes are not from a small group of elite people. The heroes are some average Joe and Jane or Juan and Maria. Any one of us can be a hero.

On this foundation, America is building a future where “the average man of a land at last only is important. He, in these States, remains immortal owner and boss.”[40] An important part of America’s mission is “to teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade”[41] and to appreciate the same glory in others:

the noble character of mechanics and farmers …
their manners, speech, dress, friendships, the gait they
have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the
presence of superiors.[42]

A true American will stand in awe of the “interminable swarms of alert, turbulent, good-natured, independent citizens … so fresh and free, so loving and so proud,”[43] “the crowds, equality, diversity, the soul loves.”[44]

This is the test of a true, patriotic American:

Are you really of the
whole People? …
Have you too the old ever-fresh forbearance and impartiality?
Do you hold the like love for those hardening to maturity? for the
last-born? little and big? and for the errant?[45]


Human love is central to Whitman’s vision of America. His poem, “For You, O Democracy,” is devoted entirely to this theme:

I will make the continent indissoluble …
With the life-long love of comrades.
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,
and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades.[46]

Though he clearly means to include same-sex erotic love, his praise of love extends to all kinds of interpersonal affection as the key to effective democracy. America’s democratic mission has two complementary sides: “Not that half only, individualism, which isolates. There is another half, which is adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing all.”[47]

“Many will say it is a dream,” Whitman confesses.

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 friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long … having the deepest relations to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship, as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain, and incapable of perpetuating itself.[48]

Genuine democracy  means that every American affirms their indissoluble link with, and concern for, every other American:

Whoever degrades another degrades me,
and whatever is done or said returns at last to me. …
I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their
counterpart of on the same terms.[49]

True Americans will say:

I have loved the earth, sun, animals, I have despised riches,
I have given alms to every one that ask’d, stood up for the stupid
and crazy, devoted my income and labor to others,
Hated tyrants, argued not concerning God, had patience and indulgence
toward the people, taken off my hat to nothing known or unknown,
Gone freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young,
and with the mothers of families, …
Claim’d nothing to myself which I have not carefully claim’d for
others on the same terms …
Rejecting none, permitting all.[50]

True Americans will also extend this sense of connection, acceptance, and equality beyond the nation itself. They recognize that America’s borders, like all other borders, are not dividers but connectors, that there is no break in the chain that links each one of us to all of humanity. So the genuine American project can never be one of imposition: “In vain do we march with unprecedented strides to empire so colossal.”[51]

Ultimately, America’s mission is to promote the perfection of limitless freedom and love for all humanity, “Libertad and the divine average, freedom to every slave on the face of the earth.”[52] “O America because you build for mankind I build for you.”[53]


A link with the rest of humanity is inherent in America’s existence and has been from the very beginning. Like the soul, America is the product of all that came before. Its culture has incorporated and shown great respect for the past achievements of foreign lands. All of Old World culture is gathered up in America, “to accept, fuse, rehabilitate”[54] and become part of America’s soul.

Yet America adds new, unique characteristics of its own. One of these is the American people’s undeniable talent for technological innovation and mass production: “We plan even now to raise … thy great cathedral sacred industry.”[55] The “undying soul” of the Old World  is all “here, install’d amid the kitchen ware!”[56]

But this praise of technology does not contradict the qualities of soul; the material is always imbued with the spiritual: “As fuel to flame, and flame to the heavens, so must wealth, science, materialism — even this democracy of which we make so much — unerringly feed the highest mind, the soul. Infinitude the flight: fathomless the mystery.”[57] So within the walls of America’s vast industrial-technological cathedral “shall all that forwards perfect human life be started, Tried, taught, advanced.”[58] And no material thing can ever be permitted to take more importance than human life: “How dare you place any thing before a man?”[59]

Leadership in industry and technology make America the crucial transportation hub linking Europe and Asia, “the inter-transportation of the world … This earth all spann’d with iron rails, with lines of steamships threading every sea.”[60] (Had Whitman lived a few decades longer, he surely would have added airplane routes too.) This also has a spiritual meaning: America can join together all of the world’s population and embrace every cultural heritage because, like the soul, it evokes such a powerful sense of the interconnection of all people. In America, “the orb is enclosed, The ring is circled, the journey is done.”[61]

It’s the culmination of a process of transcending borders that began in the Old World millennia ago:

Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.[62]

The same process of bringing distant people together is even more obvious in the American populace itself, which does indeed include a vast number of different ethnicities from all over the world: “Here is not merely a nation but a teeming Nation of nations.”[63]

Thou Union holding all, fusing, absorbing, tolerating all …
Thou, also thou, a World,
With all thy wide geographies, manifold, different, distant,
Rounded by thee in one.[64]

Thou America … surroundest all,
Embracing carrying welcoming all, thou too by pathways broad and new,
To the ideal tendest …
absorbing, comprehending all,
All eligible to all.
All, all for immortality,
Love like the light silently wrapping all.”[65]

America gathers in all of the heritage and peoples of Old World “from afar … To give it our own identity, average, limitless, free.”[66] In this little line the pieces of the mythic picture fall together to create a single narrative: People who are truly free realize that they are limitless. And with all limits transcended — with all boundaries dissolved, with all linked to all on the same universal chain — they realize that everyone else is equally limitless and free, regardless of their station in society. The commitment to equality is precisely why Americans place such high value on their average, ordinary fellow Americans.


Although America absorbs all it is not a “melting pot,” because its ultimate value is the identity of each individual. So there is “always a knit of identity, [but] always distinction”[67] as well. “The diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite — they unite now.”[68] To be sure, America is far from ideal in allowing for diversity amidst its unity. But it has taken important steps on the road toward valuing the distinct identities of the many groups that compose it.

Whitman begins “Democratic Vistas” with this observation: “As the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom, the same present the greatest lessons also in New World politics and progress.”

He then cites

John Stuart Mill’s profound essay on Liberty in the future, where he demands two main constituents, or sub-strata, for a truly grand nationality — 1st, a large variety of character — and 2d, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions,

and he comments:

seems to be for general humanity much like the influences that make up … the weather — an infinite number of currents and forces, and contributions, and temperatures, and cross purposes, whose ceaseless play of counterpart upon counterpart brings constant restoration and vitality.[69]

The vitality that comes from “an infinite number of currents and forces” is crucial to Whitman’s vision of American life. Much of his poetry is devoted to long, detailed descriptions of an endless variety of American people, places, and things, using vivid language that evokes the sense of energy he sees and feels.

The intimate link between America and nature, which sparked Whitman’s reflection on variety and freedom, is a recurring theme throughout his work, just as it is a recurring theme in American history. Despite obvious trends to the contrary, there has always been an important strain in American life of prizing nature and the natural, from the earliest colonists’ enchantment with the vast “new Eden” to the latest designation of a new national park or wilderness area.

Love of nature leads quite readily to another kind of love that has been a central preoccupation of many Americans, quite publicly in recent decades: love expressed through the body. Whitman was the first major American writer to praise the pleasures of the flesh: “I believe in the flesh and the appetites.”[70] He shocked many by making the point even more explicitly: “And sexual organs and acts! do you concentrate in me, for I am determin’d to tell you with courageous clear voice to prove you illustrious”[71]; “All were lacking if sex were lacking.”[72]

Nature and physical love have always been closely connected with ideas of limitlessness and personal freedom. Whitman writes:

The quality of BEING, in the object’s self, according to its own central idea and purpose … the precious idiosyncrasy and special nativity and intention … and of growing therefrom and thereto — not criticism by other standards, and adjustments thereto — is the lesson of Nature.[73]

The project of America is to emulate nature in this respect, to nurture the same quality of unique growth innate in each individual. In this land people can “hardy, sweet, gigantic grow, here tower,” here create “the new society at last, proportionate to Nature.”[74]

Whitman expands on the lessons America learns from nature as he vividly describes hundreds of places throughout the country, reminding us of the amazing variety of the physical landscape and the importance of treasuring each place in its uniqueness. He sees America’s expansive fields, forests, and mountains fostering a sense of the self as always growing and enlarging. The seemingly limitless American landscape creates an insatiable desire, a powerful sense that the possibilities here are, for everyone, limitless: “It is not enough to have this globe or a certain time, I will have thousands of globes and all time.”[75]


The most authentic way to be an American is to be, like nature, always in process, always restless, always on the move and wanting more:

To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you,
however long but it stretches and waits for you,
To see no being, not God’s or any, but you also go thither.[76]

All patriotic Americans will always be pioneers, “conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways.”[77] They “know the universe itself as a road, as many roads,”[78] and they are always on the road. Even in the worst of times, they will be buoyed by a vision of an infinitely better life beckoning farther on up the road: “From imperfection’s murkiest cloud, Darts always forth one ray of perfect light.”[79]

And in a nation whose collective process is a millennial project, any pursuit can be the road to paradise, offering anyone a new way to experience moments of perfection here and now. In a nation dedicated to the freedom to discover and affirm one’s own unique identity, each must find their own road: “Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself.”[80]

Whitman delivers this call for constant change — a call that runs like a unifying thread through all his words, giving them all an aura of hope — with his typical tone of absolute certainty. In the mythology of hope and change that he creates there is no room for doubt or hesitation because the soul does not invent its ideals and values; it discovers them as objective, eternal realities in the cosmos. Thus Whitman’s work passes the first test for a successful new American mythology: an assurance that there are eternal, universal truths and values, which are not merely human creations and thus provide an objective, unshakeable foundation for human life

His work passes all the other tests, too. He affirms individual freedom as the highest value of all. He makes a strong appeal to patriotism, claiming that the values he praises are uniquely American yet reflect the universal truths the awakened soul discovers. He offers continuity with the mythic past by building on a long list of distinctively American traits and traditions: individualism, democracy, prizing the average person, a rich mix of ethnicities, technology, nature and the great outdoors, pleasures of the flesh, the pioneering spirit, adventure and unlimited horizons, constant movement, constant hope for a better future, endless desire, millennial expectation, and more. And he offers it all with the authority of a truly great figure from the nation’s past.

The American tale Whitman tells also pits the nation’s values against their opposites, creating a moral drama of good versus evil on a global scale. Yet he avoids the pitfalls of the myths of hope and change that have dominated in the past. His insistence that each individual contains all the qualities of humanity — that each is link in a universal chain encompassing both good and evil — makes it impossible to divide the world into the “virtuous” people and the “evildoers.” This vision of unity extends to nations as well as individuals, with all borders becoming connecting bridges. So his America cannot be pitted against perceived enemies.

Whitman’s words, so infused with exuberant hope, banish any fear of fundamental change. He praises change as not merely inevitable, but something to be welcomed, an endlessly exciting opportunity. Finally, his distinctive vision of perfection — traveling the constantly changing road to an ideal future as itself the highest ideal — averts any frustrating clash between future hope and present reality.

In all these ways, Whitman’s work offers the basis for a new mythology of hope and change that can avoid the anxiety and insecurity that has so often marked the dominant myths of hope and change.

Whitman’s praises of America are often dismissed as the fantasies of an unrealistic optimist. It is easy enough to list all the ways in which America has failed, and still fails, to live up to the ideal nation he describes — and a very long list it would be. It is even easier to simply read the passages in which Whitman has already done that job of indictment for us, in words more eloquent and sharply stinging than any we are likely to come up with.

But the point he is making, implicitly, throughout his work is that such litanies of complaint will not make anything better for anyone. Genuine change can come only from the kind of hope that inspired him, that kept him pointing out the road toward the fulfillment of the nation’s highest aspirations:

Then noiseless, with flowing steps, the lord, the sun, the last ideal comes. By the names right, justice, truth, we suggest, but do not describe it. To the world of men it remains a dream, an idea as they call it. But no dream is it to the wise — but the proudest, almost only solid lasting thing of all.[81]

In Whitman’s mythology, it makes no sense to condemn ourselves for failing to reach the end of the road and achieve the last, the highest ideal. Because the road to a better future has no end. The true fulfillment comes simply (though it’s actually no simple matter at all) from traveling the road continually, resisting the temptation to abandon it.

If we give in to that temptation, then America, its true meaning, and all that it can contribute to the world are lost. But “if we are lost, no victor else has destroy’d us, It is by ourselves we go down to eternal night.”[82]

We are all responsible not only for ourselves but for the whole nation, the whole web of which we are each a part: “America is only you and me.” “I dare not shirk any part of myself, Not any part of America good or bad.”[83] The fate of the nation remains up to us.

[4] Thou Mother With Thy Equal Brood; Our Old Feuillage

[5] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 10

[7] Song of the Redwood Tree

[8] Song of the Open Road 9

[10] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 8

[11] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 15

[14] Song of the Open Road 1

[16] I Sing the Body Electric 5

[21] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 16

[23] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 17

[24] Song of the Redwood Tree

[25] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 3

[27] The Mystic Trumpeter

[29] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 16

[30] Song of the Universal 2

[31] Song of the Exposition

[32] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 17

[41] Song of the Exposition 9

[42] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 6

[44] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 5

[45] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 12

[46] For You, O Democracy

[50] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 14

[52] As I Walk These Broad Majestic Days

[53] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 8

[54] Song of the Exposition 1

[55] Song of the Exposition 5

[56] Song of the Exposition 3

[58] Song of the Exposition 5

[59] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 13

[60] Song of the Exposition 7

[63] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 5

[64] Song of the Exposition 8

[65] Song of the Universal 4

[66] Song of the Exposition 1

[72] A Woman Waits for Me

[74] Song of the Redwood Tree

[76] Song of the Open Road 13

[77] Pioneers! O, Pioneers!

[78] Song of the Open Road 13

[79] Song of the Universal 3

[82] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 2

[83] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 17

Like this:


“The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” What presidential speechwriter, talk-radio host, bumper-sticker sloganeer, or all-around flag-waver has ever written or spoken higher praise? What anthem or pledge, sung or recited before a sports event or at a school, contains so unabashed a superlative? This simple declarative sentence, the second one of the second paragraph on the first page of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, approaches its 150th birthday still strutting its uncompromising, unqualified assertiveness. True, one could argue that “essentially” implies a slight hedge, as it does in the statement “With only minutes to go, this lopsided game is essentially over,” where “essentially” means “just about” or “pretty much” or “for all practical purposes,” and one could look to the first sentence of the same paragraph, with its “probably,” for support of such an argument: “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature.”

But as the rest of the second paragraph suggests, Whitman really is talking about essence here, about something inherent and fundamental: “Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses.” Particulars and details “magnificently moving in vast masses,” a phrase with all the auditory repetitions and palpabilities of Whitman’s language in verse, are particulars and details that start from discrete separateness and converge to point to the comprehensive and general, to the commonly shared and essential.

What some might call Whitman’s essentialism is only one of the features of his statement about the United States that might mark it, in some eyes, as dated, obsolete, historically confined and limited. Another is his use of the plural verb “are,” as opposed to the “is” that gradually became dominant after the American Civil War forever rearranged the notion of an American nation. Only 79 years into the American experiment in 1855, Whitman’s grammar reflects the evolving balance between, on the one hand, the plura of e pluribus and, on the other, the emerging unum under construction. In addition, without listening closely to history, or to various histories, we might not catch the note of desperate, even doomed, hopefulness behind the vatic pronouncement that the United States are essentially the greatest poem. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act the year before and the first virulent eruptions of the killing that would go on for more than a decade, Whitman is not so much swaggering and flexing as he is urgently speaking a spell or charm against social and political malignancy, even as it too rapidly metastasizes.

To some Whitman’s assertion may sound too grandiose and embarrassing, to others too airy and vague, but rather than spend more time attempting to interpret or defend or redeem the statement in all its slippery figurativeness (what does he mean by a metaphor that compares a country to a poem?), I want to turn instead to the larger issue of Whitman’s patriotism. In doing so, I have two goals in mind. First, I want to confront that patriotism in different forms and phases in order to appraise Whitman’s management of celebration and criticism at a few selected moments in his life and writing. Second, I want to use that appraisal to ground some thinking about Whitman as a possible model for combining celebration and criticism of the United States 150 years after the first appearance of Leaves of Grass. Although we hear the words “patriot,” “patriotic,” and “patriotism” all around us—Patriots’ Day (there are two, actually), Patriot Act, Patriot missile, New England Patriots come to mind—we do not have many useful public models for combining genuine celebration of the United States with constructive criticism of it. Perhaps the divisions of left and right have made such a combination impossible. Perhaps various kinds of pressure, refracted through print and visual media, leave most people feeling that they can either celebrate or criticize but not do both. I earnestly hope not, and in trying to affirm one or more productive alternatives to monotonal praise or blame, I want to consider whether or not Whitman’s example still can help.

If Whitman thought of himself as a patriot or as patriotic, he did not say so explicitly in the writings he published. In fact, “patriot” and its cognate forms rarely appear in his two major books, Leaves of Grass (9th edition, 1891-92) and Complete Prose Works (1892). According to Edwin Harold Eby’s 1949 concordance to Leaves of Grass and selected prose writings, Whitman uses “patriot” in only two poems, “patriots’” in one, and “patriotism” in only one place in Eby’s selection of his prose. Even more interesting than the scarcity of appearances, though, is their chronology. Three of the four appear in Whitman’s later writing, published after his voluntary service in Washington military hospitals during the Civil War and after what is probably the most famous use of “patriot” in 19th-century American letters, its appearance in the final, syntactically complex and rhythmically triumphant sentence of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, delivered March 4, 1861: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

A closer look at textual history underscores the chronological significance of Whitman’s diction. The word “patriots’,” for example, appears near the opening of a not particularly memorable poem eventually titled “Europe, the 72nd and 73rd Years of These States”: “O hope and faith! / O aching close of exiled patriots’ lives! / O many a sicken’d heart! / Turn back unto this day and make yourselves afresh.” Here the patriotism under discussion operates not in the United States but in Europe, as Whitman meditates on the revolutions of 1848. But what matters more is that this poem, originally titled “Resurgemus” and published in the New York Daily Tribune on July 21, 1850, appeared as the eighth of the original twelve untitled poems in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, where the lines, cast as two long rather than four short ones, read: “O hope and faith! O aching close of lives! O many a sickened heart! / Turn back unto this day, and make yourselves afresh.” Whitman inserted “exiled patriots’” in the third edition of 1860, neither exile nor patriotism having formed a salient enough feature of his 1850 vision to prompt him to include it.

As for the other three versions of “patriot,” first came “patriotism” in the prose setting of Democratic Vistas, published in two parts in 1867 and 1868, then complete in 1870: “But at present, (judged by any higher scale than that which finds the chief ends of existence to be to feverishly make money during one-half of it, and by some ‘amusement,’ or perhaps foreign travel, flippantly kill time, the other half,) and consider’d with reference to purposes of patriotism, health, a noble personality, religion, and the democratic adjustments, all these swarms of poems, literary magazines, dramatic plays, resultant so far from American intellect, and the formation of our best ideas, are useless and a mockery.” Then came the two instances of “patriot,” first in “Washington’s Monument, February, 1885” (“Now, or to come, or past—where patriot wills existed or exist”) and subsequently in “The Dead Emperor,” a poem published March 10, 1888, in the New York Herald to eulogize Wilhelm I of Germany, “a good old man—a faithful shepherd, patriot.”

Of these four direct references to patriotism, only the one from Democratic Vistas, which sweepingly indicts the productions of American literature through the Civil War, suggests a much larger context for considering patriotism as a virtue or a quality Whitman valued. Different readers might offer different explanations for the paucity of direct references to patriotism in Whitman’s writing, but one that feels plausible to me is that someone so deeply engaged in celebrating various aspects of the United States, and in identifying himself with his image or images of an American ethos, had little need or ability to separate himself from that celebration and objectify it with an abstract term like “patriotism.” Or, to put the matter more bluntly and reductively, Whitman was too busy celebrating himself and his country, and insisting on the connections between them, to spend much time crowing self-righteously about how patriotic he was and how deeply he believed in the value of patriotism.

Even though Whitman himself did not talk much about patriotism, at least two recent writers have done so in ways that can help us advance our thinking. In the early 1990s a debate about patriotism arose among several intellectuals in the United States. In retrospect, with the attacks of 2001 and their continuing repercussions now intervening between that debate and the present, the positions staked out there may look outdated to some. Nevertheless, two of the writers, Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum, took positions that define endpoints of a spectrum of attitudes toward patriotism, a spectrum we can use to think more deeply about Whitman. Rorty’s position emerged in an op-ed piece published in the New York Times on February 13, 1994, and Nussbaum’s response to that position, along with twenty-nine responses to Nussbaum in turn, appeared in the October/November 1994 issue of the Boston Review. Subsequently, Nussbaum’s essay and sixteen responses, including sometimes revised versions of eleven of the original twenty-nine, appeared in the volume For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, edited by Joshua Cohen and published in 1996.

For the sake of efficiency, we can pick the conversation up with Nussbaum’s summary of and response to Rorty’s argument “that we cannot even criticize ourselves well unless we also ‘rejoice’ in our American identity and define ourselves fundamentally in terms of that identity.” Nussbaum goes on to claim that Rorty “seems to hold that the primary alternative to a politics based on patriotism and national identity is what he calls ‘a politics of difference,’ one based on internal divisions among America’s ethnic, racial, religious, and other subgroups.” Finally, she prepares for her own divergence from Rorty with the sentence, “He nowhere considers the possibility of a more international basis for political emotion and concern.”

The position Nussbaum then takes in opposition to Rorty is one based on what she calls “cosmopolitanism,” a term now circulating freely in many current debates and one which she traces to Diogenes the Cynic and his famous declaration, “I am a citizen of the world,” which corresponds to the Greek etymology of “cosmopolitan,” formed of kosmos (the world) and polites (citizen). The bulk of the essay that follows consists of Nussbaum’s suggesting four arguments for what she calls the cosmopolitan education of students, and the basic assumptions behind those suggestions inform this question: “Most important, should they [students] be taught that they are, above all, citizens of the United States, or should they instead be taught that they are, above all, citizens of a world of human beings, and that, while they happen to be situated in the United States, they have to share this world with the citizens of other countries?”

Taking sides in this debate or joining the long list of respondents to Nussbaum is not what I have in mind here. What I do have in mind is returning to Whitman and the complicated, apparently inconsistent ways in which he sometimes seems to anticipate, on the one hand, Rorty’s sense of patriots who earn their right to criticize the United States by first rejoicing in, and defining themselves primarily in terms of, their understandings of American identity and, on the other hand, Nussbaum’s sense of cosmopolitans who acknowledge the realities and implications of their American situation but define themselves primarily in terms of their understandings of world citizenship. If I read them both correctly, I do not believe that Rorty’s position excludes patriots’ seeing themselves as included in larger concentric circles of world citizenship, nor do I believe that Nussbaum’s position excludes reading the cosmopolitan’s engaged awareness and comprehension of his or her situation in a particular country as a form of patriotism. What I do think is ruled out by both these careful thinkers is allowing unenlightened chauvinism (named after Nicholas Chauvin, an ardent supporter of Napoleon) to suffice for patriotism. What also must be ruled out is any underestimation of the distance between both these late-20th-century thinkers and Whitman’s uncritical participation in, for example, 19th-century American dreams of expanding north into Canada and south into the Caribbean. Any linking of Whitman to Rorty’s patriotism or Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism must bear in mind historical qualifications such as this one.

With these qualifications in mind, we can move to one of the most famous moments in the untitled poem of 1855 that eventually became “Song of Myself,” the moment of self-naming and self-annunciation: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” As many readers have noticed and commented, this line, the 499th of a 1,336-line poem in 1855, marks the first appearance of the name “Walt Whitman” in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman having deliberately omitted it from the title page, which faces the notoriously iconic, knee-length image of him with cocked hat, open shirt collar, right fist on right hip, and left hand in left pocket. Turning the title page, one finds, as the curious Emerson did, that “Walter Whitman” entered the copyright for the book, but the usual authorial conventions of making a name for oneself have been nonchalantly ignored, not out of humility—hardly so in Whitman’s case—but out of a strategy to tease and seduce the readerly “you” addressed most directly and extensively in “Song of Myself.”

What fewer readers have noticed is that this line also contains the first use of “American,” or any cognate of “America,” in the poems of the 1855 Leaves of Grass (those cognates do appear several times in the preface), and I want to linger for a moment over the triad of nouns Whitman uses to identify and introduce himself before he passes quickly on to a series of self-descriptive adjectives and participles, also arranged in two sets of triads: “Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . eating drinking and breeding.” For all the confident bravado sounded in this introduction, which he has coyly deferred for more than a third of his poem, subsequent revisions show plenty of second thoughts and second-guessing about the best way to identify himself. Through the first three editions of Leaves of Grass, 1855, 1856, and 1860, the line stays the same, but in the fourth (1867) edition, the first after the end of the Civil War, the line reads, a little too grandiloquently for my ear, “Walt Whitman am I, of mighty Manhattan the son,” before taking its final form in 1871: “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son.”

What may feel to some like a very small textual molehill in fact speaks mountains’ worth about Whitman’s sense of patriotism. In the original triad of “American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,” he splices three identities as though in triune apposition to one another, when in fact they do not blend so harmoniously, at least for Whitman. With “American” he projects a national identity; with “one of the roughs,” which envisions, as David Reynolds has shown, membership in one of the many gangs of antebellum Manhattan and reflects Whitman’s wish to associate himself with their public hypermasculinity, he projects a local identity, later muted and gentrified into “of Manhattan the son”; and with “a kosmos,” the word behind Nussbaum’s reading of Diogenes as patron saint of cosmopolitanism, he projects something else, something more figurative and elusive. At least here, Whitman’s sense of himself as a kosmos does not suggest so much a reaching out beyond himself to affirm international connections, in the way Nussbaum imagines, as it does a description of himself as an entire world or universe of feelings, sensations, impulses, and thoughts that constitute any self, once it realizes its own vast capacities, as it can, he would have us believe, if it submits itself to Whitman’s example and instruction.

What his revisions in the line make clear is that Whitman’s sense of himself as a kosmos somehow did not square with his sense of himself as American. With the dropping of the national identity and the preservation of the local, we are left not with a trinity of nouns possibly in apposition to one another—as though somehow being an American, from a teeming nation of nations, and a tough guy from lower Manhattan and a cosmic world unto oneself were all equivalents—but with an opposition of local and larger-than-local: Although I am from Manhattan and identify with Manhattan, I also feel that my self transcends the determining or limiting aspects of that locality. In trying to figure out why Whitman dropped “an American,” I argued some years ago that Whitman’s experience of the war, which so deeply shook the concept of an American nation, inevitably qualified his confidence in the stability of a national identity, and I still think this argument makes good sense. But in the context of this present discussion, I would add that the revisions also correspond to fluctuations in Whitman’s sense of patriotism, fluctuations that do not confine themselves to particular phases or periods in his life and that may well have made themselves felt even if the war had never taken place, although we cannot know for sure. At this point, I would like to consider evidence of these fluctuations more closely, singling out a moment to associate with Rorty’s vision of patriotism and another to associate with Nussbaum’s vision of cosmopolitanism.

In looking for evidence that Whitman combined faithful celebration of the United States, at least in theory, with probing criticism of it in practice, one might find plentiful examples in Democratic Vistas. Focusing on this postwar prose text, one might argue that Whitman’s criticism of the spiritual, ethical, political, and artistic infidelities of America during the Johnson and first Grant administrations, criticism which anticipates Rorty’s claim that such critical judgments must be grounded in a rejoicing in American identity, also tells a complicated story of growing disillusionment and conservatism on Whitman’s part. After the Civil War, the story might go, Whitman saw the rampant greed and materialism around him as profanations of the sacred blood-sacrifice he witnessed so closely in Washington hospitals between 1862 and 1866, and he reacted to this profanation by armoring himself in nostalgic, idealized, and even reactionary patriotism, of which Lincoln became the patron saint and Civil War soldiers the models and paradigms. In this way, one could say that Whitman’s reactions to the years following the Civil War rehearsed those of many who lived through World War II to the social and political transformations that defined the 1950s and 1960s.

This account of Whitman’s patriotism has much to recommend it, and it illuminates various aspects of his later life and career, such as his annual lectures about Lincoln on each anniversary of the assassination or the publication of a sixth edition of Leaves of Grass in 1876 to coincide with the national centennial and to reassert the identification of poet and country. But this account also ignores one extraordinary piece of evidence from well before both the election of Lincoln and the Civil War, the unpublished tract “The Eighteenth Presidency!” composed in 1856 in anticipation of the November elections, which put James Buchanan in the White House. (Whitman was counting administrations, not actual presidents, of whom Buchanan was the fifteenth.) Harsh as Democratic Vistas sometimes sounds, as when Whitman prophesies that materialism must be “confronted and met” or else “our modern civilization, with all its improvements, is in vain, and we are on the road to a destiny, a status, equivalent, in its real world, to that of the fabled damned,” the later text feels downright soothing by comparison to the sizzling invective of the earlier: “The President [Pierce] eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on the States.”

The immediate cause of Whitman’s outrage was the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its initial consequences, but a full understanding of his vituperations must also include a sense of his racial assumptions. Whitman opposed the spread of slavery into the territories, but like many, he based his opposition on the economic implications of any development that would put black slaves in competition with white labor, which he championed: “The national tendency toward populating the territories full of free work-people, established by the organic compacts of These States, promulged by the fathers, the Presidents, the old warriors, and the earlier Congresses, a tendency vital to the life and thrift of the masses of the citizens, is violently put back under the feet of slavery, and against the free people the masters of slaves are everywhere held up by the President by the red hand.” In “The Eighteenth Presidency!” Whitman does preach abolitionism, but since his abolitionism represents the economic interests of “the true people, the millions of white citizens,” it has little to do with the abolitionism of William Lloyd Garrison or Harriet Beecher Stowe: “You young men! American mechanics, farmers, boatmen, manufacturers, and all work-people of the South, the same as the North! you are either to abolish slavery, or it will abolish you.”

What makes “The Eighteenth Presidency!” so important a text for any consideration of Whitman’s patriotism is that it combines intense insistence on American identity, albeit a thoroughly white one, with unremitting censure and excoriation of the government. Even though it remained unpublished, this tract was hardly the private meditation of someone railing to his personal journal or diary. In a section headed “To Editors of the Independent Press, and to Rich Persons,” Whitman urges an inverse copyright: “Circulate and reprint this Voice of mine for the workingmen’s sake. I hereby permit and invite any rich person, anywhere, to stereotype it, or re-produce it in any form, to deluge the cities of The States with it, North, South, East, and West.” But mere circulation of his tract is not sufficient; Whitman also suggests his availability for public office, and the tract both signals his desire for publicity and articulates his platform: “But the great masses of the mechanics, and a large portion of the farmers, are unsettled, hardly know whom to vote for, or whom to believe. I am not afraid to say that among them I seek to initiate my name, Walt Whitman, and that I shall in future have much to say to them.”

As in the 1855 Leaves of Grass, Whitman names himself, and as in the poem that become “Song of Myself,” he links that naming to his identity as an American, one so identified with the political workings of the nation that he is ready to join those workings as a delegate or candidate. He is no anarchist or antigovernment libertarian here. But unlike candidates in the 21st century, he has no qualms whatsoever about what we now call negative campaigning, nor does he see any inconsistency in identifying himself with the United States and with presidential politics at the same time that he is blasting those among his fellow citizens serving as convention delegates, as in the section headed “Who Are They Personally?” in which he devotes one of his signature catalogues to lambasting them: “Office-holders, office-seekers, robbers, pimps, exclusives, malignants, conspirators, murderers, fancy-men, post-masters, custom-house clerks, contractors, kept-editors, spaniels well-trained to carry and fetch, jobbers, infidels, disunionists, terrorists, mail-riflers, slave-catchers, pushers of slavery, creatures of the President, creatures of would-be Presidents, spies, blowers, electioneers, body-snatchers, bawlers, bribers, compromisers, runaways, lobbyers, sponges, ruined sports, expelled gamblers, policy backers, monte-dealers, duelists, carriers of concealed weapons, blind men, deaf men, pimpled men, scarred inside with the vile disorder, gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people’s money and harlot’s money twisted together; crawling, serpentine men, the lousy combings and born freedom sellers of the earth.”

Apparently Whitman thought highly enough of this passage, along with one that precedes it and answers the question “Whence Then Do These Nominating Dictators of America Year after Year Start Out?” to include it first in the notes at the end of Memoranda During the War (1875)and subsequently in the essay “Origins of Attempted Secession,” published in Complete Prose Works. Setting aside its injudicious excesses, not to mention its slanderousness, many may appreciate the verbal pyrotechnics of the rhythmic bravura here, as Whitman orchestrates the patterning of phonemes and accents and syntax as carefully as he does in most of his verse. In fact, it is when we recognize and appreciate the aesthetic features of this rhetorical set piece that we hear how Whitman’s linguistic construction allows him to have it several ways at once, simultaneously celebrating and displaying both his own rhetorical prowess and his righteous wrath on behalf of an idealized American political process, while at the same moment damning those who usurp and degrade it.

So much for Whitman in high patriotic dudgeon with the volume turned up full blast. Now let us turn to a very different kind of moment, a much quieter one, in which an American point of view still anchors the utterance, but balancing celebration and criticism is no longer the issue:

This moment yearning and thoughtful sitting alone,
It seems to me there are other men in other lands yearning and thoughtful,
It seems to me I can look over and behold them in Germany, Italy,
        France, Spain,
Or far, far away in China, or in Russia or Japan, talking other dialects,
And it seems to me if I could know those men I should become attached
        to them as I do to men in my own lands,
O I know we should be brethren and lovers,
I know I should be happy with them.

In savoring the understated beauties of this small gem, which Whitman closes so characteristically with successively shortening lines, we need to remember that its composition (probably in or near 1859) falls between the more obviously patriotic tendencies of “The Eighteenth Presidency!” and Democratic Vistas. In other words, it is not a matter here of arguing that this quieter mode replaces or supersedes louder moments of patriotism once and for all; if it does not exist alongside them in some kind of parallel emotional universe, then it comes and goes according to its own rhythms. That said, I want to suggest that this poem would be my nomination for a paradigmatic cosmopolitan text, in the sense in which I understand Nussbaum to be talking about cosmopolitanism.

In the ninth edition of Leaves of Grass, this poem bears the title “This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful” and appears as the nineteenth poem in the famous—some would say infamous—“Calamus” cluster, devoted to what Whitman called manly love. The critical conversation about this cluster, and about Whitman’s homosexuality in general, has been carrying on for some time and shows no signs of abating. Unlike some, I find this conversation productive and useful and not at all beside the point, but unlike many who participate most actively in that conversation, I find it impossible, and perhaps unnecessary, to pronounce with certainty in favor of one position rather than another. Does it make historical sense to read Whitman as a gay or queer poet, when the word “homosexual” did not even enter the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, until Havelock Ellis used it in 1897? Does it make historical sense to read acts of same-sex love (or at least representations of those acts) as constituting an entire and coherent identity, when that identity first comes to widespread public attention during and after the sodomy trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895? Even if these readings do make historical sense, does it also make interpretive sense to subordinate all other readings of Whitman to reading him primarily as a gay or queer poet? He himself is on record in the preface of the 1876 Centennial Edition of Leaves of Grass as saying—perhaps truthfully, perhaps disingenuously—that the “special meaning” of the “Calamus” cluster resides “in its political significance,” rather than in the status of its poems as “emotional expressions for humanity.”

Whatever one decides, if indeed one does decide at all, what matters most to our discussion here is that the speaker’s placement of himself in America is clear, as he refers quite directly to “my own lands,” a phrase in which the possessive “my” also implies an identification with the country that Whitman himself never once left. But also clear is that although the speaker locates himself in and identifies himself with America, the poem is about his concurrent identification with people he imagines to be like himself in other countries, an identification that crosses national boundaries and envisions a kosmos made up of loving attachments between men. Does this imagined kosmos, reflecting what some might call a transnational vision, necessarily exclude patriotic identification with a particular nation? To imagine Whitman’s response to this question, it helps to consider, once again, some textual history.

As the pioneering archival and bibliographic work of Fredson Bowers in the 1950s has shown, the untitled poem that became “This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful” was originally one of twelve poems in a sequence Whitman titled “Live-Oak with Moss.” In this sequence, which seems to narrate a love relationship through the stages of desire, possession, loss, and recovery, Whitman placed this poem fourth, immediately after the poem that became “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” which begins, in its final version, with the long line “When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that follow’d” and ends with the line “And his arm lay lightly around my breast—and that night I was happy.” This moment marks the high point of the relationship, but it also suggests quite strongly that the happiness of love trumps the pleasures of national identification, represented by plaudits in the capitol.

That love and patriotism might be at odds, at least in Whitman’s mind and at least momentarily, becomes even harder to deny when we turn to the poem that immediately followed “The Moment Yearning and Thoughtful” in the original sequence. The fifth poem, which begins with the bold line “Long I thought that knowledge alone would suffice me—O if I could but obtain knowledge!” had such a short shelf life in Leaves of Grass, appearing only in the third (1860) edition, that it never earned itself a full-fledged title. When we press farther into the poem, it is not difficult to see why. In the second line Whitman echoes the phrase “my lands” from the preceding poem: “Then my lands engrossed me—Lands of the prairies, Ohio’s land, the southern savannas, engrossed me—For them I would live—I would be their orator.” Those familiar with Whitman’s rhetorical habits can anticipate where this poem is tending, and the signal “But,” which follows a few lines later, does not disappoint their expectations: “But now take notice, land of the prairies, land of the south savannas, Ohio’s land.” As it turns out, the speaker is quitting his job as orator of his lands (“find somebody else to be your singer of songs”). Why? Because “One who loves me is jealous of me, and withdraws me from all but love.” What follows amounts to blasphemy for the patriotic celebrator, and it is no wonder that he banished this poem from all the editions published after the Civil War: “I heed knowledge, and the grandeur of The States, and the example of heroes, no more.”

Hyperbole is a dominant figure in Whitman’s writing, both prose and verse, and the skeptical reader should make allowances for it. But even with a rhetorical discount subtracted from it, this remains a telling moment, for it represents a speaker in a moment of vivd alienation from a national identity, as well as from the role of national celebrant Whitman imagined for himself. It is not merely a matter here of letting a fierce crush lead one into wanting to play hooky from a job because going to that job would inconvenience eros; it is a matter of renouncing that job altogether because something about it burdens eros with a set of affiliations and indentifications that have suddenly lost their meaning and value. Furthermore, Whitman’s speaker is not quitting any old job here, thumbing his nose at an employer with no sense of romance. Since as a national celebrator of America in song, he is, at best, self-employed, in quitting such a job he is quitting a position he has fashioned for himself, along with the sense of a self, of an identity, that goes with it.

With a deeper sense of the context provided by the original sequence, we can now see that two more small moments in the first draft of “This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful,” which originally began on a note of greater discomfort, with “pensive” in place of “thoughtful,” confirm that for Whitman the stakes were high in what some might dismiss as a slight poem, as some sort of struggle between national identity and cosmopolitanism is in progress there. First, in the original manuscript the geographical triad “Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or Japan” reads “Or far away in China, India, or Russia,” with “India” added in pencil above a caret mark. As the 1871 poem “Passage to India” makes clear, Whitman reserved a special place for India in his imagination. Why then did he drop the name in favor of “Japan,” which he then placed third in his triad? Certainly one reason could be purely auditory, since “China,” “India,” and “Russia” all begin with stress on the first syllable and all end with an unstressed “a.” Whitman may have found the repetition cloying and opted for a variation. But as even a cursory glance at an atlas also makes clear, the sequence China-India-Russia sketches a north-south axis, whereas the addition of Japan keeps the speaker’s thoughtful yearning traveling steadily from west to east around the world, extending its global, its cosmopolitan, reach.

With the second revision in “This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful” we, too, come nearly full circle. In the original manuscript, and also in the published version of 1860, the line “And it seems to me if I could know those men I should become attached to them as I do to men in my own lands” is followed immediately by the line “It seems to me they are as wise, beautiful, benevolent, as any in my own lands.” Why did Whitman drop this line from all editions of Leaves of Grass after 1860? Aside from a little alliteration, it may not sparkle with verbal splendors, but it is well crafted and tonally consistent with the rest of the poem. The answer emerges, I think, when we consider this line against the early statements in the 1855 preface, both “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem” and “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature.” These extravagant superlatives, slightly qualified though they may be, reflect an American exceptionalism wholly antithetical to the inclusive, cosmopolitan spirit of a vision of other people in other lands “as wise, beautiful, benevolent, as any in my own lands.” That Whitman really did believe, in shifting proportions at different moments in his life, in both the superlatives of American exceptionalism and the inclusiveness of emotional and erotic cosmopolitanism seems to me beyond question. That after the war he also believed he had to subordinate, at least in published writings, his vision of the latter to his defense of the former, which the war and its aftermath so deeply threatened, does, too.

In September 2001 our older son began his freshman year at a local public high school. Soon after the attacks that month he brought home from the school a list of ten virtues or moral qualities the school has chosen to try to develop in its students, and he asked us to guess the virtue ranked first. Compassion? Truthfulness? Responsibility? Cooperativeness? Integrity? One of the four Platonic virtues, wisdom, courage, temperance, justice? Faith, hope, charity, the three added by Christianity to make the seven cardinal virtues and offset the seven deadly sins? Wrong, wrong, wrong, all wrong. When he revealed the answer to be patriotism, he also revealed his own uncertainty about the meaning and implication of such a ranking. What could Whitman say to him? Believer in the destiny of the United States to expand into Canada and the Caribbean; champion of white labor and underestimator of the egalitarian humanities informing other strains of abolitionism; sufferer of acute alienation from the conventions and comforts of mid-19th-century American sexual mores; self-promoting opportunist determined to perform the role of national bard at the cost of suppressing other images of himself: what could such a person tell him about patriotism in the United States in the first decade of the 21st century?

If nothing else, that it is, or can be, profoundly complicated and difficult in often bewildering ways, which the shorthand term “ambivalence” cannot cover and the wearing of an American flag pin on a lapel cannot foreclose. Our son might look to Whitman in the context of patriotism not because he should believe for a moment that Whitman’s example gives him any easy answers or formulae to brandish in moments of doubt and confusion, but because Whitman wrote so much and, often, so well about his own struggles to understand himself in relation to the United States, its strengths and its weaknesses, although he himself would not necessarily have acknowledged that struggle. Is he the only writer to whom one could turn in this context? Certainly not. But since his struggles with a sense of national identity and its limits unfolded against a period before, during, and after a war, though admittedly a war unlike any other in which American soldiers have fought and died before or since, many might feel a consideration of his case is more timely than those of others we could name.

For one thing, Whitman showed that the support of soldiers fighting a war—and in his case this support entailed exhausting practical service—did not preclude stringent criticism of those in charge of those soldiers. Although we cannot know for sure whether a 21st-century Whitman would have opted for a bumper sticker urging others to support the troops, it is doubtful he would have endorsed any implicit subtext of such a bumper sticker, if he felt that subtext pointing to the prohibition of questioning and criticizing the people responsible for the lives of those troops. In Memoranda During the War, for example, after the Union disaster at First Manassas/Bull Run (July 1861), he unleashes on the officers, presumably the general or field ones most likely to be frequenting Willard’s Hotel, this barrage: “There you are, shoulder-straps!—but where are your companies? where are your men? Incompetents! never tell me of chances of battle, of getting strayed, and the like. I think this is your work, this retreat, after all. Sneak, blow, put on airs there in Willard’s sumptuous parlors and bar-rooms, or anywhere—no explanation shall save you. Bull Run is your work; had you been half or one-tenth worthy your men, this would never have happen’d.” Whitman hardly had a monopoly on this kind of criticism, since disasters in war often lead to fault-finding and finger-pointing among both military and civilian populations, as readers of wartime newspapers can attest. But the preservation of such a passage in a published work confirms Whitman’s resistance to any notion of patriotism as necessarily silencing objections to the conduct of war.

Whitman could also help someone prone to reductive oversimplification, whether a high school student or a fully enfranchised voter, see that there is no necessary incompatibility between celebrating what he thought of and described as the American average, on the one hand, and criticizing American politicians and officeholders, on the other. Likewise, as several passages from Democratic Vistas make clear, Whitman could help someone think more critically about what lies behind the conveniently lazy phrase “The American Way of Life,” and particularly about exhortations to defend it, by demonstrating that there is no necessary incompatibility between the affirmation of American democracy, especially in theory, and the deploring of the excesses and distortions of American capitalism in actual practice, whether in the 19th or the 21st century.

Although Democratic Vistas reflects Whitman’s postwar anxieties about that capitalism, his worries about the soullessness of American money-worship also inform the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Published the year after Walden (1854), one long, undulating sentence from Whitman’s first preface, only partly quoted here, reflects many of the challenges to American economic imperatives that Thoreau launched in his opening chapter, “Economy”: “Beyond the independence of a little sum laid aside for burial-money, and of a few clapboards around and shingles overhead on a lot of American soil owned, and the easy dollars that supply the year’s plain clothing and meals, the melancholy prudence of the abandonment of such a great being as a man is to the toss and pallor of years of moneymaking with all their scorching days and icy nights and all their stifling deceits and underhanded dodgings, or infinitessimals of parlors, or shameless stuffing while others starve . . . is the great fraud upon modern civilization. . . .” In Whitman’s image of “melancholy prudence” we may hear an echo of Thoreau’s famous dictum, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” This comparison is particularly instructive, since it allows us to see ways in which Thoreau and Whitman also diverge, the former indicting the pernicious effects of American economic compulsions while also separating himself from the mass of men and their government, as is especially evident in “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849; later “Civil Disobedience”), whereas the latter indicts those compulsions at the same time that he still thinks of himself as actively engaged with or connected to American politics and government.

Finally, Whitman’s patriotism, inconsistent, fluctuating, self-interested, self-forgetful as it was by turns, could show a high school freshman or anyone else that patriotism need not and should not keep one from making imaginative cosmopolitan connections with people in other countries. As in the case of “This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful,” for Whitman these connections were neither superficial nor facile, and even though they remained imaginary for him, as do many of our own connections with people beyond the borders that define our citizenship, they also carried with them a deep, troubling identification with others throughout the world, an identification without which no one’s patriotism, not a student’s, not a poet’s, not a president’s, can hope to free itself from narcissism chained to a national mirror.

Stephen Cushman

Stephen Cushman is Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia. In addition to two books of poems and two studies of American poetry, he has published Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle (1999). He chairs the Advisory Board of VQR.