Few American literary figures have received as much critical analysis as Walt Whitman, variously referred to as the Good Gray Poet, the Bard of Democracy, the Father of Free Verse, and the Prophet of Gay Liberation. Each of these epithets reflects a different approach to Whitman, who has waxed and waned in popularity throughout the 150 years since the first publication of Leaves of Grass. In his new book, In Walt We Trust: How a Queer, Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself, Penn State professor of English John Marsh examines the critical analysis of Whitman and applies it toward remedying what he calls our “contemporary American malaise.”
Marsh begins by identifying four possible causes of dissatisfaction in modern America: death, money, sex, and a “materialistic and vulgar” sense of democracy. According to his analysis, Americans are too preoccupied with the fear of death, with hoarding wealth, and with commodifying the human body. Our political structure, on both liberal and conservative fronts, is marred by these anxieties. Marsh includes himself among those suffering from this American malaise, sharing how his own anxiety led him to seek a cure for what ailed him. For Marsh, that cure was found in the poetry of Walt Whitman. Recognizing that there is “nothing new under the sun,” he addresses each of the four identified sources of our cultural anxiety with specific excerpts from Leaves of Grass and Whitman’s other writings.
According to Marsh, the fear of death is largely tied to the love of money. Since Whitman writes, “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” ultimately, according to Marsh’s interpretation, everything in the universe is shared. We often fear death because we have a fear of loss arising from a false sense of ownership, in which you own your “atoms” and I own mine. “[Whitman’s] belief rests on the fundamental fact that atoms, the fundamental constituents of the universe…do not respect or even require the notion of property.” Precious metals, high-tech gadgets, our houses, our flesh, are all made of the same “stuff,” and that stuff is universal and “does not stop long enough to be owned.”
The commodification of the human body, in which our society sees sexual objects in place of human beings, is undeniably a prevalent source of cultural malcontent. Our modern reduction of sex to its most animal elements, according to Marsh, stems equally from the body-shaming prevalent in our culture and from our false sense of ownership: Bodies are dirty, sexual objects that can be “owned,” used, and discarded. Interestingly, sex is celebrated by Whitman, who devotes a cluster of poems in Leaves of Grass to physical attraction between men and women. According to Marsh, however, his praise of sex saves sex from the degradation it receives when reduced to the shameful, animal act it is seen as today. Going back to his atomic theory, your atoms are as good as my atoms, and sex becomes the symbolic celebration of our shared humanity.
The culminating chapter receives its title from a quote in Democratic Vistas, in which Whitman writes, “Affection shall solve the problems of freedom.” For modern readers struggling with the injustices and degradations characteristic of late capitalism, Whitman’s call for comradery appears fresh and pertinent. By celebrating the “life-long love of comrades,” Whitman hopes to “make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,” in which the human family endeavors to celebrate the miracle of friendship. Affection, he believes, will bring a spiritualization of democracy, moving it from the basis of material organization, to the structure of friendship and love.
John Marsh is the author of two previous books: Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way out of Inequality and Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry. He is also the editor of You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-1941.
An intimate and moving tribute to the Good Gray Poet, In Walt We Trust presents Whitman’s writing as culturally relevant for contemporary readers.
Monthly Review Press, 2015, 248 pages, available on Amazon.
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