Neither Whitman nor the president he eulogized in his great elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” are ever far from America’s consciousness; neither is what you’d call neglected. But sometimes our need for one of them is more than usually acute. Lincoln offered a touchstone when we tried to make sense of Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Now, C. K. Williams has written a book on Whitman, and it arrives not a moment too soon.
This isn’t just a dark time for the American economy; politics have grown so vicious and corrosive, it’s turning into a dark time for the American soul. Creeping militancy. Mounting cynicism. Talk of division—up to and including secession. Affection for the Confederacy, whose sympathizers (does this not bother anybody else?) killed Abe Lincoln. Until his death in 1892, Whitman opposed all those forms of ugliness. He knew they would subvert American democracy’s ability to bring about his most earnest dream: a people with large spirits and heroic souls. “How short we have fallen compared to what he saw for us,” writes Williams, “how in so many ways have we regressed.” Those shortcomings make right now an excellent time for our mystic chords of memory to be touched by the poet who is—if anyone is—one of the better angels of our nature.
In On Whitman, Williams takes an approach that’s more innovative than it sounds: he keeps his focus on the poems. He wants to strip away the heavy theorizing and layers of biography that have accrued around his fellow poet. Williams’s aim is to restore the strangeness and power he encountered when, at age 16, he made a Whitman anthology his first poetry purchase. “For a young poet, reading Whitman is sheer revelation, sheer wonder, a delight bordering on then plunging into disbelief. How could all this come to pass?” His slender book offers a convincing answer.
For Williams, the first source of Whitman’s power is the music of his verse. It was the result not of steady development of craft but of an epiphany. The poet spent his early years toiling in and around New York City as what his biographer Justin Kaplan calls “an inconstant newspaper editor, a sometime demagogue, and a writer of imitative fiction.” Then, like Robert Johnson returning from the crossroads, the 36-year-old journeyman erupted with Leaves of Grass, a book that sounded like nothing he’d written before—or that anybody else had, for that matter. Whatever its origins, Williams writes, his musical system “was magically encompassing and had within it echoes of other singings, the Bible, oratory, opera, even some older poetry, but was entirely unique as well.”
Out of his wild and spontaneous seeming word music, Whitman used the “I” of lyric poetry to create a new kind of self—really a new kind of consciousness—to suit the New World. The secret, Williams writes, is a radical form of sympathy. The first lines of “Song of Myself” proclaim:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as
good belongs to you.
Whitman wanted his “I,” according to Williams, to be “the container and enactor and, he hopes, the redeemer of others’ ‘I’s.” Thus Leaves of Grass wasn’t meant to be a mere spectacle or performance, it was an act of kinship. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,” he promises. With our eyes opened, with our tongues loosened by his example, we are accounted for, enfranchised, even ennobled. As Williams puts it, “We will be again first persons adequate to our greatest selves.”
‘On Whitman’: The Real American