LOG and Civil Rights

Author: cirvine

Walt Whitman said, “Leaves of Grass would not have been possible without the Civil War.”  With this statement he was hinting at the incredible ability of literature to become more powerful as time goes on.  He understood that Leaves of Grass did not exist in a vacuum, but rather would grow to be reinterpreted as time altered the experiences of its readers.  It is the malleability of literature that has allowed it to represent the human experience for centuries.  Great works do not end after publication, they live on to absorb all the history to follow them and become only more relevant through a modern lens.

This ability of great literature to become even more important as time goes by is clearly explained by Russian philosopher and literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of “great time.”  In Creation of Prosiacs, a book about his life and work, his theory is described as, “the sense that past events, as they become congealed in institutions, languages of heteroglossia, and genres, pose specific and offer specific resources for each present moment that follows.  One cannot understand a work or an action by ‘enclosing’ it entirely in its own moment”(p.414).  This theory supports the idea that Leaves of Grass would indeed have not been possible without the Civil War, and if Walt Whitman were still alive today, he could probably point to several more historical events that have added to the validity of his work.

One such event, although there are many to choose from, is the American Civil Rights Movement.  This relates closely back to Whitman’s original statement, as the Civil War can be seen as the very beginning of the bloody struggle for equality of all American citizens.  Leaves of Grass is filled with rhetoric about democracy, equality, and camaraderie between men and women, but these ideas were only that until the Civil Rights Movement made them a reality.  Likewise, years from now, once the wounds of slavery and racism have healed, we will look back to Leaves of Grass and be able to fully realize Whitman’s great belief in the potential of America.  However, it is not just his sweeping stanzas about liberty that have absorbed history to produces and altered meaning.  The short poem, “To You” simply reads,

“Stranger, if you passing me meet me and desire to speak to me,

why should you not speak to me?

And why should I not speak to you?” (p.175)

This of course was written before the time when African Americans were segregated to prevent them from interacting with white citizens.  Whitman so casually describes this interaction, reading it now illuminates just how ludicrous the segregation laws were.

Whitman obviously had no way of knowing how history would unfold after his death.  All that he could do with Leaves of Grass was create something that he believed would maintain its relevance over time.  It is clear in the way that he addresses his readers that he is attempting to encompass all people, regardless of time or circumstance.  This is shown in the very first poem on the ’92 edition of Leaves of Grass, the third stanza of “One’s Self I Sing” reads,

“Of life immense in passion, pulse, and power,

Cheerful, for the freest action form’d under the laws divine,

The Modern Man I sing.” (p.165)

When Whitman wrote of this “Modern Man,” passionate and cheerful under laws that protected his freedom, he could not have anticipated the struggle that was to come to make this “Modern Man” a reality.  However, the characteristics that Whitman believed were vital to the creation of this “Modern Man” have resonated in the struggle of all marginalized people in their fight for equality, including African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement.  Reading Whitman now it can be easy to overlook this prophetic idea, seeing that “Modern Men” and for that matter “Modern Women” have established themselves in American society.  This passage now serves as a reminder of the portions of society that were not always allowed these simple freedoms.  To African American readers, before the Civil Rights Movement, this message spoke of a promise that was not yet fulfilled.  Now all readers can take pride in what the American people have achieved.

Just as racial attitudes have changed among readers, first with the abolishment of slavery and later with the Civil Rights Movement, it is also possible to track Whitman’s own changing feelings by comparing versions of Leaves of Grass. For example, in the 1855 version of “I Sing The Body Electric,” Whitman writes,

“A slave at auction!

I help the auctioneer..the sloven does not know half his business”          (p.123)

In the 1892 version, he has edited the line, making it say,

“A man’s body at auction,

(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,)

I help the auctioneer, the sloven doe not know half his business.”    (p.255)

The excitement in the line, “A slave at auction!” is far from progressive and actually quite unnerving.  However, the subtle change to “A man’s body at auction,” demonstrates the gradual shift in Americans’ attitudes toward racial equality.  Here, he drops the exclamation point, eliminating the excitement expressed in the original version.  It seems as though in the wake of the Civil War, watching a slave auction is no longer viewed as a form of entertainment, but rather a regrettable act of his past.  Perhaps more importantly, he changes, “A slave” to “A man’s body.”  With this Whitman seems to realize that a slave is not a thing that can be bought or sold.  He concedes that the slave is actually a man, and although the use of his body may go to the highest bidder, no one could ever own his humanity.  This shift can be read as one of the little seeds that would eventually grow in to the full-out battle for equality.  However, knowing now just how long it took African Americans to actually be viewed as equals, this tiny change may not seem radical enough.  Although the slaves had been freed, it would still be decades before they were given equal rights.  As the struggle dragged on, in May of 1958 Thurgood Marshall would say, “I am the world’s gradualist.  I think that 90-odd years is gradual enough.”  It’s true that the struggle for equality took far too long, but from a modern viewpoint it is clear that Whitman was on the forefront of the change in American’s attitudes that would eventually break way in to the Civil Rights Movement.

A major criticism that can be bestowed upon Whitman comes particularly with the theme of his war writings.  Whitman scarcely mentions the plights of the slaves, but rather sticks to describing his own experiences or providing realistic glimpses into the lives of the soldiers.  It seems as though Whitman is concerned less with the abolishment of slavery and more with the reunification of the Union.  However, looking back we can see that one could not have been possible without the other.  A country cannot be unified if a large portion of its citizens are enslaved or marginalized.  This is an instance where the modern reader must try to be understanding of the social constraints that Whitman was under.  Although the Civil War had been fought and the slaves had been freed, African Americans still did not have a solidified place in society.  Whitman sought to embody everything and everyone, but knowing now just how long it would take before African Americans would be seen as equals, it’s easy to see how Whitman could have been confused about their place in society.  While it would have been very un-Whitman to admit that there was a subject about which he was not an expert, he does address this confusion.  In “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” he encounters a freed slave woman and asks,

“Who are you dusky woman, so ancient hardly human,

With your woolly-white and turban’d head, and bare bony feet?

Why rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?” (p.451)

Here Whitman wonders how a woman who had been “caught…as the savage beast is caught” could respectfully admire the American flag and “curtsie to the regiments” (p.452).  With this short poem, Whitman begins the navigation of all Americans to an actually unified nation.  Even after the Civil Rights Movement, American has found itself plagued by racism and intolerance.  We now know that we fear what don’t understand and by admitting that there is an obvious misunderstanding between the races, Whitman hints that the problem can eventually be solved.

Today’s readers encompass a complicated range of attitudes and understandings of racial equality.  Those from older generations may still harbor bitterness or ignorance from experiences before the Civil Rights Movement.  Younger individuals have been influenced by their parents to either embrace equality or cling to racist ideals.  However, Whitman said, “Of equality- As if it harm’d me, giving others the same chances and rights as myself- As if it were not indispensable to my own rights that others possess the same.”  It is clear that Whitman supported the notion of America’s need for equality and brotherhood.  It is also clear, however, that he may not have understood just how racial equality would fit in to that ultimate goal.  Leaves of Grass was written just as America was beginning to establish the multi-racial community that is still struggling to define itself today.  As time affects the meaning of the work it stands as a reminder of how far we have come and an inspiration to what we may someday be.  America is not yet the nation of brothers walking hand-in-hand that Whitman so optimistically described, but looking back after the turbulent struggle of the Civil Rights Movement, Whitman proves that equality is something worth fighting for, regardless of how long it takes.

Works Cited

Morson, Gary, and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin, Creation of Prosiacs. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1892 ed. New York: Library of America, 2006. Print.