“His political failings are well known,” notes a recent essay by David S. Wallace on Walt Whitman, briefly noting his fierce, throbbing, KKK-level racism. It wasn’t well-known to me. I studied literature in school and never heard of it. The subject, as best I can tell, has been pretty well tucked away.
Looking up the details, I find scholars wringing their hands — when they mention the subject. A 2002 paper by Paul H. Outka notes the details “seems deeply at odds with the egalitarian spirit of his poetry generally and the deeply sympathetic and admiring verse portraits of African Americans he creates.”
Let’s talk about Whitman on race? Trigger warning. It’s ugly.
When you study him in school, you’re told he’s anti-racist.
Indeed, white people love him for it.
D.H. Lawrence writes in Studies in Classic American Literature in 1923: “Whitman came along, and saw the slave, and said to himself: ‘That negro slave is a man like myself. We share the same identity.’”
Unfortunately for that lovely view, no term for Whitman will do other than virulent white supremacist with a mean right hook. It’s been noted from time to time in scholarly literature. In 2019, JSTOR sets out to collect writings on the subject, but there’s a lot more where that came from.
Whitman writes in 1858:
Who believes that the Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America? Or who wishes it to happen? Nature has set an impassable seal against it. Besides, is not America for the Whites? And is it not better so?
The subject seems to have been first fully discussed in a 1974 paper by Ken Peeples Jr., in 1974, in Phylon: “The Paradox of the ‘Good Gray Poet’ (Walt Whitman on Slavery and the Black Man).”
It did seem a ‘paradox’, but to examine the details, and the reality becomes clear. As Peebles concludes: “Whitman’s all-embracing love for Americans was, in effect, limited to white Americans.”
He deals with the few bits of seemingly race-neutral talk sprinkled into Whitman’s poems, then the avalanche of racism in writings and interviews.
So which reflects Whitman’s real self?
Peebles suggests: “Since he wrote sparingly of blacks in his poetry and wrote much more about them in his prose, it might be safe to assume that his real attitude as distinct from his poetic ideals is to be found in his journalism and statements on social issues.”
In early editorials, Whitman denounces the slave trade as a “monstrous business” but makes allowances for the African slave traders, in light of the “chiefs of that barbarous land” who “afford them a market.”
In editorials, Whitman endorses states’ rights. His protests of slavery tend to focus on white working class men being disadvantaged. He wanted blacks kept out of Oregon entirely.
Whitman had early brushes with abolitionists. He’ll recall them to biographer Horace Traubel as “all consumed by the notion, which I never would admit, that slavery — slavery alone — was evil…”
Whitman seems to have favored exporting the slaves to “some secure and ample part of the earth, where they would have a chance to develop themselves, to gradually form a race, a nation that would take no mean rank among the peoples of the world.” This can “never be attained by the Blacks here in America.”
He’ll discuss Africans as “a superstitious, ignorant and thievish race.”
John Burroughs, a friend in Washington D.C., reports on Whitman’s racial views during the Civil War:
Of the Negro as a race he had a poor opinion. He said that there was in the constitution of the Negro’s mind an irredeemable trifling or volatile element and that he would never amount to much in the scale of civilization. I never knew him to have a friend among the Negroes while he was in Washington, and he never seemed to care for them, or they for him, although he never manifested any particular aversion to them.
Burroughs brought up the example of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian general and statesman. Whitman replies: “I don’t believe there was no such ni*ger.”
After the Civil War, Whitman calls the slaves “millions of ignorant foreigners…with about as much intellect and calibre (in the mass) as so many baboons…” In November Boughs, he writes of black Union soldiers: “very black in color, large, protruding lips, low forehead, etc. But I have to say that I do not see one utterly revolting face.”
The white troops he finds “superb looking.”
Whitman was racist even when tending Civil War wounded.
The historian Daniel Aaron notes Whitman telling his mother that “after visiting a Negro hospital several times (they were notorious for their squalor), he could not bring himself to go again. There was ‘a limit to one’s sinews & endurance & sympathies.’”
Whitman explains a later, more developed race theory to Traubel: “The ni*ger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable — always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out.”
Traubel offers: “That sounds like Darwin.” Whitman replies: “Does it? It sounds like me, too.”
Whitman was aware of tension between how he’d be perceived and his actual views on race.
Traubel records an exchange in 1890 in which the poet says: “I know enough of Southern affairs, have associated enough with Southern people to feel convinced that if I lived South I should side with the Southern whites.”
Traubel questions: “But how did that consist with his democracy?”
Whitman replies: “I should be forced not to explain that: I would have to evade the issue.”
Whitman’s racial hierarchies hardly stop at people of African descent. He hated Native Americans too.
His animosity here might even be read as more virulent. As CAConrad notes:
Whitman’s poem ‘Pioneers! O Pioneers!’ was in plain view as one of the most racist documents against Native Americans ever written. It starts with asking the pioneers to ‘get your weapons ready; / Have you your pistols? have you your sharp edged axes?’ Published in 1865, a year after the Sand Creek massacre where the Colorado Territory Militia annihilated Cheyenne and Arapahoe villagers, killing mostly women and children and in many cases mutilating their bodies.
For Whitman, the Little Bighorn massacre was the “savage” Sioux laying in ambush (“like a hurricane of demons”) for Custer’s white soldiers.
Whitman seems to have no concern for the difficulty of the natives’ situation. Michael C.C. Adams notes that Whitman weaves Native American words and names into his poetry. “But he believed that Native Americans, like African-Americans, had fatal character flaws and must pass away through survival of the fittest.”
He called slavery “a disgrace and blot on the character of our Republic, and our boasted humanity!”
You might read that and think it’s an anti-racist statement? He might be saying it was regrettable black people were brought to America in the first place.
How did his racism, a biographer asks, “consist with his democracy?” Whitman replies: “I should be forced not to explain that: I would have to evade the issue.”
One begins to look at many of his famous lines with suspicion, realizing there’s more going on. Like when he says “I contain multitudes” — he’s still selective in who he’s admitting.
Just because he “contains” lots of people doesn’t mean he “contains” you.