Like Darwin, Walt Whitman was an abolitionist who had some bigoted attitudes. Unlike Darwin, Whitman was both a working-class outsider and was gay. And, in fact, Whitman expressed his racism more explicitly than did Darwin, who, as I’ve written recently, was sometimes exploring the consequences of selection on human culture rather than approving of them. (He did not, for example, approve of “genocide.”)
I’m not a big fan of Walt Whitman. His poems don’t resonate with me emotionally, and his famous poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is more or less explicitly anti-science. (The stars become more interesting and awesome when you know something about them.) It didn’t help when I learned that Bill Clinton gave Leaves of Grass to Monica Lewinski as part of his attempt to woo her. At any rate, a friend of mine was reading a book that referred to Whitman and wrote me about it:
I have been reading the book about James Baldwin by Eddie Glaude, who quotes the most amazingly racist remarks by Walt Whitman, that icon of American literature. Nobody seems bothered by that.
According to Glaude (p.73 of Begin Again, no source givens), in 1874 Whitman wrote:
As if we had not strained the voting and digestive caliber of American Democracy to the utmost for the last fifty years with the millions of ignorant foreigners we have now infused a powerful percentage of blacks with about as much intellect and caliber (in the mass) as so many baboons.
Other sources verify this quote. Baboons? That’s worse than anything Darwin ever wrote! But wait! It gets worse!
Whitman also argued for the exclusion of black people from new Western territories of the U.S., thinking that segregation was best for both blacks and whites. Further, he thought it as “inevitable and fitting”, as the encyclopedia article below notes, that the displacement of Native Americans by white settlers occur. That article notes that Whitman embraced “social Darwinism” after the Civil War, but the superiority of Asian culture was touted over the inferiority of black and Native American cultures.
But, also like Darwin, Whitman’s views on race shifted from time to time, though I don’t think that, although he’s known as an egalitarian of classes, one could say he was always an egalitarian with respect to race. Here are some quotes from the Walt Whitman Encyclopedia, reposted on the Whitman Archive (my emphases):
Concerning people of African descent, what little is known about the early development of Whitman’s racial awareness suggests he imbibed the prevailing white prejudices of his place and time, thinking of black people as servile, shiftless, ignorant, and given to stealing, although he would remember individual blacks of his youth in positive terms. His later experiences in the South apparently did nothing to mitigate early impressions, although readers of the twentieth century, including black ones, imagined him as a fervent antiracist.
Whitman’s attitudes to people of African descent must be distinguished from his attitudes toward slavery. In an 1857 editorial for the Brooklyn Daily Times, for example, he articulated his antislavery position in white nationalist terms, opposing “the great cause of American White Work and Working people” to “the Black cause” (I Sit 88). . .
. . . . Particularly in old age, his private argument against African Americans was that he saw little tendency to self-determination in their “group” character. Nor was he disposed to recognize such self-determination where it revealed itself. When reminded of Wendell Phillips’s famous oration on Toussaint l’Ouverture, he replied that he thought it exaggerated; and when mentioning Frederick Douglass, he could not help bringing up that eloquent freedom fighter’s “white blood.” Moreover, in the wake of the Civil War he feared the idea of blacks gaining political power.
After the war, Whitman began wondering whether blacks were innately inferior to whites and bound to disappear. He even considered that fate “most likely” though far off. Contact with the “stronger” and more arrogant white race, Whitman generally suspected, would finally prove fatal. His reading of post-Civil War “ethnological science” deeply influenced Whitman on this issue. To Horace Traubel he said, “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not” (With Walt Whitman 2:283). His statements along these lines are sometimes hesitant and ambiguous, sometimes quite certain.
. . . Because of the radically democratic and egalitarian aspects of his poetry, readers generally expect, and desire for, Whitman to be among the literary heroes that transcended the racist pressures that abounded in all spheres of public discourse during the nineteenth century. He did not, at least not consistently; nonetheless his poetry has been a model for democratic poets of all nations and races, right up to our own day. How Whitman could have been so prejudiced, and yet so effective in conveying an egalitarian and antiracist sensibility in his poetry, is a puzzle yet to be adequately addressed.
From JSTOR Daily:
Like many white intellectuals, Whitman seems to have been seduced by the proliferation of racist pseudo-science in the post-Civil War era, a body of thought largely produced in reaction to black emancipation and the prospects of black citizenship rights as voters and office-holders. Whitman’s racism was not limited to black people, but also extended to Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. These comments force us to reconsider all those lovely passages in Leaves of Grass where Whitman the poet celebrates the “aboriginal” heritage of America. Whitman, the man, actually hoped that white Americans would absorb the naturalistic traits of Native Americans, but discard the actual people, much in the same way that contemporary sports fans now cling to their Native American mascots while dismissing living Native Americans who have repeatedly told them how these degrading, offensive caricatures contribute to ongoing Native oppression and disenfranchisement.
The question is why there aren’t many calls for cancellation of Whitman. While there are a few articles on Whitman’s views on race, there are few calls for cancellation. Perhaps it’s because he’s celebrated as the great exponent of equality, perhaps it’s because he was gay (and therefore oppressed), perhaps his poetry is so beloved that people hate to criticize his racism. But racism it was, and perhaps there are many reasons it’s ignored.
Curiously, black people admired Whitman’s poetry (were they ignorant of his views?), and even PBS, in an article on “Whitman and Race” gives the man a pass after admitting his bigotry (I’ve put in bold their tepid accusation of racism):
Whitman’s great grandfather had been a slave owner (slavery was legal on Long Island until 1828) and Whitman did not have a high opinion of the ten percent of Brooklyn residents who were of African descent. In an early novel, the protagonist has a sexual relationship with a mixed race mistress in New Orleans, reaffirming racial stereotypes of the time. Yet Whitman thought slavery abhorrent. His sympathy for laborers naturally extended to those in servitude, and he often wrote in the voice of the oppressed.
Although Whitman’s attitude towards blacks may be offensive to modern audiences, it was common in its day. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), was a progressive white northerner, and in her novel, Tom is the hero, a Christ-like figure. Today, “Uncle Tom” is a derogatory term. Abraham Lincoln, in his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858, said that he did not support the idea that blacks and whites were equal, that blacks should be trusted with any civil service, or that the races should intermarry. (Later, as president, Lincoln affirmed that blacks should have equal rights.) Northerners revealed as much racial bias as Southerners when they debated “The Negro Question” after the Civil War, asking whether whites had done enough for blacks.
A Voice for All Time
Whitman’s poetry often expresses the collective unconscious of 19th-century America, for better and for worse. Whitman’s inclusive poetic voice, however, has influenced generations of writers around the world, including notable African Americans Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and June Jordan. Part of Whitman’s genius was his ability to construct a persona in his poetry who spoke as the ideal democratic voice, a persona who projected an equality that Whitman and his world — just like our world today — had yet to achieve.
“In Context!” How often do you hear a sentence like this: “Although Whitman’s attitude towards blacks may be offensive to modern audiences, it was common in its day.” That shows an extraordinary amount of empathy, an empathy that is not mental rocket science but is all too rare in these days of Pecksniffian enforcement of modern morality on long-dead people.
No, we shouldn’t cancel Whitman, although I don’t read his poetry for aesthetic reasons. He was a man of his time—actually, even worse than average than Darwin was in his time—but his art remains. . . to those who like him.