Should we cancel Walt Whitman?

June 6, 2021 • 11:45 am

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.

In Context
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.

23 thoughts on “Should we cancel Walt Whitman?

  1. Of course, our modern enlightened era knows better than to be observed throwing books in a garbage bin, or worse.

    However, libraries of all kinds – public, K-12, etc. – can quietly move works by Whitman – including any books in which work by Whitman is included – along with the other books with worn bindings, books that had stuff spilled on them, etc. – i.e. the trash – into the back recycle bin, or into the “storage” basement with other books, like manuals for 50 year old appliances, computers, etc. to be kept many layers from public accessibility, or give them away free to anyone willing to be seen carrying them.

    Meanwhile, any publisher which produces the material in the first place, can discontinue them so as to better concentrate what wealth and power they have, and appear favorable to audiences with a nose for such virtuous “work”.

  2. It seems that Whitman is not so different from Thomas Jefferson. And since we know that Jefferson lived with and had children with a black woman the hypocrisy of Jefferson comes through. People attach all kinds of disgusting ideas to their brains even today so it should be no surprise that Whitman had a head full himself. Lincoln made progress with his bigotry but it seems pretty sure that Jefferson did not. His was baked in as they say down south.

  3. No, we should not cancel Whitman. iWith all his flaws, he was not a slaveowner or a confederate general, and he did express a sense of equality. My attitude for writers remains criticize, don’t cancel. You’ve said the same thing many times, we are on the same page. We need to outgrow cancel culture asap, it is not part of a progressive movement. And while I agree that “When I heard the Learned Astronomer” is anti- science, you can find many other examples of this among poets of that time – Poe, for example, and let’s not criticize him either. And yes, as a poet, much of Whitman’s verse is amazing, and he has inspired poets from all parts of the world. Criticism yes, cancel culture, no.

  4. ” . . .although he would remember individual blacks of his youth in positive terms.”

    In other words, “Some of my best friends are . . .”

    Klan leaders would sometimes insist that they did not actually hate Blacks, speaking with affection of the “mammies” who raised them. Goebbels once complained that every Nazi seemed to have at least one Jewish friend; they would denounce Jews as a group, but if you mentioned their friend, they would say “Oh, he’s different. I don’t mean people like him.”

    It’s easier to hate people when you see them as a faceless group instead of people you know personally.

    1. I think with people like Whitman or certainly Jefferson, hate was not there at all regarding African Americans. For Jefferson they were part of the fabric of the south. He was raised by black slaves from the time he was born. They were part of the household. They were never equal but they were indispensable.

    2. Regarding the article above about the value of college: One advantage to a broad education is that it exposes you not only to different philosophies, but to different people. That can be a real, and valuable challenge to one’s preconceptions. It also means that you have to think through your philosophical positions more thoroughly in order to defend them in an intelligent way. When you are in your bubble, that is not necessary, but when you get out of the insulated environment, you have to listen to multiple ideas and viewpoints, whether you agree with them or not.

      And even when you agree with people, you can still learn a bunch from them.


  5. Maybe we could take the approach that although we wish it were otherwise, people are collections of light and darkness, and appreciation for sparks of brilliance amongst the dark is not a validation of one’s lessor virtues

  6. In other words, “Some of my best friends are . . .”

    I knew Whitman’s name. I didn’t have the foggiest idea what he was known for until now. Even if he were cancelled with extreme prejudice, hung in effigy over a pyre of his smouldering books … he’d remain a non-entity with nothing to justify remembering him.
    Do schools still teach poetry these decades? I think my EngLit teacher blethered on about them sometimes. Occasionally he distracted me from reading something interesting to ask me questions about whichever one we were meant to be studying in that lesson. Easily managed with a mental 10-second ambient sound replay loop.

    1. And in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet-to Science,” he describes science as a “vulture, whose wings are dull realities.” He accuses science of killing off all the myths, and with them, the poets.

      1. IMO, killing the myths is not such a bad idea.

        And, you don’t need myths to write poetry. Reality gives us plenty to work with.


  7. I’m not very familiar with Whitman’s work (he’s not so well known in England) and I’d never read “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” until just now. I’m an ex-professional astronomer, and it reminded me of some of the more tedious astronomy seminars I’ve had to endure, as well as one of two of my undergraduate classes!

  8. Philip Larkin’s centenary is next year. For many people he is one of the greatest English poets since the war. Yet his letters, to and from friends like Kingsley Amis and his muse and lover Monica Jones, show him to have been appallingly racist and antisemitic, even more so than Whitman – and without the excuse of having lived 150 years ago. No doubt his journals would have been even more revealing, had Jones not destroyed them after his death.

    So does all this mean that his poems have become worthless? Can we separate the author from his or her works? George Orwell wrote a penetrating essay on Salvador Dali (“Benefit of Clergy”, 1944), in which he noted:

    “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other”.

    I don’t know Whitman well, but I have to say that my appreciation of Larkin’s poetry is not lessened by knowing that in some ways he was a deplorable human being. Which of us, including Whitman’s critics, can put their hands on their hearts and say that they too are not pretty deplorable in one way or another? In my personal view, the defects of the author don’t invalidate the virtues of the works.

  9. What is really admirable in thinkers, poets and other illustrious personalities of past times is that many of their opinions, today considered unacceptable, were, in general, perfectly integrated into their vision of the world and in their works. Works whose importance is, of course, infinitely greater than the mass of “well-thinking” inquisitors of today who cry out to heaven to suppress them from history or “canceled.” Someday this present dark chapter in the history of human stupidity will be considered as one of the most ridiculous and stolid.

  10. Interesting, and news to me. As a member in good standing of the fabled LGBTQ “community”, Whitman no doubt receives something approaching transactional immunity from calls for his cancellation. Philip Larkin will receive no such indulgence.

  11. Time was, was the reactionaries wanted to cancel ol’ Walt, on account of his homosexuality.

    Figures that a smooth operator like Bill Clinton would give Ms. Lewinski a book like Leaves of Grass. Not that Bubba needs any tips from me, but when a young woman flashes you her thong at the office, it’s a pretty clear signal she’s ready to get busy, a minimum of formal courting and woo-pitching required.

    1. Scorn heaped on Bill Clinton for Monica-gate is ENTIRELY unwarranted if you ask me, counsellor.

      People talk like she was 12. She was 22, boasting before she left Cali that she wanted her “presidential knee pads.” And the thong thingie.
      Not every relationship where there is an imbalance of power is the man the guilty party. Nearly ALL relationships have an imbalance of power. Monica seduced HIM, a lonely (but yes, powerful) man in a (presumably) sexless marriage.

      The real guilty party in all that was the hideous female impersonator Linda Tripp, mentor to a confused younger lady in the workplace who betrayed her utterly. What a moral scumbag, Tripp.


      1. My feelings regarding l’affaire Lewinski are somewhat complicated.

        As a preliminary matter, I wish none of us had ever heard a thing about it — that the whole thing had been left for Bill and Hillary and Monica to sort through on their own term.

        Once it was disclosed publicly, however, I thought Clinton acted the cad. Applying to him the standard I would apply to a friend (or that I would hope to apply to myself), I thought his taking advantage of the imbalance of power between the (arguably) most powerful man in the world and a chubby 22-year-old intern was tacky.

        I also thought it dead wrong for Clinton to lie to his wife then allow her to embarrass herself by going before a national television audience to claim the whole story was “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” It was also wrong for him to lie to the women in his cabinet and then have them go on tv to vouch for his character. And when he took to the airwaves himself, to wag his finger and say “I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinski” — well, that was as close, I felt, as we regular citizens were ever likely to come to having our president look us square in the eye and lie. I also believe that, had his DNA not been found in the splooge stain on the the blue dress, Clinton wouldn’t have hesitated to ruin Lewinski completely by claiming she was naught but a stalker who’d fantasized the whole affair.

        On the other hand, I couldn’t agree with you more about Linda Tripp; she is a disgusting busybody and snitch. And Kenneth Starr’s report was a painfully prurient piece of work, making of himself the Inspector Javert of the blow job.

      2. Lewinski was a silly, star-struck kid, and Bill was our celebrity president. A 50yo experiences against those of a 22yo. Clinton was (arguably) the most powerful man in world and her boss. That is a very unequal power-dynamic, in favor of Clinton, the very experienced liar.

  12. Oh oh. Somebody is going to accuse you of violence via words for quoting those violent anti-black comments from Walt Whitman, and that’s before they notice with horror that you’ve spelled out the dreaded n-word, the very mention of which (regardless of context) is a clear sign of rampant racism! The performative agony this piece is causing to “racialized minorities” and their ever-so-virtuous white defenders is almost too horrible for a woke (aka good) person to contemplate! 🙂

  13. Any comparison with hypocrites like Thomas ‘What’d-I-Miss? Jefferson is unfair to Walt Whitman. The only authority WW had during his lifetime was in his poetry, and that was largely unrecognized. The astronomer poem is not at all typical; the elegy for Lincoln and ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ are. And ‘Song of Myself’ is one of U.S. Democracy’s most probing examinations of the nation’s paradox of all in one, one in all.

    At the very least, folks should read the poetry before judging the man. Among a fair number of examples in ‘Song of Myself,’ I would suggest, perhaps, the fifth part of Section 10, which begins ‘The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside. . . ‘.

    More generally, it is so distressing, nearly maddening, to demand from historical figures what we as living persons here and now cannot ourselves achieve. Oh, so true: the perfect is the enemy of the good.

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