Be Radical--Be Not Too Damned Radical
When in 1919 the United States marked the centenary of Walt Whitman's birth, the country was emerging from the shadows of world war only to find itself deeply divided at home. Growing racial tensions prompted a wave of lynchings in the South and a bloody race riot in Chicago that left thirty-three people dead. More than 4 million workers, nearly a quarter of the workforce, participated in unprecedented demonstrations of labor unrest, asserting their rights in the textile, coal, and steel industries. On the heels of the Russian Revolution, the Comintern declared its intention to foment uprisings around the world and recognized the American Communist Party. As corporations, municipalities, and local vigilantes devised methods of intimidation to control such threats, the U.S. government expanded its assault on a variety of radical groups. In 1917, federal agents ransacked the offices of the Industrial Workers of the World; by 1918, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs had been jailed for sedition; and in late 1919, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer unleashed the first of two raids that led to the arrest of 4,000 leftists, three-quarters of whom were deported.
Many of the approximately 350 newspaper and magazine articles that celebrated Whitman's birth responded to this national crisis. Swept up in the jingoism of victory and the fear of revolution, most writers, Winifred Kirkland among them, relied on Whitman to validate American democracy. Writing for the liberal Dial, Kirkland suggested that Whitman was "pre-eminent in expressing what America means to Americans" and opined that his name "brings an instant exhilaration like the sudden sight of the stars and stripes billowing in the breeze." He articulated "ideals for industry that we should like to cherish," and perhaps more important, he would help Americans "recall our clearer motives" of individualism and manifest destiny. The "American, if he is to be the true inheritor of the land that has been given him," argued Kirkland, "needs to tune his soul to wide spaces, unchained cataracts, limitless prairie, and to cities seething with incredible energy. . . . We too need to be spacious like Whitman." Stuart P. Sherman of the New York Evening Post also lionized Whitman for his individualism. Worried that communists might claim the democratic bard as their own, Sherman declared that if Whitman had "lived at the right place in these years of Proletarian Millennium, he would have been hanged as a reactionary member of the bourgeoisie." The poet, Sherman argued, "cuts with . . . keenness into the conception of those younger international revolutionary statesmen, who, ignoring individuals, propose to deal with classes . . . and institute a world-wide class war." The New York Times echoed Sherman's opinion. Radicals from "the parlor, boudoir, and Greenwich Village" had "started a Whitman cult," but the Times, fearing that the poet might be co-opted, unequivocally announced in a headline, "Whitman No Boudoir Bolshevik."
Such conservative interpretations were not unfounded. Whitman certainly sang of individualism and capitalism, maintaining that "riches, and the getting of riches" were an important part of his "programme of culture." But this poet contained multitudes, and as the headline from the Times suggests, there was at least one other Whitman, one who lent himself to leftist ideas. Joseph Gollomb of the New York Evening Post Book Review alluded to this element when he published an interview with Horace Traubel, Whitman's close friend and literary executor. Playing on the hysteria of the Red Scare, the front-page headline wondered, "Would Whitman Be a Bolshevist?," an inquiry to which Traubel, an ardent socialist, responded negatively. "No 'ism' could pin down Whitman. Might as well try to give shape to the atmosphere," he explained. Whitman's resistance to being labeled did not mean, however, that he accepted the social order as it stood. The poet "may have been against any one trying to raise people to revolution," but he nonetheless "wanted revolution against all that was outgrown and enslaving." Transcripts of conversations between Whitman and Traubel suggest that in the final years of his life, Whitman entertained the possibility of socialist reform. He cursed "the God damned robbers, fools, stupids, who ride their gay horses over the bodies of the crowd" and predicted that their egregious actions would one day "drive us into an inevitable resentment, then revolt, of some sort." "Sometimes, I think, I feel almost sure," said Whitman in particularly uncertain terms, that "Socialism is the next thing coming: I shrink from it in some ways: yet it looks like our only hope."
In the end, Whitman could not relinquish his faith in small-producer capitalism. "Be radical--be radical--be not too damned radical!," he cautioned Traubel. By the 1920s, however, Whitman had become perhaps more radical than he originally had intended. Such left-wing leaders, artists, and intellectuals as Eugene Debs, Michael Gold, and Clifford Odets claimed the Good Gray Poet as the "heroic spiritual grandfather" of their generation and touted him as a posthumous proponent of socialism and communism. His poetry, they insisted, articulated a collective social vision that opposed the exploitative, iniquitous relations that characterized capitalist society. Whitman's cultural politics exerted tremendous influence on the Left's political imagination, but how radical was he? How did he shape left-wing culture in the century that followed his death? How have his cultural politics been transmitted and transformed across generations?