Although Walt Whitman originally privately published “Leaves of Grass” in 1855, a whole 6 years before the start of the Civil War, it is still a truly reflective representation of Whitman’s outlook on the steadily changing state of America. Whitman was a “Radical Republican” and was thus an avid supporter of the Union Army during the Civil War. Whitman advocated the idea of democracy for all and believed that all people should be treated equal. A Humanist, he proudly stood behind President Lincoln during his fight to abolish slavery and wrote several poems praising him and his ideas. Whitman agreed that all people should be treated equal and that one’s color is not grounds for discrimination. In fact, Whitman felt so strongly about this that he not only just wrote about the war, he wrote some of his best work on the field as a psychological nurse to sick and wounded soldiers. Although Whitman frowned upon the numerous young lives cut short by the bloodshed of the war, he felt that something as magnificent as democracy is something worth fighting and dying for. In one of the numerous notebooks Whitman scribbled notes in while during his hospital years, Whitman writes, “The expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign, & the battle-fights. It is to be looked for … in the hospitals, among the wounded.”
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a collection of twelve pieces of poetry first self published by Whitman in 1855 and was revised extensively before reaching its final permutation in 1881. In Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” section 6 begins with a child asking the narrator “What is the grass? [fetching it to me with full hands]”. Perplexed, the narrator finds himself unable to answer the child’s seemingly simple question and stumbles with various different theories before he indulges in a deeper meaning altogether. The narrator first tries to derive meaning through this question through symbolism; “it is a handkerchief of the lord,” “babe of the vegetation,” but is frustrated by his own inability to derive a suitable answer.
This leads Whitman to revolving around the idea that the grass within the child’s hands is a symbol of life, mortality and ultimately the cycle of regeneration in nature itself. The narrator uses this thought of death and rebirth to relate to the idea of democracy and his positive feelings towards it. He feels that the idea of democracy is something that is much needed as the old way proved itself ineffective and unsalvageable thus a complete overhaul was needed.
Whitman symbolizes grass as an empowering source of democracy; grass grows naturally almost everywhere and only helps move on the cycle of life. The narrator mentions how the grass reminds him of death as grass feeds on the bodies slain from war but yet is necessary in order to provide a better “forward life” for the “offspring taken soon out of [their] laps.” Although the narrator is deeply saddened for the “dead young men and women”, he reminds the reader that everybody dies eventually one way or another and reflects Whitman’s attitude that death towards a meaningful cause is not a wasted life.
This poem was not officially titled “Song of Myself” until the 1881 edition; Before that this was simply titled “Walt Whitman.” I feel like this reflects the poem perfectly as the narrator’s thoughts and views found in Song of Myself parallels that of Whitman very closely. Although this poem was published before the start of the civil war, the very same ideas of progressing democracy can be seen in poems such as “Beat! Beat! Drums!” a poetic rally for the North, written by Whitman during the start of the Civil War.
This widespread passionate sense of patriotism seems to be relatively short lasting as it seems the next immediate generation has already begun to have its doubts about the true efficacy of democracy. Whitman passed away just 6 years before Marcuse was even born and yet both authors deal with many of the same issues relating to democracy in “Song of Myself” and “One Dimensional Man” in very contrasting ways. Whitman obviously supports the idea of democracy as he not only believes a few lost lives is a small price for “freedom,” but was willing to go onto the battlefield and help wounded soldiers. Marcuse on the other hand would probably frown upon this and even argue that this is the thought is the exact kind of idea that would be “pushed” or forced onto the population by the “democratic” government. Marcuse argues that although in theory democracy and “liberty for all” sounds like an ideal plan that satisfies everyone, liberty itself can be used as a tool for controlling the masses as an unreachable goal that just dangles right in front of the general people. Whitman seems to truly believe that democracy is the ultimate way to go as it gives power to the common people but Marcuse would dispute that claim as he believes that the ability to chose ones leaders does not completely bring the absence of totalitarianism and tyranny. Something that was ultimately the very thing democracy was aimed to rid the country of.
Marcuse reasons that the very solutions created by democracy also create more problems as well. One of the main public demands from democracy was the right to freedom of speech, something that Whitman would thoroughly stand behind. Marcuse on the other hand would debate that despite the positive reasons for freedom of speech, this right also allows the act of free censorship, which is counterproductive of the intended goal. Also with progression in society comes technological advances that although should benefit the common good of society, Marcuse believes that the government would uses the advances for oppression of the common people rather than helping.
Despite the short time difference between these two authors, their political views and opinions couldn’t have been any more different. Whitman, who basically witnessed the whole Civil War from the very beginning to the end, supported the idea with all his heart. He truly believed that democracy was the answer and fought hard for it. Marcuse on the other hand, was born after the Civil War was over and witnessed the true “beginning” of the newly instated democracy. Marcuse used One Dimensional man to shine light on numerous faults found within democracy and generally showed a negative view towards it. Perhaps the reason for this distinct contrast in these two author’s attitudes is the time period in which they grew up and experienced.
Whitman strongly supported the North’s side in the Civil War as he believed that democracy is the right step for America as he felt it needed change in order to flourish. This support was so strong that he felt war was needed in order to secure the promise of democracy. Marcuse grew up during the aftermath of Whitman’s generation and felt the effects more than Whitman did. It is very plausible that Marcuse, seeing the amount of bloodshed and suffering caused by the war fighting, realized that maybe it wasn’t all worth it and war perhaps wasn’t the answer. Maybe even democracy isn’t the answer that everyone was looking for, as there are numerous holes in the system, pointed out by Marcuse in One Dimensional Man. Marcuse and Whitman both wrote based on the economical and political situation during their lifetimes and this contrast can be easily seen in their works. During Whitman’s lifetime, the current political stance of the United States was still readily evolving, eager to become the utopian society the common people envisioned. Thus much of Whitman’s literature was written generally supporting the progression of democracy as he justly felt that democracy was the end to all of their problems, Marcuse on the other hand grew up after Whitman’s time period and he saw the emerging problems and harms found within the democratic system. Consequently, much of Marcuse’s literature is somewhat opposing the advancement of democracy as he shines light onto the dark problems he foretells. It is very ironic that the very next generation that Whitman’s generation was trying to ‘preserve’ with the induction of democracy is already questioning the whole idea itself. Maybe the whole democratic system isn’t as everlasting as our forefathers would have hoped.
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Brothers Books, 1993.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.
Price, Angel. "Whitman's Wartime Washington." American Studies @ The University of Virginia. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.