Friday, May 31, 2013

Remembering Humanist Walt Whitman (& his friend Bob Ingersoll)

By Gary Berg-Cross

It is wonderful to celebrate May 31 as the birthday of poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892).  Like many other non-DC natives (Ingersoll for one & WW was very much a native New Yorker), he spent time here in later life.  No fluke that one of Bethesda's HSs is named after him.

Like Ingersoll there is even a DC tour of his life here (see map at end of article).
Whitman’s DC-time occurred during the Civil War and is notable for many reasons, including the fact that Lincoln served as a kindred spirit and Robert Ingersoll as a friend. To his friend, Horace Traubel, Whitman said of Ingersoll:

“I consider Bob one of the constellations of our time—our country—America—a bright, magnificent constellation.”

It's a bit like what Emerson had said earlier of Whitman. In turn, as one might expect Ingersoll, the orator, could entertain people on Whitman virtues and we have a record of some of this. In his testimonial of Whitman Ingersoll said of his first publication Leaves of Grass:

At this time a young man—he to whom this testimonial is given—he upon whose head have fallen the snows of more than seventy winters—this man, born within the sound of the sea, gave to the world a book, "Leaves of Grass." This book was, and is, the true transcript of a soul. The man is unmasked. No drapery of hypocrisy, no pretense, no fear. The book was as original in form as in thought. All customs were forgotten or disregarded, all rules broken—nothing mechanical—no imitation—spontaneous, running and winding like a river, multitudinous in its thoughts as the waves of the sea—nothing mathematical or measured. In everything a touch of chaos—lacking what is called form as clouds lack form, but not lacking the splendor of sunrise or the glory of sunset. It was a marvelous collection and aggregation of fragments, hints, suggestions, memories, and prophecies, weeds and flowers, clouds and clods, sights and sounds, emotions and passions, waves, shadows and constellations.

Like Ben Franklin WW spent early years in the print business and publication, including one run by Edgar Allen Poe. (They met in the offices of the Broadway Journal at 304 Broadway Street, New York City, where Poe was editor in 1845.) The result was a liberal & lusty mind like Ben’s that was able to analyze early American life. Leaves of Grass is an American epic that celebrated the common man and captures some of it growing immigrant-worker experience in contemplative poems like "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry":

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever
so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the
bright flow, I was refresh'd,

Whitman was by all measures a freethinking Humanist – “There is no God more divine than yourself”. This is evidenced in his first, great work Leaves of Grass as well as his later advice dealing with problems like slavery and women's lack of freedom: “Resist much, obey little” and ““Be curious, not judgmental.” This free voice of the common man had  his classic Leaves poem banned in Boston, as they say, in the 1880.  It was deemed ‘obscene,’ ‘too sensual,’ and ‘shocking’ because of its frank portrayal of sexuality including women's sexuality.

All of this independent spirit is amplified in details in a famous passage copied below, which remains among the best of advice even unto our age:

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem

(Links to books by WW )


Whitman Tour in DC:             

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