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Walt Whitman on Democracy and Optimism as a Mighty Form of Resistance

“I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

Walt Whitman on Democracy and Optimism as a Mighty Form of Resistance

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her spectacular essay on optimism and despair. The illusion of permanent progress inflicts a particularly damning strain of despair as we witness the disillusioning undoing of triumphs of democracy and justice generations in the making — despair preventable only by taking a wider view of history in order to remember that democracy advances in fits and starts, in leaps and backward steps, but advances nonetheless, on timelines exceeding any individual lifetime. Amid our current atmosphere of presentism bias and extreme narrowing of perspective, it is not merely difficult but downright countercultural to resist the ahistorical panic by taking such a telescopic view — lucid optimism that may be our most unassailable form of resistance to the corruptions and malfunctions of democracy.

That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) insisted on again and again in Specimen Days (public library) — the splendid collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries that gave us his wisdom on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art enhances life, and what makes life worth living.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

Shortly before his sixtieth birthday and a decade after issuing his immensely prescient admonition that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Whitman writs under the heading “DEMOCRACY IN THE NEW WORLD”:

I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.

Having lived and saved lives through the Civil War, having seen the swell of “vast crops of poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, miserably-waged populations,” having witnessed the corrosion of idealism and the collapse of democratic values into corruption and complacency, Whitman still faces a dispiriting landscape with a defiant and irrepressible optimism — our mightiest and most countercultural act of courage, then and now and always:

Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.

Zooming out of the narrow focus of his cultural moment — as we would be well advised to do with ours — Whitman takes a telescopic perspective of time, progress, and social change, and considers what it really takes to win the future:

The advent of America, the history of the past century, has been the first general aperture and opening-up to the average human commonalty, on the broadest scale, of the eligibilities to wealth and worldly success and eminence, and has been fully taken advantage of; and the example has spread hence, in ripples, to all nations. To these eligibilities — to this limitless aperture, the race has tended, en-masse, roaring and rushing and crude, and fiercely, turbidly hastening — and we have seen the first stages, and are now in the midst of the result of it all, so far. But there will certainly ensue other stages, and entirely different ones. In nothing is there more evolution than the American mind. Soon, it will be fully realized that ostensible wealth and money-making, show, luxury, &c., imperatively necessitate something beyond — namely, the sane, eternal moral and spiritual-esthetic attributes, elements… Soon, it will be understood clearly, that the State cannot flourish, (nay, cannot exist,) without those elements. They will gradually enter into the chyle of sociology and literature. They will finally make the blood and brawn of the best American individualities of both sexes.

Three years later, and ten presidencies before a ruthless government began assaulting and exploiting nature as a resource for commercial and political gain, Whitman revisits the subject under the heading “NATURE AND DEMOCRACY—MORTALITY”:

American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices — through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life — must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.

Specimen Days remains one of the most timelessly insightful books I have ever encountered. Complement this particular portion with Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy, Rebecca Solnit on lucid optimism in dark times, and Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman’s animated tribute to Leonard Cohen’s anthem to democracy, then revisit Whitman on the essence of happiness and his advice on the building blocks of character.


How to Exercise Like a Poet: The Walt Whitman Workout

Tree-wrestling for resistance training, vigorous recitation for cardio.

How to Exercise Like a Poet: The Walt Whitman Workout

The question of whether we are minds in bodies or bodies with minds has animated philosophers for millennia. But whatever our cerebral orientation to the question, we must each answer it for ourselves — a kind of private embodied illumination.

My own accidental answer arrived long ago, when I began noticing that my morning workout provided the most fertile hours for reading and thinking. Every single morning for more than fifteen years, I have journeyed to the gym with a book, filling margins with motion-mangled notes and scribbling ideas sparked in the connective tissue of the mind as blood and electricity course through my muscles.

In the midst of a difficult year, I found myself unable to read anything but Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) during this morning regimen of body and spirit — perhaps because the poet himself so strongly believed in and enacted the relationship between the creaturely and the creative, the physical and the poetic.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

More than a decade after his experience as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War awakened him to the vital relationship between body and spirit, Whitman described his own physical regimen in Specimen Days (public library) — the indispensable collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries that gave us Whitman on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art gives meaning to life, what makes life worth living, and his most direct reflection on happiness.

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning rare edition of Leaves of Grass.

In an entry from the winter of 1877, still recovering from the paralytic stroke that had left him severely disabled five years earlier, the sixty-six-year-old poet describes his workout in the gymnasium of the wilderness:

A solitary and pleasant sundown hour at the pond, exercising arms, chest, my whole body, by a tough oak sapling thick as my wrist, twelve feet high — pulling and pushing, inspiring the good air. After I wrestle with the tree awhile, I can feel its young sap and virtue welling up out of the ground and tingling through me from crown to toe, like health’s wine. Then for addition and variety I launch forth in my vocalism; shout declamatory pieces, sentiments, sorrow, anger, &c., from the stock poets or plays — or inflate my lungs and sing the wild tunes and refrains I heard of the blacks down south, or patriotic songs I learn’d in the army. I make the echoes ring, I tell you!

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning rare edition of Leaves of Grass.

The great nature writer John Burroughs — Whitman’s longtime friend, and his first and to this day foremost biographer — further described the poet’s workout in his superb and loving more-than-biography, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook), published four years after Whitman’s death.

Burroughs writes:

His exercise for an hour each day consisted in tossing a few feet into the air, as he walked, a round, smooth stone, of about one pound weight, and catching it as it fell. Later in life, and after his first paralytic stroke, when in the woods, he liked to bend down the young saplings, and exercise his arms and chest in that way. In his poems much emphasis is laid upon health, and upon purity and sweetness of body, but none upon mere brute strength.

Both Whitman’s Specimen Days and Burroughs’s Whitman: A Study are books of vigorous and timeless delight. Complement this particular portion with psychiatrist and pioneering PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk on how our minds and our bodies converge in healing, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on how our minds obscure our bodies, and Rilke on the relationship between the body and the soul, then revisit Whitman’s advice to the young on the building blocks of character and his timeless wisdom on living a vibrant and rewarding life.


The Universe in Verse: John Cameron Mitchell Reads Walt Whitman’s Beautiful Least Known Poem

A lyrical serenade to a world we barely dare imagine and to our kinship with those creatures most different from us.

The Universe in Verse: John Cameron Mitchell Reads Walt Whitman’s Beautiful Least Known Poem

“Love the earth and sun and the animals,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) offered in his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life from the original the preface to Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain). This sense of kinship with and radiant respect for every element of the universe is what rendered Whitman the poet laureate of goodwill toward one and all, human and hummingbird and humpback whale. It is also what made him an indispensable part of The Universe in Verse and its animating ethos of celebrating the science and wonder of nature through poetry.

I dedicated the 2018 Universe in Verse to marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who thought and wrote about science and the natural world like a poet. Her career as a catalyst of the environmental movement began with her lyrical 1937 essay Undersea, which extended an unprecedented invitation to the human reader to consider the reality of life on our Pale Blue Dot from the perspective of marine creatures — creatures as unimaginably different from us as creatures can be.

Nothing like it had been done before in science — but something astonishingly kindred had been done a century earlier, in poetry.

Leaves of Grass contains a short, exquisite piece titled “The World Below the Brine,” which may well be Whitman’s least known published poem — in large part because before Carson rendered the marine world not only comprehensible but full of wonder to the human mind, it was so incomprehensible as to be almost alien, and one of our elemental human foibles is that we tend to scorn what we do not understand. And so Whitman’s stunning poem went underappreciated and practically unnoticed.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

At The Universe in Verse, I enlisted the help of actor, writer, director, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator John Cameron Mitchell to change this. Prefacing his reading of this overlooked Whitman gem, Mitchell used my rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass to perform one of his “Whitman divinations” — existential questions flung across space and time at Whitman, answered by opening to a random page and imbibing the often surprisingly relevant wisdom found therein.

When Mitchell called out to the audience for one such question, poet Marie Howe offered: “How do we live brokenhearted?”

In this recording from the show, Whitman’s heart-stopping answer across the centuries appears before Mitchell’s charming reading of “The World Below the Brine.” Streaming behind him is artist Eric Corriel’s lovely site-specific video installation Water Will Be Here — a subtle, arresting reminder that unless we tend to our fragile planet far more conscientiously than we have been, the whole of it will sink below the brine as sea levels rise.

by Walt Whitman

The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle, openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and the aliment of the
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths, breathing that thick-breathing air, as
      so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings like us who walk this
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.

Other highlights from The Universe in Verse include Marie Howe’s stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity inspired by Carl Sagan, a lovely papercraft stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” by artist Kelli Anderson, and actor America Ferrera’s reading of Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature.

Complement with English artist Margaret C. Cook’s rare and sensual 1913 illustrations for Leaves of Grass, then revisit Whitman on the interplay between the body and the spirit, what trees teach us about being human, his most direct reflection on happiness, and his life-advice to the young.


Walt Whitman’s Advice to the Young on the Building Blocks of Character and What It Takes to Be an Agent of Change

“Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to-day to inure yourself to pluck, reality, self-esteem, definiteness, elevatedness…”

“In the long run,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in considering how we bring about social change, “there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly.” A generation after her, Albert Camus examined what it really means to be a rebel and asserted that the true rebel is not one who aims to destroy the existing order of things but one who “says yes and no simultaneously.” And yet the hardest project of self-actualization is that of discerning what to accept and what to reject — of the world and of ourselves — as we build the architecture of our character and stake out our stance in relation to our obstacles and aims.

Long before Camus and Roosevelt, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) took up these questions in Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) — the 1855 masterpiece that nearly broke his career before making it.

Although the preface to the original edition contains Whitman’s timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, tucked toward the end is a short poem titled “To a Pupil,” which captures in three spare verses his most concentrated and consecrating advice to the young — wisdom on the path to self-actualization, the essential discipline of personhood, and what it takes to be an effective agent of social change.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)


Is reform needed? is it through you?
The greater the reform needed, the greater the Personality you
need to accomplish it.

You! do you not see how it would serve to have eyes, blood,
complexion, clean and sweet?
Do you not see how it would serve to have such a body and soul
that when you enter the crowd an atmosphere of desire
and command enters with you, and every one is impress’d
with your Personality?

O the magnet! the flesh over and over!
Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to-day
to inure yourself to pluck, reality, self-esteem, definiteness,
Rest not till you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality.

Art by Marianne C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Leaves of Grass remains a life-expanding trove of existential vitality. Complement this particular fragment with more abiding advice to the young from Seamus Heaney, a Whitman of our time, and from Cecilia Payne, who set out on her career as a pioneering astrophysicist on the centennial of Whitman’s birth, then revisit Whitman on what makes life worth living, the interplay between the body and the spirit, what trees teach us about being human, and his most direct reflection on happiness.


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