I’m a day late, I’m afraid, but I do want to make sure to wish Walt Whitman a very happy belated 192nd birthday. I think the only other person whom I have ever wished a happy birthday on this blog is Pete Seeger, and the comparison is apt. Seeger and Whitman are/were both artists who tell the American story, who through love of country but simultaneous unstinting criticism do not hesitate to illustrate the points at which America has failed to live up to the ideals it promises; and yet who never waver in their conviction that their country can, by dint of purpose, better itself and do better by all who are born on its soil and all who wash up on its shores.
Though J.A. Symonds’ different cultural background led him to misread the erotic valance of Whitman’s hope for Union, it is clear that what attracted the Victorian gentleman-historian to the working-class New Yorker was his promise of utopic possibility. I’ll let Symonds take it away, from the very end of his Walt Whitman: A Study:
As I have elsewhere said in print, he taught me to comprehend the harmony between the democratic spirit, science, and that larger religion to which the modern world is being led by the conception of human brotherhood, and by the spirituality inherent in any really scientific view of the universe. He gave body, concrete vitality, to the religious creed which I had been already forming for myself upon the study of Goethe, Greek and Roman Stoics, Giordano Bruno, and the founders of the evolutionary doctrine. He inspired me with faith, and made me feel that optimism was not unreasonable. This gave me great cheer in those evil years of enforced idleness and intellectual torpor which my health imposed upon me. Moreover, he helped to free me from many conceits and pettinesses to which academical culture is liable. He opened my eyes to the beauty, goodness and greatness which may be found in all worthy human beings, the humblest and the highest. He made me respect personality more than attainments or position in the world. Through him, I stripped my soul of social prejudices. Through him, I have been able to fraternise in comradeship with men of all classes and several races, irrespective of their caste, creed, occupation, and special training. To him I owe some of the best friends I now can claim—sons of the soil, hard-workers, “natural and nonchalant,” “powerful uneducated” persons.
Only those who have been condemned by imperfect health to take a back-seat in life so far as physical enjoyments are concerned, and who have also chosen the career of literary study, can understand what is meant by the deliverance from foibles besetting invalids and pedants for which I have to thank Walt Whitman.
What he has done for me, I feel he will do for others—for each and all of those who take counsel with him, and seek from him a solution of difficulties differing in kind according to the temper of the individual—if only they approach him in the right spirit of confidence and open-mindedness.
And for edificatory purposes, here’s a fantastic reading of an excerpt of “Song of Myself” from a PBS documentary on Whitman’s life (h/t MP):