My research on the ten years that Whitman lived in Washington, DC, (1863-1873) led to my argument in Whitman in Washington: Becoming the National Poet in the Federal City that his experience with the federal government—its bureaucracy, its hospitals, its soldiers, its efforts to realize the proposition that all men are created equal—transformed him. His identity as the poet of America was of course formed while he lived in Brooklyn and wrote Leaves of Grass (1855), but what has often seemed to many to be a loss of his early political and poetic radicalism after the war is better understood as his own effort to reconceptualize a multiracial democracy. His failures, and his successes, parallel those of the federal government and the Union itself.
As an example, consider his “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors,” a poem first published in 1871 and slightly revised a decade later to take its final form:
WHO are you dusky woman, so ancient hardly human,
With your woolly-white and turban’d head, and bare bony feet?
Why rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?
(‘Tis while our army lines Carolina’s sands and pines,
Forth from thy hovel door thou Ethiopia com’st to me,
As under doughty Sherman I march toward the sea.)
Me master years a hundred since from my parents sunder’d,
A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is caught,
Then hither me across the sea the cruel slaver brought.
No further does she say, but lingering all the day,
Her high-borne turban’d head she wags, and rolls her darkling
And courtesies to the regiments, the guidons moving by.
What is it fateful woman, so blear, hardly human?
Why wag your head with turban bound, yellow, red and green?
Are the things so strange and marvelous you see or have seen?
Like most of Whitman’s poetic reflections on the Civil War, it is notable for not directly addressing slavery, or emancipation, or civil rights, or even the sacrifices of the black soldiers whom Whitman cared for in Washington hospitals. It does not in any explicit way express the poet’s sympathy with fugitives, or the enslaved, as he had in 1855.
However, Whitman does speak in the poem as the black woman, a device that recalls his very powerful claim of 1855 to represent the silenced:
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars—and of wombs, and of the fatherstuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised,
Of fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of dung.
Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts . . . . voices veiled, and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.
To do so, he employs Black dialect, which White writers often wielded as a comic or satirical device. Indeed, one of the standard tropes of the war was the elderly, often caricatured female slave in a kerchief, who watches from the porch of a grand southern plantation the march of Union troops, their arrival promising her, too, a new mobility. Whitman’s imagining of the interaction between an African American woman and Sherman’s army was almost certainly shaped by such depictions in the popular press.
But his poem is both less politically programmatic and less racist than Harper’s Weekly cartoons. The white soldier baldly states what most European Americans believed: people from Africa, like the elderly woman he observes, were “hardly human.” But the woman herself contradicts this, and might even be described as more than human. That is, she has a venerable antiquity, not only in her appearance, but in her poetic diction (internal rhymes, chiasmic heroic simile, inversions like “caught me as the savage beast” which speaks back to and disputes the soldier’s claim that she is “hardly human”). Ethiopia was understood as the ancient birthplace of African civilization, and this woman is Ethiopia. She has survived, then, despite the savagery of the Middle Passage, still proudly wearing the colors of her African past. If her hovel sounds derogatory to modern ears, to Whitman’s peers it spoke of poverty to be sure, but also of a kind of peasant independence—she is not a worker on someone else’s plantation, but has her own place.
Situating that place on Carolina sands points directly to the question mark hanging over Ethiopia’s future. General Sherman’s famous Field order of 16 January 1865, gave African Americans “possessory rights” to a strip of coastland stretching from Charleston, South Carolina to northern Florida. By the time Whitman wrote, he knew that promise of land (land confiscated from fleeing whites) had been rescinded, and his Ethiopia greets the “colors” of the Sherman’s army with full understanding that her path forward will be on shifting sands. As she watches the guidons—a medieval-flavored word for the pennants of a military company—the question of whether and how her colors, her loyalties, her arms, will march forward with them, whether they will share the same road, is left uncertain. She has undoubtedly seen the strange and marvelous; will fate allow for the US, too, to be marvelously transfigured, to undergo a sea change?
Whitman’s work as a clerk in the Department of the Interior and then the Attorney General’s office exposed him to the rise of paramilitary groups. He inscribed at least thirty letters treating the Ku Klux Klan when he served as a clerk copying letters in the latter’s office. He saw both the federal government’s efforts to expand American citizenship in the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, and its failure to reconstruct society along anything but segregated and unequal ground. His correspondence even suggests that he accepted this result matter of factly; in his prose book of 1871, Democratic Vistas, he was unsuccessful in rebutting Thomas Carlyle’s cynical claim that the United States was doomed in trying to achieve a multiracial rather than ethnically homogenous nation. But deliberately, in his poetry, inserting “Ethiopia” into Leaves of Grass in 1871 and thenceforward, Whitman kept alive the idea that on Carolina sands, within the American republic, the colors of all the nations could greet each other proudly and courteously. Perhaps that is why Langston Hughes called this poem “one of the most beautiful poems in our language concerning a Negro subject.” If Whitman’s self-styled claim to be the poet of democracy has any merit, it lies in his ability to evoke more hopeful vistas, or as Hughes put it so wistfully,
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
Feature image: Portret van de dichter Walt Whitman. Via Wikimedia Commons