Whitman’s Sailors and Other Friends

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The following is offered as part of an effort to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on July 4, 2005. Additional material can be found on a website maintained by the author (www.LeavesofGrass.org) for this purpose.

 

WALT WHITMAN was famously large, claiming to “contain multitudes.” Right from his startling debut on July Fourth, 1855, he crowed that facets of his own identity were mirrored in “A farmer, mechanic, or artist … a gentleman, sailor, lover or quaker,/A prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician or priest.”

Whitman in “sailor drag”? Mid-1860’s. Photographer unknown: could be Mathew Brady, Washington D.C. Saunders #35.1. Courtesy Ohio Wesleyan University, Bayley Collection.
Whitman in “sailor drag”? Mid-1860’s. Photographer
unknown: could be Mathew Brady, Washington D.C.
Saunders #35.1. Courtesy Ohio Wesleyan University,
Bayley Collection.

Today it appears that these familiar lines may contain what the video-game industry calls “an Easter egg.” There it lies, half hidden in the tall grass, a chance to lay to rest the “Quaker paradox” that has plagued scholars ever since Whitman’s deathbed disclaimer as to his Quakerism: “When I was a young fellow up on the Long Island shore, I seriously debated whether I was not by spiritual bent a Quaker? Whether if not one I should not become one? But the question went away again: I put it aside as impossible: I was never made to live inside a fence” (quoted by Horace Traubel). Nevertheless, the references to Quakerism in his poetry, his prose works (which include essays on Elias Hicks and George Fox), his personal conversations, and even his dress, are too numerous to dismiss. And in his final years, he became more insistent about his religion. “I am a good deal of a Quaker,” he told Hamlin Garland point-blank in 1888 (Garland, 1991). Still, Whitman’s membership in any conventional Quaker Meeting has never been documented.

But here’s the paradox: any reading of Whitman will show that Hicksite Quakerism would have been much too strict for the flamboyant Whitman. Nineteenth-century Quakers adhered to a strict dress code of plain gray wool garments, a flat prohibition against interfaith marriage, and a separation from the world signaled by Quaker plain-speech (“thee” and “thou” and the like). Whitman scholars remain puzzled by a libertine poet’s adoption of this distinctive dialect, even to the extent that in 1860 he revised his earliest poems to incorporate it. At the same time, at the end of his life, after publishing essays about the great Quaker preachers Elias Hicks and George Fox, Whitman was still railing that too many Quakers exercised “the damnable unreason of a sect” in their opposition to pictures and music.

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