Whitman as a Great Thinker

Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892) is often called America’s greatest poet. He was also a great thinker. Great thinkers are ones who draw a wide sweep of profound ideas together and express them in powerful, persuasive, memorable language. They engage us emotionally as well as intellectually. On these criteria Whitman certainly counts as a great thinker. He used beautiful, highly original language to give us not merely deep emotion and stirring insight, but also ideas and concepts that we can think about, debate, sometimes disagree with, but always find intellectually rich and provocative. He blended language, feeling, and thought to produce (in his own words) thought clothed with sentiment—adorned as the goodly tree is, by the efflorescence of its own branches. No other American poets (and few poets anywhere in the world) have combined high emotion with deep ideas so organically and subtly, all wrapped in such a gorgeous package of words.

I will not be a great philosopher, Whitman said, insisting that his poetry was not to be construed as an intellectual effort, nor felt by the intellect; neither can “Leaves of Grass” ever be judged by the intellectTo read him as a poet of ideas is only one of many ways his work can be read. But he certainly valued ideas. Wo to the age or land which do not tend to ideas, he wrote. I am done with many of the words of the past; we have here, now, greater ideas to embody. Moreover, Man, so diminutive, dilates beyond the sensible universe, competes with, outcopes space and time, meditating even one great idea.  And in one of his notebooks (speaking of, or to, himself in the third person) he referred to: Walt Whitman’s philosophy—or perhaps metaphysics, to give it a more definite name—as evinced in his poems, and running through them, and sometimes quite palpable in his verses, but far oftener latent, and like the unseen roots or sap of trees.

In his day, he was often seen by others as a philosopher. Ralph Waldo Emerson called Leaves of Grass “the best piece of American philosophy that any one has had the strength to write.” When Whitman hung out with the bohemians at Pfaff’s bar on Broadway, his friends there referred to him as a philosopher.  In 1860, one of those friends, newspaper editor Henry Clapp, wrote in his Saturday Press: “We announce a great Philosopher—perhaps a great Poet. It is Walt Whitman. The proof of his greatness is in his book.” Horace Traubel, Whitman’s frequent companion in his later years, recalled someone saying to the poet “You give us no consistent philosophy.” Whitman replied: “I guess I don’t—I should not desire to do so.” Traubel put in: “Plenty of philosophy but not ‘a philosophy,’” to which Whitman answered: “That’s better—that’s more the idea.”

So I do not mean to suggest that Whitman had “a philosophy.” I do not mean to impose any false unity or consistency on his vast work. The words of his that I have used were written over a period of some four decades. He did not hold consistent views or attitudes through all that time, and I don’t mean to give any misleading impression that he did. He proudly boasted of contradicting himself precisely because, as he famously put it, I am large, I contain multitudes.

I hope that this anthology preserves that sense of multitudinousness, including some of its contradictions. At some points I have woven together ideas that Whitman expressed at different times in his career, which were absent or even contradicted at other times, aiming to give a comprehensive overview of the poet as a great thinker. In some cases I have surely suggested or implied more systematic thought than he intended.

I charge that there be no theory or school founded out of me, Whitman wrote. So he might not have approved of this attempt to organize his work in a somewhat systematic, roughly logical structure of ideas. Some readers who are familiar with Whitman’s work my not approve, either. They will know how I have ripped many words, lines, and whole passages out of context, perhaps thereby changing their meaning. They may see this anthology as akin to cutting up a Dali painting in little pieces and rearranging the pieces to make more realistic, easily recognizable images – which, of course, defeats the whole purpose of the work of art. I have some sympathy with this critique.

Yet Whitman did see the totality of his life’s work as having some unity; he planned Leaves of Grass to have the overarching harmony of a “cathedral,” he once said. I have tried to focus on basic ideas woven through his whole career. Putting his words into a thematic anthology may point to some threads of consistency that might not have been so obvious in the original corpus of his work. It may bring out an underlying logic that he himself was not aware of—or perhaps not interested in.

NEXT: The Editor’s Creative Role