My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In Walt We Trust is blessedly less reductive than its overeager title and subtitle make it sound. John Marsh is a professor at Penn State specializing in American poetry and the literature and theory of labor and working-class movements; his view of Whitman, therefore, focuses on the poet’s politics, with a particular emphasis on how his work can be construed as a critical response to capitalist culture. Whitman was the first canonical American poet to be born to the working class, Marsh emphasizes. His politics were progressive for their time—he belonged to the anti-slavery left wing of the Democratic Party—and his poetry, in its aspiration toward universal sympathy, more radical than that. To explore Whitman’s views and their contemporary relevance, Marsh divides his book into four main chapters. In each, he visits a location that is either directly related to Whitman’s life or that reflects on the poet’s themes, and each treats a central ill in American culture that Whitman’s poetry might cure: death, debt, sex, and political polarization.
The first chapter concerns Whitman’s spiritual or ontological optimism—his belief that, because all things are made of the same circulating atoms, there can be no death but only constant renewal. As an explication of Whitman’s philosophy and its grounding in nineteenth-century science, the chapter is useful, but Marsh’s postmodern discomfort with spirituality of any kind makes it an odd opener. The much stronger second chapter explicates Whitman’s nuanced and sensible, though still sadly uncommon, economic views, which can be summed up as follows: money was made to serve humanity; humanity was not made to serve money. Whitman allows the need in a decent society for enough wealth to free citizens from economic anxiety so they can pursue higher goals, even as he insists that to seek wealth and prosperity as such is to mistake a means (money) for an end (a good life, however defined). The third chapter is likewise compelling; framed with rueful comedy by Marsh’s uncomfortable visit to a central PA strip club, it argues persuasively that Whitman’s celebratory and bodily poetics chart a middle path between the nineteenth century’s debilitating sexual shame and the twenty-first century’s enervating sexual shamelessness. Finally, the fourth chapter movingly narrates Whitman’s service as wound-dresser during the Civil War and explains the potential for Whitmanian comradely love and solidarity to reunify our atomized and polarized society.*
Still, Marsh is perhaps a better scholarly than popular writer, despite his memoir-structure’s appeal to Whitmanian personal poetics: for me, the standout parts of this book were its two interludes, which, sans memoir or polemic, address the biographical questions of whether Whitman was a socialist and whether he was a gay man. Marsh’s command of social and intellectual history allows him to answer both questions very subtly. He concludes that Whitman was a socialist in values but not in systematic political theory, and that, while neither his behavior nor his writings depart very far from conventional Victorian sexual ideology, his sometimes seemingly overmastering love of men bespeaks, if not “homosexuality” (i.e., an identity), then “queerness” (i.e., a variability of desire and identity). On the last point, Marsh even somewhat boldly argues that Whitman’s call for “adhesiveness” or “manly love” among citizens is more radical the less sexual it is, because it allows us to imagine an affective union with our fellow citizens that might incite more care and inspire more equality than any external state-socialist measures could. That Whitman could write of such love without hostility or suspicion—Marsh points out that the main aspect of his work thought obscene by his contemporaries were those portraying sex between men and women—makes me wonder if the nineteenth century did not have its own version of queerness, enabled paradoxically by its suppression of genital sexuality as a topic for public discourse: with intercourse off the table, you could speak or write much more freely of every other form of love and desire.
In Walt We Trust is published by a Marxist press and Marsh writes overtly as a leftist, but he seems to hope to arrive at a non-doctrinaire affective politics, bypassing argument through poetry’s power to inspire and envision a better life. Quoting Tony Judt, Christopher Lasch, Chris Hedges, and Andrea Dworkin, Marsh appears to be a kind of left-conservative, suspicious of liberal individualism in any form, whether economic (as favored by the right) or cultural and sexual (as favored by the left); a belief that we need to channel our energies into community over individuality and to focus on needs over desires animates his often chastened prose. No exuberant Transcendentalist attempt to unite these polarities seems possible in the present, at least not when starting from such a left politics. What would Whitman think of that? Not being the Whitman scholar that Marsh is, I am not entirely sure; but the gentle sadness of the Civil War poems, their abandonment of exhortation, their eloquent witness, hints at the proper task of poetry in a time of crisis. From “The Wound Dresser”:
An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?
Marsh’s attention to that final question—along with his judicious scholarship—makes In Walt We Trust worth reading.
* Speaking of Whitman’s selfless ministrations to the war-wounded: I spend a fair amount of time in these reviews defending authors who depart, in the life or the work, from conventional or even unconventional morality, but I share Marsh’s relief in contemplating Whitman—a great writer who was also, by all accounts, a good person. There is no need for these to go together, and I even think some personal or political immorality can be, like it or not, a passport to otherwise inaccessible literary territory; but it is heartening to know that you can write your country’s greatest poetry even as you behave with exemplary kindness and decency.