BOOK REVIEW/Heather Seggel

Walt Whitman’s Self-Help Advice for Democracy

Readers need look no farther than the paper they’re holding to find enough bad news to sink even the highest of spirits. It takes many forms but all too often comes down to imbalanced power and the dysfunctional systems tasked with evening the scales. Trying to voice one’s discontent while simultaneously holding a job, paying rent and taking in a little nutrition now and then can feel like an impossibility, and it’s not wrong to feel that way. But there’s hope to be found in the strangest of places. John Marsh, associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, would have us look to Walt Whitman for poetic comfort and then some. In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself (Monthly Review Press, 2015) uses the poet’s words to rethink our attitudes toward sex, death, money and democracy. That’s a tall order, but both Whitman and Marsh are more than up to task.

Splicing together biographical sketches with personal stories and literary analysis, Marsh uses four Whitman poems to illustrate his themes. Whitman’s socialism, which Marsh once found inadequate, allows room for growth, development, even earnings. He values the things men and women make and exalts them as evidence of the human soul, but, Marsh clarifies, “(T)hey are not the soul ... We err, then, when we take them to mean more than they do—or more than we do. Just as we err if we value the bridge more than the land. Without the land, the bridge would be meaningless, unnecessary, unfathomable even.”

Whitman himself makes it plainer still: “A child born of a woman and man I rate beyond all rate.” He uses the language of economics to show that certain things don’t fall within its purview, human beings foremost among them.

Much has been made of Whitman’s celebration of the male form, and Marsh considers his sexuality to be “queer,” or outside the mainstream, rather than gay. He supports this view credibly — homosexuality as we know it today surely existed, but it was not an issue people considered in Whitman’s time. Close male affection was common. Yet the poet wrote privately about a relationship that troubled him, due in part to feelings beyond simple comradeship for his friend. This apparent hair-splitting over language is actually important, as Whitman’s views on sex and love inform his take on democracy, and Marsh’s prescription for what ails us.

“If, like Whitman, you believe that who people are matters for democracy far more than who they vote for ... then you will take more than a passing interest in how people form their characters,” Marsh wrote. Family, culture, and especially literature take their part in our development, but it’s “fervid comradeship” that Whitman offers us “for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof,” Whitman wrote.

His greatest proof of this adhesive friendship came about while tending to the wounded in Civil War hospitals. He would bring them small things that they asked for, write to their families with news, and mostly just sit and listen, and the men loved him dearly; among Whitman’s many namesakes were children born into families whose sons he had tended.

Marsh pulls together his argument nicely at this point, summing up the qualities of a follower of the poet and the impact more such citizens would have on our democracy. Someone unafraid of death who nevertheless embraces the idea of the soul is able to be self-reliant. They may value money, but also know it can only do so much. Respect for our bodies and the bodies of others means not just healthy sexuality, but a desire for true equality. It’s a beautiful dream but, given that Whitman had many of the same bones to pick with government and society in his day that we’re still carping about now, how likely is any of it to take root?

Rather than succumb to cynicism, it’s worth noting that Marsh considers In Walt We Trust to be, at least in part, a self-help book. We can hold our collective breath and turn blue waiting for the Koch brothers to take the “despise riches” memo, but starting at home may offer the most satisfying results. Living with Whitman consciousness is liberating, rejuvenating, and (we can dream, right?) infectious. Start here and see where it leads.

Heather Seggel is vaguely situated in Northern California but looking for a long-term home. Contact her at

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2015

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