Walt Whitman: 10 Misconceptions
Least to Greatest

by Mitchell Santine Gould, Curator, LeavesOfGrass.Org


Well, yes, Whitman could be deeply racist, but... In 2021, an angry protest at Rutgers University forced the administration to label their Walt Whitman statue with disclaimers and move it to an inconspicuous location. It’s true that from his earliest days, while he viewed slavery as an unmitigated evil, he dreaded the possibility that black freemen might increase the already-intense labor-market competition among his white friends. He also feared the political consequences of allowing formerly-enslaved persons to vote. A discarded line in the manuscript for his book Democratic Vistas warned that a “powerful percentage of blacks” had about as “much intellect and calibre (in the mass) as so many baboons.” He was also known to repeatedly use the racist slur which is inadmissable today. Following the primitive, supremacist sociobiology of his day, he chose to believe that different races evolved at different rates, and that it would take millennia for Africans to reach the capacity of Anglo-Saxons.

Haarlem Rennaissance poet Langston Hughes
Haarlem Rennaissance poet Langston Hughes

But on the other hand, the early writings of the younger Whitman were cherished by some of the Haarlem Renaissance poets — James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. “Song of Myself” depicts a muscular “negro:” “I behold the picturesque giant, and love him.” But the poem offers a far deeper affirmation of humanity in its well-known slave-auction scene. Whitman claimed that during his Civil War nursing career, “Among the black soldiers, wounded or sick, and in the contraband camps, I also took my way whenever in their neighborhood, and did what I could for them.” Aware of all this, the black gay poet Langston Hughes called Walt “America's greatest poet,” and Leaves of Grass “the greatest expression of the real meaning of democracy.”

This controversy provides the clearest example of the problem that often occurs whenever people say, “Whitman believed that…” Each and every such assertion needs to be immediately challenged with the question: “Which Whitman are we talking about?” As a matter of fact, at the young age of 41, he was already looking back upon the “corpses” of his former selves.notes