Imagined America:
Walt Whitman’s Nationalism in the First Edition of Leaves of Grass

Nathanael O'Reilly

Critics often describe Walt Whitman as America’s national poet, and many have concerned themselves with how Whitman came to hold such a position in American and global culture; however, few have concerned themselves with the issue of how Whitman imagines America through his poetry. In his recent study, The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, Stephen John Mack suggests that the time has come for critics to reexamine Whitman’s nationalism: “Whitman’s seemingly mawkish celebrations of the United States … [are] one of those problematic features of his works that teachers and critics read past or explain away” (xv-xvi). An excellent example of the tendency of critics to ignore or dismiss Whitman’s nationalism is Malcolm Cowley’s claim regarding Leaves of Grass (made in 1959) that “The poem is hardly at all concerned with American nationalism” (xiv); such a claim seems absurd in the light of recent criticism. This essay is primarily concerned with examining the America Whitman imagines in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman attempts to imagine an inclusive America that embraces all people and affords them equality and freedom; however, Whitman’s imagined America fails to provide equal rights for all people, excluding immigrants, Native Americans and African-Americans.

Before examining the manifestations of nationalism in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, it is necessary to set forth the theoretical framework for the ensuing analysis. In his seminal work, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson defines the nation as “an imagined political community […] it is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6). Anderson’s conception of the nation as an imagined community provides an extremely useful and fitting framework for examining Whitman’s nationalism. Whitman’s nationalist project is to imagine his ideal America, rather than to describe the America he lived in; his conception of America is in many ways a conception of a nation that has never existed, a type of utopia. Whitman’s ideal America is also imagined in Anderson’s sense of being a community made up of millions of members who are entirely unknown to each other, and more importantly, to Whitman. However, Whitman imagines that he can know, and indeed, be intimate with, all of his fellow Americans. Edward Whitley argues that Whitman “habitually used print to imagine a national audience … addressing his temporally and geographically distant reader as ‘Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand’ in order to give the illusion of an intimate connection with the entire nation” (453).

Similar to Anderson’s notion of the imagined community is Ernest Gellner’s contention that “Nationalism […] invents nations where they do not exist” (169). Through his poetry, Whitman is actively engaged in the process of inventing America; as he writes in “Song of Myself,” “My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,/ With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds” (50). Likewise, in “Who Learns My Lesson Complete,” “… my soul embraces you this hour, and we affect each other without ever seeing each other” (141). In Peter Coviello’s article, “Intimate Nationality: Anonymity and Attachment in Whitman,” he argues that “virtually every strand of Whitman’s utopian thought devolves upon, and is anchored by, an unwavering belief in the capacity of strangers to recognize, desire, and be intimate with one another” (85). Coviello understands Whitman as promising to extend “intimate affection … to an entire nation of readers who are, to him, perfectly unknown” (85). Whitman’s nationalism clearly depends on the notion of an imagined community.

Reading Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass, it is difficult to comprehend that any critic could ignore or dismiss Whitman’s blatant nationalism. In recent decades, critics have described Whitman as “nationalistic in every sense of the term” (Allen 249) and “the poet who would be sole arbiter of national life” (Coviello 85). Whitman’s nationalism is evident from the first word of his preface: “America.” He immediately situates himself as a national poet, speaking from and for America, presenting his version of America as the ideal. Whitman makes outrageous claims, impossible to prove, such as “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem” (5). Whitman makes such claims based on an authority that he takes for granted; he cites no experts and fails to appeal to reason, simply assuming that his audience will accept his words as truth. Not only does Whitman depict America as superior to other nations, he positions the poet (himself) as “commensurate with a people” (6). He claims, “the genius of the United States” lies “always most in the common people” (5-6), and therefore, as the poet of the people, he lays claim to the genius of the nation; it is he who will speak for them. Coviello argues that “the extraordinary, often disarming, bravado of the poem” is largely due to “the breeziness of the poet’s presumption that absolutely every corner and crevice of national life falls firmly within his perpetual ken” (88). Whitman claims to see and understand every aspect of American life; for Whitman, the poet is omniscient.

Although he is often considered a champion of democracy and equality, Whitman constructs a hierarchy with himself at the head, America below, and the rest of the world in a subordinate position. The other continents merely “arrive as contributions” (6). Whitman prophesizes that the “new order” of “priests of man” “shall arise in America and be responded to from the remainder of the earth” (22): Whitman conceives America as central and superior; other nations exist on the margins and can merely react to the actions of the centre. Whitman further claims that the great American poet “incarnates its geography” (7); according to the poet, American geography includes “Mexican and Floridian and Cuban seas” (7). He envisions America as a constantly expanding nation, subsuming new territories and peoples: “To him enter the essences of the real things and past and present events … the tribes of red aborigines … the perpetual coming of immigrants … the endless gestation of new states” (7). Whitman imagines America as a continually expanding nation, consuming and enclosing new lands and peoples, and takes American superiority for granted in all matters: “Of all nations the United States … most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest” (8). Whitman concludes his preface by declaring America “the largest and wealthiest and proudest nation” (24).

Whitman’s America is undoubtedly conceived of in the preface as superior, vast, great, wealthy and expansionist, but its racial composition is a matter for debate. Whitman states that “The American poets are to enclose old and new for America is the race of the races” (6); however, it is not clear whether this statement refers to a plurality of races, a new race forged through the mixing of races, or a description of Americans as the master race. Coviello describes the phrase as one “in which it is not at all clear whether the defining attribute of the American race is its plurality … or its exclusive superiority” (99). Three years after the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Times (6 May 1858), “Who believes that Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America? Nature has set an impassable seal against it. Besides, is not America for the Whites? And is it better not so?” (Holloway and Schwarz 90). While it is entirely possible that Whitman changed his mind on the issue of race in America between 1855 and 1858, his racist comments of 1858 seem to suggest a reading of the “race of the races” phrase as referring to white America as a superior race.

Within the twelve poems contained in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman constantly positions America as an inclusive nation, one that accepts all peoples and treats them equally. Because of Whitman’s inclusive stance, Betsy Erkkila describes him as “a breaker of bounds: he is female and male, farmer and factory worker, prostitute and slave, citizen of America and citizen of the world” (“Introduction” 7). Erkkila acknowledges the fact that Whitman is imagining and inventing America rather than describing the nation he lives in; Whitman’s “poetic representations … performed the cultural work of inventing, rather than merely reflecting an already existing American nationality” (“Introduction” 13). Whitley notes that  in “Song of Myself” Whitman presents “the illusion that a national bard can turn the entire nation into an imagined crowd as he rubs shoulders with African American slaves on Southern plantations, fur trappers on the Western frontier, and prostitutes in Northern cities” (455). In “Song of Myself,” Whitman attempts to demonstrate his inclusiveness by claiming “all the men ever born are also my brothers … and the women my sisters and lovers” (29). Not only does he imagine that all men and women belong to the same community as himself, he describes a community that includes all the men and women ever born, regardless of nationality. Such a gesture can be read as tremendously generous and admirable; however, it should be noted that by claiming all men and women as his brothers and sisters and lovers, Whitman is claiming them as Americans. For Whitman, America is always the centre of the universe.

Throughout “Song of Myself,” Whitman names and lists specific peoples whom he wishes to include in the American nation and treat equally. In section six, the speaker declares, “Growing among black folks as among white, / Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same” (29). Although he positions himself among the people, the speaker retains the power to give and receive, never truly becoming one of the people. Whitman’s reference to the “Kanuck” suggests that his imagined America is not confined by geographic boundaries, and reflects the fact that in 1855 the boundaries of the United States were inchoate. In section seven, the poet proclaims “I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself; / They do not know how immortal, but I know” (31). In this case, the poet does not specify which people he is the companion of, and again sets himself apart, both by retaining his individual identity and claiming to possess knowledge that the people lack.

The runaway slave passage in section ten of “Song of Myself” is another clear example of Whitman’s attempts to include all people in his imagined America. The poet describes his encounter with the runaway slave, stating that he “led him in and assured him, / And brought water and filled a tub for his sweated body and bruised feet, / And gave him a room that entered from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes” (33). Although the white American poet is inclusive and caring on the surface and presents himself as a modern-day Jesus, he refrains from sharing his room or bed with the slave (as he does with others), suggesting an unequal relationship and an unwillingness to fully include the slave as an American. Coviello reads the runaway slave passage as “an instance of … failed sympathy” (96) and concludes that in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman “steadfastly declines to take up the cause of racial nationalism with any real vigor or seriousness” (99). Whitman’s refusal to take a stand on the issue of race in the poem can be read as a failure to imagine a truly inclusive America.

The paradoxical nature of Whitman’s inclusive nationalism is revealed in section nineteen of “Song of Myself” when the poet declares, “I will not have a single person slighted or left away, / The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited …. the heavy-lipped slave is invited …. the venerealee is invited, / There shall be no difference between them and the rest” (42). Whitman’s word choice shows that despite his inclusive intentions, he is unable to avoid derogatory language, calling the slave “heavy-lipped,” and thereby breaking his own rule: “I will not have a single person slighted.”  While it may not be possible in some instances for Whitman to avoid language that is offensive from a twenty-first century vantage point, this does not appear to be one of those occasions. Whitman could easily have omitted “heavy-lipped”; the word “slave” would have sufficed. Whitman also declares, “There shall be no difference between them and the rest,” despite the fact that using labels such as “keptwoman,” “sponger” and “venerealee” creates, acknowledges and signifies difference.

In section thirty-four of “Song of Myself,” the poet claims, “I tell not the fall of Alamo …. not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo” (64): however, simply by referring to “The hundred and fifty … at Alamo,” Whitman is including them in his imagined America. He describes those who fought and died at Goliad as “Large, turbulent, brave, handsome, generous, proud and affectionate, / Bearded, sunburnt, dressed in the free costume of hunters” (64); the speaker is clearly equating the soldiers with his ideal of the common American. Whitman’s presentation of those who fought and died for Texan independence, both at the Alamo and at Goliad, as ideal Americans, is misleading. The men were fighting for an independent nation of Texas, declaring their independence from Mexico in 1836. The United States annexed Texas in 1845, and Whitman similarly annexed Texan history into American history, adopting the Texan fighters as American heroes. This type of inclusive nationalist revision of history is common in the literature of most nations.

A number of Whitman’s attempts at inclusiveness can be read as a form of American expansionism. In section thirty-eight of “Song of Myself,” the speaker proclaims:

I troop forth with supreme power, one of an average unending procession,
We walk the roads of Ohio and Massachusetts and Virginia and Wisconsin and
New York and New Orleans and Texas and Montreal and San Francisco and Charleston and Savannah and Mexico,
Inland and by the seacoast and boundary lines …. and we pass the boundary lines. (69)

Whitman’s inclusion of Montreal and Mexico and his claim that “we pass the boundary lines” indicates an American nationalism that recognizes no geographical limits, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge that the people of Montreal and Mexico may not want to be a part of America. Whitman’s expansionist version of nationalism also ignores the killing, spread of disease and theft of land necessary to acquire territory already occupied by other peoples. The form of nationalism present in the above passage is echoed in section forty, when the speaker declares, “On women fit for conception I start bigger and nimbler babes, / This day I am jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics” (71). Not only is Whitman’s nationalism expansionist, it is missionary, seeking to convert and dominate. The “bigger and nimbler babes” the speaker seeks to sire are precisely the kind of Americans who possess the arrogance necessary to conquer the people of Mexico and Montreal.

Whitman’s attempts to imagine an inclusive America are often limited to mere acknowledgement of the Other. In “A Song for Occupations,” the speaker states, “I own publicly who you are, if nobody else owns …. and see and hear you … Not only the free Utahan, Kansian, or Arkansian …. not only the free Cuban … not merely the slave …. not Mexican native, or Flatfoot, or negro from Africa, / Iroquois eating the warflesh” (88-89). At times it seems that Whitman believes too much in the power of words; speaking the names of the marginalized, seeing them, and hearing them are quite different acts from fighting for equal rights and eliminating discrimination. As Cowley acknowledges, Whitman “is not advocating rebellion or even reform … he offers nothing more than a kiss and an implied promise” (xxiv). Likewise, Coviello writes, “there is something embarrassingly immodest about the unflustered confidence … with which … [Whitman] identifies himself with the downtrodden, the suffering, the enslaved” (92). It seems that Whitman never considers whether the people share his vision of America; he simply takes it for granted, declaring “And what I assume you shall assume” (25). Anderson argues that nations are “always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship,” “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail” (7). Thus, although Whitman is undoubtedly guilty at times of accepting “inequality and exploitation,” he is certainly not alone in idealizing his imagined community and glossing over injustices.

In addition to numerous attempts to imagine an inclusive America, Leaves of Grass contains many instances where Whitman explicitly imagines an America that excludes certain groups of people. Anderson points out that “No nation imagines itself as coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nations do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation” (7). Thus, if the nation is not imagined as containing all people, then others must necessarily be excluded. The national politics of the United States during the 1850s and Whitman’s own political beliefs are reflected in Whitman’s imagined America. Furthermore, Whitman’s politics and the time and place in which he wrote Leaves of Grass necessarily limit his ability to imagine a truly inclusive America and are evidenced by the groups of people he excludes.

According to David S. Reynolds, the first two editions of Leaves of Grass are permeated by the primary ideas of the Know-Nothings and the Republicans, the two political parties that “dominated the North’s political scene” in 1855 and 1856, namely “extreme valuation of the common person” and “intense Americanism” (845). The Know-Nothings and the Republicans were both antislavery and “presented themselves as fresh, populist alternatives to previous parties” (Reynolds 845). The two parties grew incredibly quickly between 1854 and 1856 due to a combination of factors, including the demise of the Whig Party in 1854 and the Democrats’ proslavery position (Reynolds 845, 847). Whitman switched from the Democratic party to the Republican party, as did his entire family, and in the 1856 Presidential election Whitman supported John Fremont, the Republican nominee, going so far as to compose a tract in support of Fremont, declaring that “The Redeemer President” will be “not exclusive, but inclusive” (Reynolds 845-46; Grossman 883). However, neither the Know-Nothings nor the Republicans were truly inclusive.

In fact, the Know-Nothings were actively exclusionist. Reynolds argues that the Know-Nothings “became the most powerful new party in the nation” and “tapped into long-smoldering nativist sentiment in the North,” playing on populist fears that immigrants, especially the Irish and other Roman Catholics, “would infiltrate American institutions and possibly even take over the government” (847). Reynolds notes that the Know-Nothings highlighted the fact that many immigrants (including the Irish) supported slavery in order to appeal to antislavery activists (847). The Know-Nothings, according to Reynolds, were “Above all … the party of intense, unabashed Americanism,” employing the motto “America for Americans” and publicly labeling themselves the “American Party” (847). The Know-Nothings reached the height of their popularity in June 1855, less than a month before the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (Reynolds 847). Reynolds claims that Whitman’s “intense nationalism coincided exactly with the dominance of that most nationalistic of all political movements, the Know-Nothings,” and argues that “the jingoistic moments” in Whitman’s poetry “smacked of nativism” (847, 848).

Given Whitman’s personal politics and the dominant political ideas of his time, it should not be surprising that Whitman excludes immigrants from his imagined America. In section fifteen of “Song of Myself,” the poet states, “The groups of newly-come immigrants cover the wharf or levee” (37). Significantly, Whitman does not describe the newcomers as “new Americans,” but labels them “immigrants,” which serves to emphasize their foreignness. Additionally, he positions them in isolation on the “wharf or levee,” rather than allowing them to disperse throughout the nation and join the national community. During the nine years preceding the publication of Leaves of Grass, three million immigrants arrived in the United States, with 427, 833 arriving in 1854 alone, creating “the largest proportionate increase in immigrants at any time in American history” (Reynolds 847). According to Reynolds, Whitman once said, “America’s digestion was strained by the ‘millions of ignorant foreigners’ coming to its shores” (848). Similarly, Mark E. Neely, Jr. argues that Whitman developed “a distaste for immigrants and immigrant stock” (32).

In “To Think of Time,” Whitman writes, “We must have the indestructible breed of the best” (103), which implies that his ideal Americans must be a superior race, and therefore cannot accept the weak and the weary, who would weaken the gene pool. Likewise, in “Great Are the Myths,” the speaker declares, “Great is the English brood …. What brood has so vast a destiny as the English? / It is the mother of the brood that must rule the earth with the new rule” (144). This highly exclusionary passage seems to depict Americans as literal heirs of a superior English race destined to domination and superiority, and suggests that Whitman’s ideal Americans are of white Anglo-Saxon stock. Interestingly, Scott MacPhail, citing Timothy Morris, argues that Whitman’s ascendancy into the American literary canon during the first third of the twentieth century coincided with the prominence of nativist and racialist ideas, and claims that those who subscribed to nativist and racist logic “found in Whitman a literature of an authentic America that could be defended against the threat of miscegenation from massive immigration” (14).

In an unsigned review that Whitman wrote of his first edition of Leaves of Grass, published in the Brooklyn Daily Times in September 1855, he describes himself as a man who “fiercely love[s]” the “land of his birth,” and emphasizes the fact that the United States is also the land of “the birth of his parents, and their parents for several generations before him” (“Leaves of Grass” 793). Whitman goes on to emphasize his native-born American status by declaring that he is “No imitation – no foreigner – but a growth and idiom of America” (“Leaves of Grass” 793). Reynolds argues that here Whitman attempts to appeal to the nativist readership (848). In what may be an attempt to distance himself from the Know-Nothings and their anti-immigration rhetoric, Whitman declares that he “is not prejudiced one mite against the Irish – talks readily with them – talks readily with niggers” (“Leaves of Grass” 793). However, Whitman’s need to claim friendship with the Irish and African-Americans, and his use of the pejorative “niggers,” also serves as evidence of the racism and prejudice that permeated American society in 1855.

In addition to excluding immigrants from his imagined America, Whitman excludes Native Americans. In section ten of “Song of Myself,” the poet describes the marriage of a trapper “in the far-west …. the bride was a red girl/ Her father and his friends sat near by crosslegged and dumbly smoking” (33). Apart from describing the bride as “red,” Whitman clearly differentiates the Native American “father and his friends” from the trapper, who represents Whitman’s ideal American working-man. The trapper possesses a “luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, / One hand rested on his rifle …. The other hand held firmly the wrist of the red girl, / She had long eyelashes …. her head was bare …. her coarse straight locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs” (33). Whitman depicts the trapper’s hair as superior to that of his bride, who is clearly both an object of sexual desire and a physical possession. Violence is conveyed through the image of the trapper holding a rifle in one hand and his bride in the other; significantly, he holds her by the wrist rather than the hand, implying the dominance of the white man over the Indigenous girl.

Native Americans are also marginalized in section thirty-three of “Song of Myself,” where Whitman envisions himself “Far from the settlements studying the print of animal’s feet, or the moccasin print” (60); here the natives are grouped with the animals, clearly separate from Whitman’s Americans. Similarly, in section thirty-nine, Whitman writes of “The friendly and flowing savage …. Who is he? / Is he waiting for civilization or past it and mastering it?” (69). This passage suggests that America may not necessarily represent the apex of human civilization, but also positions the Native American as “savage” and Other, clearly not members of Whitman’s imagined community of Americans. Whitman’s failure to include Native Americans in his imagined America and to write from their perspective is also evident in his later work. As Erkkila notes, Whitman celebrates Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn in the 1876 centennial edition of Leaves of Grass, rather than examining “the contradiction between the advance of ‘broad humanity’ and the extermination of Native Americans carried out by government agency” (“The Poetics” 896).

Not only does Whitman exclude immigrants and Native Americans from his imagined America, he excludes African-Americans from his ideal nation by refusing to afford them equal status with whites. In section fifteen of “Song of Myself,” the poet states, “The woolypates hoe in the sugarfield, the overseer views them from his saddle” (37). Here, Whitman does not attempt to denounce slavery, despite the fact that he was personally opposed to it; he simply accepts the practice as a fact and describes it unquestioningly, even including a derogatory synonym for slave. It is important to note that Leaves of Grass contains Whitman’s depiction of his ideal, imagined America; it is not a description of the America he lived in. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to claim that it was within Whitman’s power to remove slavery from his imagined America. The fact that Whitman allows slavery in his imagined community dramatically underscores its exclusivity. The aforementioned example is not an anomaly; in the very same passage, Whitman writes, “The company returns from its excursion, the darkey brings up the rear and bears the well-riddled target,/ The squaw wrapt in her yellow-hemmed cloth is offering moccasins and beads for sale,/ The connoisseur peers along the exhibition-gallery with halfshut eyes bent sideways” (38). Not only does Whitman once again include the institution of slavery in his imagined America and describe the slave with a derogatory term, he presents a striking juxtaposition of the slave and the squaw with the connoisseur. Whitman’s America is one in which slaves and indigenous peoples are excluded while connoisseurs possess the luxury of loitering in art galleries.

It must be acknowledged that Whitman attempts on several occasions to include slaves in his America, yet he always fails to do so. In addition to the aforementioned runaway slave passage, Whitman attempts in section thirty-three of “Song of Myself” not only to describe the suffering of a slave, but to imagine himself as the slave:

The hounded slave that flags in the race and leans by the fence, blowing and
covered with sweat,
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck,
The murderous buckshot and the bullets,
All these I feel or am.

I am the hounded slave …. I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me …. crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence …. my gore dribs thinned with ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
… they beat me violently over the head with their stock-whips. (62)

Although Whitman succeeds in graphically envisioning himself suffering the plight of the hounded slave, elsewhere in Leaves of Grass he is unable to portray the slave as an American of equal standing, and despite his obvious horror and sympathy, he is merely imagining an atrocity, admitting that “Agonies are one of my changes of garments” (62). Whitman can simply shuck off the persona of the slave and don a more comfortable garment. Again, it is significant that in Whitman’s imagined America slaves are not only present, but are the victims of brutality, grouped in section twenty-four of “Song of Myself” with “prostitutes,” “deformed persons,” “the diseased,” “thieves and dwarfs” (48). Clearly, in Whitman’s imagined America slaves are not equal to whites.

Whitman’s famous proclamation in section twenty-four of “Song of Myself,” “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos … no stander above men and women or apart from them” (48), primarily identifies him as an American. However, he also claims that he does not stand above or apart from men or women, just four lines after admitting that he favors fertile men and women: “And make short of neuters and geldings, and favor men and women fully equipped” (47). Clearly, even when Whitman attempts to be at his most inclusive, encompassing the universe, he is unable to avoid excluding certain groups of people who do not measure up to his ideal of the healthy, virile American man or woman.

Although Whitman makes many arrogant and grandiose claims throughout Leaves of Grass, such as “I am an acme of things accomplished, and I am an encloser of things to be” (77), he is aware of the stance he has adopted, stating, “I know perfectly well my own egotism” (74). Whitman also seems aware of the flaws in his imagined America when he writes in the final section of “Song of Myself,”  “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then …. I contradict myself; / I am large …. I contain multitudes” (85). However, the question remains as to whether or not the reader should accept Whitman’s excuses for his failings. Simply being aware of one’s contradictions and acknowledging them does not justify them or make them acceptable. Whitman’s imagined America is arrogant, expansionist, hierarchical, racist and exclusive; such an America is unacceptable to Native Americans, African-Americans, immigrants, the disabled, the infertile, and all those who value equal rights. Mack writes, “Whitman has always been our most embarrassing poet [...] at no time have the words of America’s ‘representative poet’ failed to provoke some degree of displeasure, squeamishness, or disgust” (xv). Although Mack is primarily describing reactions to Whitman’s sexual frankness, homosexuality and stylistic innovations, his comments apply equally well to the reaction engendered by Whitman’s treatment of immigrants, Native Americans and African-Americans.

Works Cited

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