Yet another moment in which knowledge of a writer’s worldview threatens to cinch in the meaning of his/her work. Morris’ chapter “The Great Army of the Sick” introduces another crucial note of exclusiveness to Whitman’s ostensibly wide-open call for American camaraderie: he may only be talking to white people.
In a blog earlier this semester (for Sept. 22), I wrote of how Bigger, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son, pursues the “sense of wholeness” (Wright 240) he has been deprived as an African American male in 1930s Chicago, and of how Whitman’s enjoinder to “claim your own at any hazard” (from “Leaves of Grass (part 4),” 1867 edition of Leaves) assumes a white position of privilege from which Bigger’s “wholeness” might be claimed. However, I still assumed that Whitman, with his driving postwar impulse to see his halved nation cohere, was really hoping for, as I put it, “a highly nationalized, comparatively race-leveling ‘collective identity’ that empowers and protects all Americans non-dichotomously (that is, without distinguishing South/North, white/black, etc.).”
Morris suggests that these two threads, white privilege and the forging of an American identity, might not be separate or at all “contradictory.” They could, in fact, point to the same goal. “The Great Army of the Sick” refers to Whitman’s explicit, publicly asserted distaste for African Americans, as revealed in an excerpt Morris reprints from an 1858 Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorial. “‘Who believes that Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America?” Whitman asks. “Or wishes it to happen? Nature has set an impassable seal against it. Besides, is not America for the Whites? And is it not better so?” (Morris 80). When we think of Whitman calling for a consolidated national identity, we must consider how his abstractly limitless sense of “American” inclusion aims at eradicating one dichotomy, North/South, while permitting another, black/white, to proceed unchecked.
Morris pointedly reminds us of these priorities, stating that Whitman “despised equally the abolitionists and the proslavery hotheads of the South whom he blamed—not without cause—for the fracture of the Union” (81). That antipathy for abolitionism, as Morris suggests, closely corresponds to Whitman’s insistence that African Americans were inferior beings, that “I should not like to see a n****r in the saddle—it seems unnatural” (80). Not in the saddle, and certainly not down his open road. He reveals this outlook rather plainly in “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” from “Drum-Taps,” describing a “dusky woman” as “so ancient hardly human.” That conception of the woman’s inhumanity couples appropriately with the speaker’s inability to understand her, his wondering “What is it fateful woman, so blear, hardly human? / Why wag your head with turban bound, yellow, red and green? / Are the things so strange of marvelous you see or have seen?” (451-52). The exotic, multicolored “turban” and the woman’s strangely animal tendency to “wag [her] head” combine to impress on us Whitman’s feeling that this woman, named simply “Ethiopia” in the title, was certainly not eligible for membership in his vast America.
Elsewhere in “Drum-Taps,” Whitman calls out to that America in terms that reveal how he conceives of the entire nation racially. For example, “Race of Veterans”:
Race of veterans—race of victors!
Race of the soil, ready for conflict—race of the conquering march!
(No more credulity’s race, abiding-temper’d race,)
Race henceforth owning no law but the law of itself,
Race of passion and the storm. (452)
Just as in the “Leaves of Grass (part 4)” passage I held up alongside Wright, Whitman’s speaker here assumes that his listeners enjoy the privilege of self-possession, that they are a “race henceforth owning no law but the law of itself.” However, when examined in light of Whitman’s external assertion that “Whites and Blacks” can and should never truly “amalgamate” in America, this apostrophe does not seem to address a figurative “race” made up of all the variegated inhabitants of America, but a more literal “race” made up of those whites who participated as a people in the Civil War’s slaughter. (Anyone’s guess what he made of the thousands of African Americans enlisted in and fighting for both armies.)
The fact that Whitman’s speaker here calls out specifically to Union veterans, and not to the nation at large, does not limit his “race of victors” to that category, since his wide-scale enjoinders to a listening America begin similarly by invoking the country’s soldiers. In “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice,” the speaker asserts that “Sons of the Mother of All, you shall yet be victorious / …If need be a thousand shall sternly immolate themselves for one.” These “Sons” consist of Missourians, Carolinians, Floridians, etc., all “comrades” whose bond yields “The continuance of Equality” (449). As a group, they begin in the same frame of reference, the “victorious” war, as the “race of veterans—race of victors.” But by expanding that outlook to include all the states of the Union, and to characterize the men’s relationship as a stronghold of Equality, Whitman represents the entire national “race” within that group of war veterans.
Would he have conceived of that nation as anything other than a white one? His discussion in “Over the Carnage” of the process by which each state will join together in a single dominion of “Equality” clangs with obvious dissonance against his belief that “Nature has set an impassable seal against… Whites and Blacks… amalgamat[ing] in America.” In this particular racial context, his hope that the country can come together as a single people means precisely that—and nothing more.