“I celebrate myself,” Walt Whitman wrote, seemingly in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendental self-reliance. But Whitman chose not to be another Emerson, even when Emerson—his hero, his teacher of sorts—gave him instructions to bring him in line. Where Emerson said, are they my poor? Whitman said yes, yes, they are. Where Emerson indicated self-reliance was for men, Whitman said he was the poet of the woman and of the man. Where Emerson said we had to go away from society into solitude to find our true selves, our best selves, Whitman said, “in the faces of men and women, I see God.” The poem that starts famously with “I” turns immediately to “you”: “What I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
We don’t need to look far to see what has and will continue to make America great: we can instead look toward Whitman. America needed Whitman 150 years ago, in 1855 and leading up to war, and especially in the wake of the war, when he offered himself up as a national wound dresser, a bandager of the fractured nation, a soldier replacing martial arms with arms of affection and embrace. I think America needs Whitman even more now, both his own words and those he as “teacher” inspires his readers to produce.
As a professor of American literature, I can report that some writers’ words speak more clearly than others to today’s readers. Whitman wins them over, class after class and year after year. They respond to him; they see themselves in him; they see the plurality and diversity and beauty and complexity of America in him. And then they write back to him, acting as his hoped-for “Poets to Come.” In so doing, they rewrite America, as every generation must, sometimes by repudiating him with democratic fervor. Whitman’s athlete-readers best honor him as teacher by outstripping him. As Whitman did in 1855, these new poets sing not the songs of some mythical golden era in the past but those of the here-and-now, the songs of Whitman’s “Americans of all nations.”