“If he knew that an Eskimo sat in a kyak, immediately there was Walt being little and yellow and greasy, sitting in a kyak,” -D.H. Lawrence
Lawrence’s scathing criticism precisely captures how the idealistic intentions in Walt Whitman’s poetry are undermined through his own prejudice perspective.
Among Whitman's more famous poems is “Salut Au Monde!” wherein he tries to transcend racial boundaries by recording all people and all places in an egalitarian effort to draw everyone and everywhere in the entire world together in a single joyous festival that is his poem. While he does succeed in the inclusion of many peoples, his descriptions of selected groups are less than flattering. Indeed, despite his boldly pronounced democratic ideals and claims for equality for all people, “Salut au Monde!” as well as several other works leak none-too-subtle undertones of jingoism, orientalism and flat out racism.
One of Whitman’s faults in trying to spread the ideals of equality is that his poetry often reflects his personal underlying beliefs that people are not equal in nature. Near the end of “Salut au Monde!” he illustrates this while addressing several dozen ethnics groups and says, “You will come forward in due time to my side." The implication here and elsewhere in this poem is that certain groups of people from certain places are somehow separate, apart or inferior. A person cannot “come forward” unless they are already behind.
Another instance where this underlying assumption becomes visible is when he estranges America from the rest of the world, which he identifies as one large clump. “Asia, Africa, Europe, are to the east – America is provided for in the west,” he proclaims, lumping three continents full of radically different cultures and people together through the misnomers of “east” and “west”. Identifying an entire hemisphere and a majority of the world’s population as simply “the east” hardly promotes diversity.
To divide the world into “East” and “West” halves in such a manner is used to elevate America while demeaning everyone else in the world. This is an example of orientalism, which according to Edward Said's definition in his book of the same name denouncing the practice, “operates in the Western attempt to mark off the rest of the world in order to distinguish the West’s own alleged exceptionalism." While historians and social scientists observe this pervasive and troubling trend in generally “Western” thought, Whitman employs orientalism to degrade not only traditional targets of Asia and Africa, but also Europe, in an effort to distinguish America’s virtues. It ends up being just a more subtle form of racism, whether intentional or not.
More examples illustrating his orientalism can be found in other poems like “Starting from Paumanok,” when he says, “See revolving the globe, / The ancestor-continents away group’d together, / The present and future continents north and south, with the isthmus between." He overtly creates an elitist hierarchy with the Americas on top as the “present and future” continents while the rest of the world is pigeon holed as “ancestors.”
Another aspect of orientalism is making cultures seem exotic, primitive and backwards. Whitman is guilty of this in various spots in “Passage to India.” Take the following examples: “Eclaircise the myths Asiatic, the primitive fables,” “Old occult Brahma interminably far back," and “Passage indeed O soul to primal thought." By using patronizing diction like primitive, occult, far back, and primal, he delivers a backhanded put down to Indian civilization.
Section 10 of “Salut au Monde!” continues these uncomplimentary insults of people around the globe. In these particular lines, Whitman’s Americentric worldview totally undermines the friendly idealism he boasts of the rest of the poem. He writes,
“I see vapors exhaling from unexplored countries, / I see the savage types, the bow and arrow, the poison’d splint, the fetich, and the obi. / I see African and Asiatic towns, / I see Algiers, Tirpoli, Derne, Mogadore, Timbuctoo, Monrovia, / I see the swarms of Pekin, Canton, Benares, Delhi, Calcutta, Tokio, / I see the Kruman in his hut, and the Dahoman and Ashanteeman in their huts, / I see the Turk smoking opium in Aleppo,"
Once again, his diction used to describe these people is belittling. Lacking any mention of dignity, civilization or diversity, he discloses that these “unexplored countries” use archaic weaponry and religious artifacts that have shamanistic connotations in an attempt to make them appear backwards and exotic. Furthermore, he insults well over half the world’s population by portraying all these “African and Asiatic towns” as representative of “savage types.” Quite simply, this is painting a large portion of the world to be barbaric hut-dwellers. As critic Dana Phillips says, “The sounds and the sights Whitman references are intended to type the nationalities and ethnicities he documents – that is, to stereotype them: to identify their ‘species’ and fix them in place, so that they might then be deployed as the relatively stable terms of an implicit comparison." Keeping these racial stereotypes in mind while considering the orientalism Whitman uses to isolate America and elevate it, his desire for egalitarian treatment of all peoples is severely undermined.
Despite this, Whitman often enjoys a lofty reputation as a great celebrator of equality and racial diversity with little or no reservations about these passages in “Salut au Monde!” that strongly point otherwise. Some point to the line, “You dim-descended, black, divine-soul’d African, large, fine-headed, nobly-form’d, superbly destin’d, on equal terms with me!” as evidence of Whitman’s favorable treatment to African heritage.
While this is indeed a powerful line in support of their position, quotes from section 12 in “Salut au Monde!” present a completely contradictory view:
“You Hottentot with clicking palate! You woolly-hair’d hordes! / You own’d persons dropping sweat-drops or blood-drops! / You human forms with the fathomless ever-impressive countenances of brutes!”
The paradoxes in his stance on respecting diversity and promoting egalitarianism are perhaps more closely wound together in this series of lines than anywhere else in this poem. While the second line beginning with “own’d persons” is in sad recognition of slavery and the pain it causes, the two lines surrounding it are arguably the most racist remarks in his works!
Labeling an entire ethnic group as a “horde” could hardly be considered anything other than racism. He goes on to strongly imply that they aren’t even human; he calls them “human forms,” as if their physical resemblance to humans is only coincidental and needs clarification. Continuing several lines later, he says, “You Austral negro, naked, red, sooty, with protrusive lip, groveling, seeking your food!” Once again, Whitman lassoes an entire hemisphere, this time the southern, and applies a degrading label of red, naked sootiness.
The majority of casual and critical readers of his works have long accepted the sincerity of his bold claims for believing in equality. These readers aren't necessarily wrong, as Whitman was indeed a product of his times and indeed a better spokesperson for equality than all his contemporaries (possibly excluding Mark Twain). It is just unfortunate that “Salut au Monde!” shows many counterproductive stereotypes and mindsets of the peoples and cultures Whitman claims to believe are “on equal terms" with himself.
Literature in English II at Kent State University, Stark Branch. Spring semester 2004.
Phillips, Dana. "Nineteenth-Century Racial Thought and Whitman's 'Democratic Ethnology of the Future.'" Nineteenth-Century Literature Vol. 49, No. 3, December 1994, p. 289-320.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.
Whitman, Walt. Selected Poems. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1991. All quotes are from "Salut au Monde!" unless otherwise noted.