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If I were to count up the things I love best about America, this tableau would be high on the list: Walt Whitman, on a street in Washington, exchanging a respectful bow with Abraham Lincoln as the president's carriage rolled by. That the United States managed to produce either of these gentlemen, the self-taught frontier president and the great poet of democracy, reflects well on our way of life. That a lucky pedestrian could watch the two of them pass close enough to acknowledge one another—such original minds, such extraordinary beards—nearly makes the notion of a special dispensation for America ring true.
As far as anybody can tell, Lincoln and Whitman never paused for a proper conversation. It's too bad, because if they had, it would have been a latter-day constitutional convention. After the Civil War exposed some limitations of the Framers' plans, it fell to Lincoln to bring forth, through his reconciling speeches and his sacrificial death, a "new birth of freedom" for the Union he helped to save. But Whitman, if we read him right, proves to be just as much a Founding Father as Lincoln, and for many of the same reasons.
Ethnically, geographically, and materially, the United States had careened outward during the 19th century. More vibrantly than anybody else, Whitman sang a hymn of praise to what he grasped would become "not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations." He saw how our continental democracy could benefit citizens' souls but recognized how much openness and equality this would demand—the nearly infinite differences that would arise. "I hear America singing," he wrote in Leaves of Grass, "the varied carols I hear."
Neither Whitman nor the president he eulogized in his great elegy "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" are ever far from America's consciousness; neither is what you'd call neglected. But sometimes our need for one of them is more than usually acute. Lincoln offered a touchstone when we tried to make sense of Barack Obama's election in 2008. Now, C. K. Williams has written a book on Whitman, and it arrives not a moment too soon.
This isn't just a dark time for the American economy; politics have grown so vicious and corrosive, it's turning into a dark time for the American soul. Creeping militancy. Mounting cynicism. Talk of division—up to and including secession. Affection for the Confederacy, whose sympathizers (does this not bother anybody else?) killed Abe Lincoln. Until his death in 1892, Whitman opposed all those forms of ugliness. He knew they would subvert American democracy's ability to bring about his most earnest dream: a people with large spirits and heroic souls. "How short we have fallen compared to what he saw for us," writes Williams, "how in so many ways have we regressed." Those shortcomings make right now an excellent time for our mystic chords of memory to be touched by the poet who is—if anyone is—one of the better angels of our nature.
In On Whitman, Williams takes an approach that's more innovative than it sounds: he keeps his focus on the poems. He wants to strip away the heavy theorizing and layers of biography that have accrued around his fellow poet. Williams's aim is to restore the strangeness and power he encountered when, at age 16, he made a Whitman anthology his first poetry purchase. "For a young poet, reading Whitman is sheer revelation, sheer wonder, a delight bordering on then plunging into disbelief. How could all this come to pass?" His slender book offers a convincing answer.
For Williams, the first source of Whitman's power is the music of his verse. It was the result not of steady development of craft but of an epiphany. The poet spent his early years toiling in and around New York City as what his biographer Justin Kaplan calls "an inconstant newspaper editor, a sometime demagogue, and a writer of imitative fiction." Then, like Robert Johnson returning from the crossroads, the 36-year-old journeyman erupted with Leaves of Grass, a book that sounded like nothing he'd written before—or that anybody else had, for that matter. Whatever its origins, Williams writes, his musical system "was magically encompassing and had within it echoes of other singings, the Bible, oratory, opera, even some older poetry, but was entirely unique as well."