Walt Whitman is possibly one of the best examples of an artist who drew no distinctions between art and culture. To Whitman art is culture, and culture is history. His role as an artist must then be intrinsically manifesting himself as a representative of the America masses, or express himself as America personified. He saw democracy as an inseparable attribute of Americaness. However, the America he lived in was desperately fractured amongst differing factions with different opinions on the definition of “democracy”. Regardless, Whitman did not see the problems of his day as a top versus bottom, bottom versus top issue (no entendre intended). But, rather, an issue that exploded out of every orifice of American life.
Ernesto Guevara spoke of love and conflict:
“Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality…Our vanguard revolutionaries must idealize their love for the people, for the most hallowed causes, and make it one and indivisible…They must struggle every day so that their love of living humanity is transformed into concrete deeds, into acts that will serve as an example as a mobilizing factor.” (Minogue, 33).
Ezra Greenspan explains that most contemporary criticism falls into one of two camps that are separated by two major historical events. He explains that there is a “Cold War generation who tended to focus on what they perceived to be the unrestrained freedom of the self” (143) and that there is the “post-Vietnam War” generation who argue “that Whitman’s attempts to celebrate modern freedom are compromised and complicated by the immersion of author, subject and text in social political, economic, and print making structures of the day” (143). I tend to think both to be true, and both camps provide the interested reader with heavy loads of ammunition to interpret Whitman’s text. Whitman attempts to express absolute freedom, while also influencing the society of his day in order to progress it into a drastically more fair, collective, and egalitarian direction by any means necessary – even if that comes about by using capitalist modes of production (Pascal, 47).
When Walt Whitman began publishing Leaves of Grass, America teetered at the edge of a great chasm created by social and economic crisis; slavery and capitalism its progenitor. Undoubtedly this time called for great poets and visionaries to usher in the change necessary to endure those bleak, catastrophic times. In retrospect readers and critics, especially confederate apologists, can look at Whitman and undermine his message due to his party line support for the dominant political machine. However, Whitman stood for something far larger than north or south, union or confederate, Republican or Demoncrat, he stood for a revolutionary change in how America saw itself as a nation, and how it should operate as a free...