Archive for November 9th, 2009

Monday, November 09th, 2009 | Author:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well, then, I contradict myself

(I am large, I contain multitudes)

–Walt Whitman

Nowhere did Whitman contradict himself more than in his racial attitudes. Whitman is celebrated as an egalitarian poet who transcended the racism of his time. Outside his poetry, he frequently made racist statements, both as a young journalist and old man.  Whitman’s record on race seems to be a perplexing mix of prejudice and admiration. Of particular interest is an article I found by Xiao Li published in Walt Whitman Quarterly.

Li looks at Whitman’s relationship with Asian-Americans. Whitman was horrified by anti-Chinese immigration laws passed in the 1880s, even threatening to denounce his citizenship. Whitman supported unlimited, unrestricted immigration from all countries. Li recounts the story of Sadakichi Hartmann, a half-German, half Japanese immigrant who was born in Japan. While a student in Philadelphia, Hartmann sought out the aging poet in Camden. Hartmann became a Whitman disciple, but their relationship soured when Whitman told Hartmann,  “There are so many traits, characteristics, Americanisms which you would never get at . . . After all, one can’t grow roses on a peach tree.” Hartmann’s publication of these remarks angered the poet, who told Traubel that Hartmann possessed the “Asian craftiness.” The two men made peace shortly before Whitman’s death.  The Hartmann story might be the best anecdote to outline Whitman’s racial contradictions.

Li, Xilao. “Walt Whitman and Asian American Writers.” Walt Whitman    Quarterly Review 10.4 (1993): 179-194. Print.

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