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Title: Whitman in Russia

Author: Stephen Stepanchev

Publication information: "Whitman in Russia," by Stephen Stepanchev, is reproduced from Walt Whitman and the World, ed. Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995), 300–338.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00273

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Walt Whitman in the history of twentieth-century Russian letters.1 His audience, reputation, and influence have been enormous. Kornei Chukovsky's translations from Leaves of Grass were published in editions of ten, twenty, and fifty thousand copies; Soviet critics have for decades honored the poet as a high priest of democratic idealism and as a saint of the Revolution in 1917; and his influence on the practice of Russian poets, especially in the 1910s and 1920s, was felt both in choice of subject matter and in verse technique. Rightly or wrongly, the Russians have identified Whitman with their own revolutionary struggle; in his emphasis on a democratic future, his optimism, and his sense of equality and essential divinity of all people, they have recognized the tone of their own convictions and aspirations.

In view of this identification, it is not surprising that Whitman should have come into prominence in Russia in the early years of the century, when the social malaise and ferment of the times (expressed so admirably in the work of Chekhov) led to the abortive revolution of 1905. Indeed, interest in Whitman before 1900 was tentative and sporadic, kept alive in literary circles by the intriguing fact that government censorship forbade any reference to him and the fact that he was achieving considerable fame in Western Europe.

The first mention of Whitman in Russia came in 1861, the year after the publication of the third American edition of Leaves of Grass. An anonymous reviewer of foreign novels for Otechestvenniye Zapiski (Annals of the Fatherland) mistook the poet's work for a novel and, in commenting on the furor that Leaves of Grass had created in England, remarked: The attacks are concerned with the moral aspect of the novel. "He should be printed on dirty paper, as is appropriate for a book intended chiefly for police scrutiny," said one critic. "This is the emancipation of the flesh!" exclaimed another. This amusing Russian echo of gentility's battle against Whitman received no reinforcement, however. More than twenty years passed before the poet was again called to the attention of the reading public, this time by way of John Swinton's lecture on American literature. A translation of it appeared in Zagranichnyi Vestnik (Foreign Herald) in 1882. Then, in March 1883, N. Popov published an article on "Uolt Guitman" in Zagranichnyi Vestnik, which was the first Russian estimate of the American poet and a rhapsodic tribute: Who is this Walt Whitman? He is the spirit of revolt and pride, Milton's Satan. He is Goethe's Faust, but a happier one. It seems to him that he has solved the riddle of life; he is drunk with life, such as it is; he extols birth equally with death because he sees, knows, senses immortality. This inquiring naturalist arrives at rapture through the lessons of putrid corpses as much as through a vision of fragrant flowers. "Every life is composed of thousands of corpses!" he exclaimed. The censors found this commentary alarmingly decadent, put the author in prison, and suspended the magazine for the rest of the year.

The year before Popov's article, Whitman had received a letter from an Irishman living in Dresden, Dr. John Fitzgerald Lee, asking permission to translate Leaves of Grass into Russian. How well Dr. Lee knew Russian is unknown, and the translation was never made, but the proposal excited Whitman, partly because he believed he had been ignored in his own country. Whitman replied by giving his blessing to the proposal along with a greeting to the Russian people: As my dearest dream is for an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy—As the purpose beneath the rest in my book is such hearty comradeship, for individuals to begin with, and for all nations of the earth as a result—how happy I should be to get the hearing and emotional contact of the great Russian people.2 Whitman, of course, had addressed the first edition of Leaves to an American audience, confidently ending his preface with the assertion that "the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it" (LG, 729). Having failed that test, he now fantasized an international audience, and his fantasy began with Russia.

Despite the state censorship, Whitman had some Russian readers during this period. Ivan Turgenev was so moved by Whitman's poems that he offered to translate a few of them for E. Ragozin, editor of Nedeli (The Week). In a letter to his friend P.V. Annenkov, he wrote: "To Ragozin, together with portions of Sketches of a Sportsman, I am sending some translated verses of the astonishing American poet Walt Whitman (have you heard of him?) with a short introduction." He was particularly excited by "Beat! Beat! Drums!" and tried to translate it. The manuscript still survives in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and both Chukovsky and I. Christova have commented on Turgenev's mistakes.3 Chukovsky says Turgenev misunderstood some of Whitman's words, but the task was almost impossible anyway. For example, "Beat! Beat! drums! blow! bugles! blow!" contains seven syllables in all, and they "ring energetically and courageously." But in Turgenev's translation there are sixteen syllables: "That is slow and flabby." In his own translation, Chukovsky used eleven syllables, but he admits that they do not closely approximate the English: the prolixity of the Russian language is a real barrier to the effective translation of Whitman.

Turgenev put his work on Whitman aside, and the non-English reading public had to wait until 1907 for a book of translations from Leaves of Grass. That Turgenev continued to be interested in Whitman, however, is clear from the fact that he spoke of him to an American writer (possibly Henry James) in Paris in 1874, remarking that although there was a great deal of chaff in the poet's work there was also good grain.

Another one of Whitman's readers was Leo Tolstoy, whose reactions were likewise mixed. On receiving a gift copy of Leaves of Grass in 1889, he wrote in his diary: "Received book: Whitman—ugly verses." But later, when R.W. Collins, an Irish admirer, sent Tolstoy a copy of an Irish edition and suggested that there were similarities between his ideas and Whitman's, Tolstoy took the trouble to read the book and found a number of admirable poems to underline, such as "I Dreamed in a Dream" in the "Calamus" section. In his diary he remarked that Whitman was empty much of the time, but that now and then he was good. By 1890 he was clearly interested in winning a Russian audience for the poet, as in that year he wrote to Leo Nikiforov, the translator, that Whitman "is already very famous in Europe, but among us he is virtually unknown. An essay about him with a selection of translated poems would, I think, be acceptable to every journal, to Russkaya Mysl [Russian Thought], I believe." Unhappily, Nikiforov failed to respond to this suggestion. But Tolstoy's continuing ambivalence toward Whitman is apparent when his remark to Aylmer Maude, his English translator, that Whitman lacked a philosophy of his life is combined with his later listing of the poet (in 1900) among those American authors who were important to world literature.

After N. Popov's unhappy experience with the czarist censorship in 1883, there was no public notice of Whitman until 1892, the year of his death. In that year obituaries appeared in at least three Russian periodicals: Nablyudatel' (The Observer), Bibliograficheskiya Zapiski (Bibliographic Annals), and Knizhki Nedeli (Book Week). The last-mentioned journal characterized Whitman as "the American Tolstoy" and as "the most remarkable of North American poets." But in the same year an article in the Brockhaus-Efron Entsiklopedicheski Slovar (Brockhaus-Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary) attacked him for his "chaotic unfamiliarity with thought" and his "anti-artistic methods." Later in the decade, in 1896 and 1898, Whitman received the favorable attention of Dioneo (pseudonym of Isaac Shklovsky), a correspondent in England who wrote articles on English and American literature for Russian magazines. He spoke of the wide audience that Whitman had won in England, America, and Australia, of his "classical talent," of his superiority over Nietzsche, and of his altruistic democracy. "Whitman speaks of the widest, universal altruism," he said.

Notwithstanding all these indications of interest, the fact remains that Whitman was little known and little read in Russia during the nineteenth century. Then, during the first decade of the twentieth, he was swept up in literary and political currents as Russia's great revolutionary generation discovered its war slogans. Whitman's emphasis on pioneering, on building a new democratic future, on brotherhood and equality elicited a warm response both from youthful Marxists and from partisans of a gentler, more middle-class orientation. Numerous writers and journals assisted in relating Whitman to the Russian zeitgeist, in making him a contemporary Russian poet, but the two more avid publicists were Konstantin Bal'mont, himself a distinguished symbolist poet, and Kornei Chukovsky, a devoted Whitman scholar who saw his translations from Leaves of Grass go through twelve editions before his death in 1969.

Konstantin Bal'mont began his translations from Whitman in 1903 and completed them in 1905 to the sound of revolutionary guns, as he said. He published them in the literary magazines Vessy (The Scales) and Pereval (Mountain Pass), together with commentaries in which he tried to elucidate Whitman's ideas and technique. In 1911 the poems were collected and published under the title of Pobegi Travy (Shoots of Grass) in an edition of fifteen hundred copies. The book was prefaced by an enthusiastic Whitmanesque essay, "Polarity," which Bal'mont had printed in Sovremenny Mir (Contemporary World) in 1910.

In his articles on Whitman, Bal'mont tried, on the one hand, to explain the American poet's neglect in Russia and, on the other, to justify a much greater measure of interest in him. In "The Bard of Individuality and Life," an essay that appeared in Vessy in July 1904, he pointed out that Whitman was unread because of his indifference to European literary forms and because of the absence from his work of conventional elements of "beauty." He also noted that many purely American details and local color provided a barrier to understanding. But he insisted that Whitman was even more worthy of Russian attention than his "aristocratic" compatriot, Edgar Allan Poe, of whom the Russian public was very fond. In comparison with Poe, Whitman might be chaotic and undisciplined, but he takes us to the morning of world-making and gives us a sense of the tremendous creative expanse of earth and sea. . . . He sings of freedom, of his young country chaotically moving toward the building of new forms of life. Sensing himself new, he rejects the old, and, above all, being a poet of the future, he rejects old forms of verse. . . . He sings the simple, powerful ego of a young race. . . . Whitman's democracy shows itself in great part not as a political manifestation, but, rather, as a form of religious enthusiasm. . . . He is a poet of individuality, of unlimited life, and a harmonious joining of all separate personalities with the Universal One. In the preface to his Pobegi Travy, Bal'mont pursued these ideas but gave them a more explicitly political formation when he said that the poet was "a part, and a strong part, of that future which is swiftly coming toward us, which is, indeed, already being made in the present. Ideal Democracy. Full Sovereignty of the People. . . . Whitman spoke of it."

Bal'mont's contemporaries did not question these sentiments, but some of them, notably his rival, Kornei Chukovsky, objected to his translations. The chief charge leveled against them was that they were too literary, too pretty, too full of symbolist embellishment that contradicted Whitman's simplicity of phrase and rhythm. Chukovsky pointed out that Bal'mont's fear of simplicity can be seen in the very title of the book, which is Pobegi Travy (Shoots of Grass) instead of List'ya Travy (Leaves of Grass). The second charge leveled at him was that his knowledge of English was so rudimentary that he made inexcusable errors in translation. Bal'mont had remarked in the preface of his book that he had observed the most scrupulous exactitude in his labors, "having recourse to paraphrase only where my literary perception was absolutely necessary," but Chukovsky noted that Bal'mont had translated "lilacs" as "lilies" and "a column of figures" as "figures on columns." He showed, too, that Whitman's line about women, "they are ultimate in their own rights," was incorrectly rendered as "they know how to issue ultimatums." "These are not women," Chukovsky said wryly, "but diplomats of enemy countries." Chukovsky's third charge against Bal'mont was that he sometimes substituted a generality for the concreteness of the original text. Where Whitman had written "my Mississippi" or "prairies in Illinois" or "my prairies on the Missouri," Bal'mont had preferred some all-inclusive phrase, such as "rivers and fields and dales."

That there is much justification for Chukovsky's strictures on Bal'mont's work is clear to any impartial reader, and it should be noted that Soviet encyclopedias and literary histories echo the opinion that the symbolist poet's translations were "unsuccessful." However, in the first decade of the century, Bal'mont had his champions, and when Chukovsky attacked him in an article in the October 1906 issue of Vessy, he drew a long and vehement reply from an outraged reader, Elena T. Their correspondence was published in the December issue of the magazine. Bal'mont had another defender in M. Nevedomsky, a writer for Sovremenny Mir, who asserted in an article "On the Art of Our Days and the Art of the Future" (in the April 1909 issue) that Bal'mont's translations were "more reliable" than Chukovsky's.

It is undeniable, however, that Kornei Chukovsky was the foremost Whitman scholar in Russia and that his translations and articles in the crucial first decade of the century helped to establish Whitman in his high position in Russian letters. In his 1969 essay in Sputnik (see selection 3), Chukovsky explained how he discovered Leaves of Grass purely by chance. He says that at the time he bought a copy of Whitman's poems he was alienated from his parents (his father had abandoned the family, and his mother supported her children as a laundress) and was working as a day laborer on the docks of Odessa. Chukovsky was only seventeen when he bought a copy of Leaves of Grass from a sailor in Odessa; he had never heard of the author's name. By this time, though self-educated, he had gained considerable facility in reading English. When he began reading Whitman's poems, he thought the author must be an inspired madman: this poet could transcend space, and, even better, he identified with everyone—for him there was no inequality. Chukovsky's "youthful heart eagerly responded to his ecstatic call for human brotherhood, and to the radiant hymns he sang to labor, equality and democracy, to the joy he took in the simple things of everyday life and to his daring glorification of emancipated flesh."

Because Chukovsky wanted to share this "emancipation" with others, he began trying to translate the poems into Russian. In the preface to his sixth (1923) edition of Uot Uitmen i Ego List'ya Travy: Poeziya Gryadushchei Demokratii (Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass: Poetry of the Future Democracy), Chukovsky described the first years of his campaign in behalf of Whitman: When I began to publicize Walt Whitman in Russia one of the newspapers declared that there had never been such a poet and that I had simply thought him up. The article indeed began in this way: "Chukovsky invented Walt Whitman." The name of the American bard was known only to a narrow circle of readers, chiefly esthetes-symbolists. The form of his verses seemed so slovenly and awkward that at first not a single journal would agree to print my translations. Chukovsky confessed that, in his eagerness to win an audience for Whitman, he resorted to bowdlerization: he corrected Whitman's verses and added rhymes and, in general, misrepresented the poet to a far greater degree than Bal'mont ever did. A few of these mistranslations can be found in the old magazine Nive (Fields). The scholar indicated, too, that he had had some trouble with the censorship, particularly in 1905, but declared that I continued to preach the gospel of Whitman everywhere, and there was no publication, it seemed, in which I did not print an article about him or translations from Leaves of Grass. I wrote about him for the journal Odesskie Novosti [Odessa News] (1904), the almanac Mayak [The Lighthouse] (1906), the journal Vessy (1906), the gazette Rech' [Speech] (1909, 1911), the gazette Russkoe Slovo [The Russian Word] (1913), the journal Russkaya Mysl' [Russian Thought], the gazette Navodnyi Vestnik [The People's Messenger] and, it seems, in tens of others.

But Chukovsky's chief contribution to Whitman scholarship during the early 1900s was his 1907 edition of Leaves of Grass, the first in Russia. The work was called Poeziya Gryadushchei Demokratii: Uot Uitmen (Poetry of the Future Democracy: Walt Whitman).4 It was reviewed favorably by Yuly Eichenwald in the August 1907 issue of Russkaya Mysl', though the reviewer brushed aside Chukovsky's characterization of Whitman as an apostle of democracy and made him an advocate of anarchism instead. Eichenwald saw Whitman as a great, free, titanic father-figure: Above us, who are exhausted by doubts, who are growing small through our petty labor and worry, above us, Lilliputian souls, rises the masterful self-confidence of a great man. And when one finds himself near him, one wants to talk not in his ordinary, quiet voice, but louder and louder; he wishes to imitate his energetic speech, which is without redundance and connectives, without disgusting softness. . . . Huge, loud, titanic, he differs from us in that we feel ourselves children, that our view of the world is childish, submissive, and Whitman is the father.

During the second decade of the century, a turbulent time of world war and successful revolution, public interest in Whitman was so great that three new editions of Chukovsky's translation from Leaves of Grass appeared. In 1914, three thousand copies were printed of the improved second edition of Poeziya Gryadushchei Demokratii: Uot Uitmen, with an introduction by I.E. Repin, the painter; this edition was seized by the czar's censors (see selection 1). The third edition, of five thousand copies, was published in Petrograd in 1918 with an epilogue by the Marxist critic A. Lunacharsky. And in the following year the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Red Army Deputies issued fifty thousand copies of the fourth edition. With this huge printing, it can be said that Whitman had finally achieved an audience in Russia.

It should be added that several pamphlets and broadsides containing Whitman's verses were published between 1918 and 1923. Some of these were distributed to Red Army troops and workers in the trenches and at the barricades. Among them was a translation by "M.S.," Pionery (Pioneers), issued as a four-page pamphlet in Petrograd in an edition of one thousand copies. Another was a broadside, V Boi Pospeshim My Skorei (We Shall Hurry to Battle), printed in an edition of one thousand copies in Tot'ma, a town in northern Russia on the route to the Archangel revolutionary front.

In these years, though Whitman was enlisted in the revolutionary struggle, there was no consistent view of his political and social thought. Some critics, like M. Nevedomsky and Yuly Eichenwald in the first decade, saw him as an anarcho-socialist; others, like Chukovsky, his most careful student, described him as a democratic individualist; still others, like I.E. Repin, emphasized his Christianity. Repin's point of view was, briefly, this: "I do not believe that this religion of brotherhood, unity, equality, is so new, indeed, as K.I. Chukovsky imagines; it was manifested to the whole world nearly twenty hundred years ago." Repin saw Whitman as counteracting the malignant influence of Nietzsche's cult of "selfishnes." Individualism among Russians, according to Repin, was characterized by rowdyism, rapine, and suicide, and he expected Whitman to give the deathblow to this kind of individualism, "for he is the poet of union, brotherhood, love."

But the most common view was essentially Marxist. In the eyes of the socialists and Communists, Whitman was, as Vladimir Friche put it, "the singer of equal value and equal rights of men, of international solidarity"; he "sang the big city, the hurly-burly of its streets, the ceaseless labor of machines, the working people and the folk mass, the busy life of an industrial-democratic society." Maxim Gorky went even further, however, maintaining that Whitman, after his disillusionment with bourgeois democracy in the 1870s, advocated revolution: Whitman "began with individualism and quietism" and them "came over to socialism, to the preaching of activism." A. Lunacharsky, too, made an effort to draw the poet into the Communist fold: Whitman is a man with an open heart. Many will be like him when they break out of their one-man prisons, the prisons of individualism and possessions. . . . Communism carries a radiance with it. . . . Communism puts a man in his place. Man awakes and happily realizes his destiny—he is a being conscious and immortal, completing the universal architecture. Immortal. Man is immortal. Though the individual dies. He who does not understand this does not understand Whitman either. In the sphere of politics and economics communism is a struggle against private property with all its hereditary governmental, ecclesiastical, and cultural superstructure. And in the realm of the spirit it is an effort to discard the pitiful envelope "I" and discover a being who is winged with love, immortal, fearless, like Whitman—possessing the shape of a great, all-embracing man.5

It was during this period of war rumors, war, and revolution that Whitman exerted his first influence on the practice of Russian poets. He had been greatly admired by the symbolists, particularly by Bal'mont, but he had very little effect on their poetry. Now, in the second decade of the century, he was taken up by Moscow and St. Petersburg circles of futurists, who strongly opposed the conventional aesthetic of the past and espoused a rough, masculine, even coarse verse line. They hailed Whitman for his loud, brash, swaggering poetry, "the poetry of the future," and did him the honor of imitating him. Among these futurists was Velemir Hlebnikov, who poem "Sad" ("The Garden") shows Whitman's influence. According to Chukovsky, Hlebnikov liked to listen to Whitman's poems read in English, "even though he did not fully understand the English language." Two other luminaries wearing Whitman's cloak at this time were Mihail Larionov, who regarded Whitman as his collaborator in undermining the bases of traditional aesthetics, and Ivan Oredezh, a St. Petersburg Whitmanian who at times parodied the master.

Preeminent among the futurists was Vladimir Mayakovsky, who in the years immediately succeeding the revolution became a major Russian poet. In his formative years he liked and imitated Whitman; he was impressed by Whitman's "spirited vulgarity," the free, rather conversational language, the phrasing of the average person. His poem "Chelovek" ("Man") comes closest to Whitman's rhythms and diction, according to Chukovsky, who introduced the poet to Whitman's work in 1913. But Mayakovsky was not wholly satisfied with the poems of the American, for he once told Chukovsky that some of his lines were flabbily made and, on another occasion, that Whitman was not true to himself in his struggle to achieve a revolutionary form of art. It seems that Mayakovsky regarded himself as the more masculine and powerful of the two. He developed an idiom and a voice of his own, but most Russian critics are quick to agree that Whitman played no small part in that development. Yassen Zassoursky, for example, claims that "Whitman is perceived in our poetry mostly through the eyes of Mayakovsky," and he goes on to suggest that Mayakovsky's poems "play an essential role in linking Russian poetry and Whitman": [Mayakovsky's] poem "Vladimir Mayakovsky" was written on the pattern of Whitman's "Song of Myself." It was in fact almost a translation of Whitman's poem. While Mayakovsky's use of rhyme and his rhythm differed from those of Whitman, Mayakovsky's approach to life, his imagery, his sense of the greatness of the world, and his cosmic vision were close to Whitman's. . . . Mayakovsky mentioned Whitman several times in his poems when he spoke about democratic America. One of his famous poems ["150 Millions"] . . . includes the line, "I am a free American citizen. The earth is full of various Lincolns, Whitmans, Edisons." In another poem, "The Fifth International," Mayakovsky stressed the international brotherhood of democrats and poets. There he mentioned Whitman the democrat. In his poetry, which in its urban and global approach to life was very close to that of Whitman, Mayakovsky lived up to the legacy of the American poet.6

In the 1920s, years of construction and reconstruction in Russia, Whitman maintained his hold on the reading public. The fifth edition of Chukovsky's translations from Leaves of Grass, in a printing of four thousand copies, was published in 1922 under the title of List'ya Travy. Proza (Leaves of Grass. Prose.). In this edition, selected passages from Democratic Vistas and other prose writings of Whitman were included for the first time. In the following year, the sixth edition, in a printing of five thousand copies, made its appearance; it was entitled Uot Uitmen i Ego List'ya Travy: Poeziya Gryadushchei Demokratii (Walt Whitman and His Leaves of Grass: Poetry of the Future Democracy). It should be noted that, in addition to these two editions, copies of older editions were still available to the public in bookstores and libraries. Indicative of popular interest in Whitman was the fact that he was quoted frequently in the newspapers and that his verses were published in various anthologies of poems for recitation by schoolchildren. Interesting, too, is the fact that "actors of the proletarian culture" in Archangel dramatized and acted his poem "Europe." William Parry reports that in Baku poems by Whitman were distributed as morale builders to oil workers engaged in reconstructing the oil industry. In 1921–22 the Bureau of Public Engagement issued large, brightly colored calendars (twenty by thirty inches in size) in the style of those previously distributed by mail-order firms or by periodicals. These calendars had formerly displayed a large Pietà surrounded by various saints, martyrs, and angels. The Soviet version had a large likeness of Lenin in the center and a border of portraits of men and women whose writings had contributed to revolutionary thought. Marx sat directly above Lenin, just as the Holy Ghost had wavered above Christ in the old pictures. Among the influential men in the border were Carlyle, Lincoln, Paine, and Whitman.

Russia's poets were active during this era of revolutionary triumph and experimentation, and among them Whitman was a god. They liked the brash, proletarian flavor of his verse and his free-ranging subject matter. Through him they learned that they could write about anything; there was no "poetic" subject matter or diction. The Whitman influence was so sweeping, indeed, that, in his comments on the poet in the sixth edition of his translation, Chukovsky remarked that the poetry of Whitman has emerged from the covers of his small book and become an air that many poets in Russia breathe. . . . In recent years, since the Revolution, the influence of Whitman has spread so widely that it is impossible (and, indeed, unnecessary) to point to individual poets who are not under his influence. And, as in the prewar period, students and poets began to organize literary circles in his name.

In the years after 1929 and the implementation of the first Five Year Plan, the Russian literary scene was shaken by controversies over "content" and "form" and "socialist realism." One group maintained that writers should be allowed to experiment with form and content as much as they pleased, while another group, and the dominant one, insisted that writers should reject the "formalism" of the past and concentrate on realist reporting of the Five Year Plan and the emerging Soviet social order. Throughout these battles, Whitman maintained his position of esteem, and in 1931, at the height of the controversy over "formalism," Chukovsky's List'ya Travy (Leaves of Grass) was issued in an edition of 20,000 copies. In the following year, the eighth edition, Uot Uitmen: Izbrannye Stihotvoreniya (Walt Whitman: Selected Poems), was issued in 3,000 copies, with an introduction by A. Lunacharsky, now a commissar of education. The ninth edition, List'ya Travy: Isbrannye Stihi i Poemy (Leaves of Grass: Selected Poems), was published in 1935 in a printing of 10,300 copies.

Chukovsky, however, refused to use Whitman for Communist propaganda. He continued to translate and admire him, but one sign that he may have begun a reevaluation is that in the 1935 edition he used Count D.S. Mirksy's essay, "Poet of American Democracy," as a preface (see selection 2); Mirsky's essay also appeared in an English edition of Leaves of Grass published in 1936, in a printing of twenty-five hundred copies, by the Cooperative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R. Mirsky did not think that Whitman anticipated Communism; in fact, he called him "the last great poet of the bourgeois era of humanity, the last in the line that began with Dante." Although Whitman tried to be "the poet of democracy" before the Civil War, he had to admit in the 1870s that America had not attained democracy, although he still hoped it might be possible in future "Vistas."

The settled Russian view of Whitman during the 1930s and 1940s was that he was the greatest American poet and a remarkable product of American middle-class democracy of the nineteenth century. Marxist critics saw his contradictions as reflecting the contradictions of his age, as stemming from the impossibility of joining democratic idealism to a capitalist order bent on destroying democracy. An expression of the view can be found in volume 2 of the Soviet Literaturnaya Entsiklopediya (Literary Encyclopedia), edited by P.I. Lebedev-Polyansky and I.M. Nusinov: That book [Leaves of Grass], the intellectual-artistic credo of Whitman, was created in an epoch that was unusually stormy and rich in social movements. It was the poetic prelude to the civil war of North and South, which cleared the path for capitalist expansion. But that expansion also limited the democracy of the American bourgeoisie in the 1950s.

The work of Whitman—the poet of the petty bourgeois democracy of that epoch—expresses unprecedented progress in the technical power of the bourgeoisie, its conquest of the forces of nature, and, at the same time, the illusions of the American democracy. . . .

The realism of his poetry does not exclude a deep inner contradiction in his world view. Whitman himself did not know where humanity called him: to the big cities of stone and steel or to the solitude of nature. . . .

And although Whitman, of course, was not a Socialist, the sense of collectivism is expressed with such power in his poetry that we can count him with us in our epoch of struggle for the classless society; the progressive ideas of Whitman, such as his affirmation of labor, cannot but find a response in the Soviet reader.

A similar view was expressed in 1942 by the anonymous authors of Luchshie Predstaviteli Angliiskoi i Amerikanskoi Literatury (The Best Representatives of English and American Literature): Whitman expressed the pathos and optimism of the American radical democracy in the middle of the nineteenth century. Toward the end of his life Whitman was disillusioned about the possibility of universal brotherhood within the framework of capitalist society.

Throughout the commentary on Whitman in the 1930s and 1940s one can also find a note of genuine affection for a poet who had played so important a role in Russian cultural history during the days of the revolution. A feeling of nostalgia crept into articles written in 1939 to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the poet's birth, a feeling one can find underlining much of what Chukovsky had to say in an essay on Whitman that appeared in the Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Gazette) of June 10, 1939. Chukovsky gave his readers an impression of Whitman's great role in Russian literary history in the 1910s and 1920s, noted his fame and popularity (as M. Zverev did, too, in the Moscow News of June 5, 1939), and named him comrade in the antifascist crusade.

The tenth and last edition of Chukovsky's translations from Whitman was announced as early as 1939, but it made its appearance as Uolt Uitman: Isbrannye Stihotvorenniya i Proza (Walt Whitman: Selected Poetry and Prose) only in 1944, toward the end of the Second World War, when relations with the United States were especially cordial. The work was issued in an edition of ten thousand copies. Unfortunately, as the title indicates, the book contained only selections from Walt Whitman; it was not complete. It still remains for some writer in Russia to give the reading public a complete translation of Leaves of Grass.

In the 1940s Chukovsky's loyalty to a Communist state was severely tested and undermined by attacks on him; he was a victim of the Soviet psychology, and Lenin's widow censured him for defending fairy tales for children and writing poems for them which had no obvious utilitarian value.7 He survived the attacks and miraculously escaped Stalin's purges, perhaps partly because he shifted his literary criticism to interpretations of the great nineteenth-century Russian authors, whom even the Communists still revered. Ironically, he may have been partly protected also by the popularity of his books for children, the very books he had been attacked for, which every Russian family possessed and which most adored. But some of his best friends were not so lucky, notably Isaac Babel, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, and Andrei Sakharov, who were imprisoned and tortured. He further exposed himself to danger by trying to help and defend these men.8

During the relaxation of state persecution of dissenters during Kruschev's leadership, Chukovsky was awarded the Lenin Prize, and Oxford University gave him an honorary D.Lit. degree for his translations of British and American authors. Michael Scammell, Solzhenitsyn's biographer, says Chukovsky survived Stalinism "physically intact and morally uncompromised." Chukovsky gave a speech at the 1955 centennial celebration of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, sponsored by the Academy of the Soviet Union (other speeches were given by the secretary of the Union of Soviet Writers and by Maurice Mendelson, the second most prominent interpreter of Whitman in Russia). But Chukovsky lost favor again with the Soviet government when he defended Pasternak after he won the Nobel Prize in 1958 and was forbidden to receive it and again two years later when he praised Pasternak at his funeral (Pasternak, a great admirer of Whitman, once addressed a poem to Chukovsky that ended with "a bear hug / For your gift of Whitman"—see selection 3).9 Chukovsky was still out of official favor when he died in 1969. In 1980 an edition of his letters was sabotaged in a government printing office.

One might think that Whitman would flourish in Russia under glasnost. But it is very difficult to obtain information about his reception during the late 1980s. Chukovsky published My Walt Whitman in 1966, and Maurice Mendelson's Life and Work of Walt Whitman: A Soviet View came out in 1976. This latter book has much valuable critical and bibliographical information about Whitman in Russia, but it has the Soviet "spin"—Whitman is viewed as a proletarian poet (see selection 4). In 1986 Yassen Zassoursky, dean of the School of Journalism at Moscow State University, ended an essay on "Whitman's Reception and Influence in the Soviet Union" with the prediction: "In view of the Soviet Union's long-standing interest in Whitman we can safely predict a prolonged life for Whitman in the Russian language, in Russian literature, and in our Soviet culture." However, by 1990 visitors to Russia could not find a single copy of Chukovsky's translations in any bookstore in Leningrad.

Zassoursky suggested in 1986 some of the ways glasnostwriters were reconstructing Whitman, and he described the growing popularity of Whitman in the Soviet Union of the 1980s: Recent Soviet critics have tried to revise the view that Whitman was a realist, saying that he was a Romantic. Also, better translations of Whitman have appeared. Twenty poets were invited to collaborate on a complete translation of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The book, published in 1982, contributed greatly to the popularity of Whitman. All in all, since the 1917 revolution, twenty-eight editions of Walt Whitman have been published in our country. . . . Whitman has been translated into twelve languages besides Russian. Our country is a multinational country, and we have a lot of literatures; we have about one hundred languages. Although we have a long way to go to make Whitman read by all the ethnic groups in our country, Whitman is now available to most people in the Soviet Union.10

Paradoxically, though, as Russians attain more freedom, they seem to have less use for the American "poet of freedom," though this may be partly because the Communists praised him and he is therefore suspect. Evidently Whitman's future in Russia depends upon the outcome of the political struggle—and possibly upon a new anti-Communist (or post-Communist) translator. Still, given his influence on generations of Russian poets, it is not an exaggeration to say that Whitman is now a Russian as well as an American author.

1. Anonymous Review

"The Poet of Democracy: Walt Whitman"

In his book Poetry of the Future Democracy, K. Chukovsky provides a brilliant characterization of the work of Walt Whitman, the American poet, who commands enthusiastic followers in Western Europe and little fame among us.

"I believe that my book is timely," writes K. Chukovsky in the introduction. "We can dislike Whitman, if we choose, but we must, at any rate, know him. Europe has already made use of him. Without him the history of world literature would be incomplete. In France, especially, there has been in recent years a strengthening of the cult of his spirit. . . . All poetry has turned in the direction pointed out by the American poet.

"I believe it is inevitable that the American bard will play an important role in our poetry, too. Unfortunately, my efforts to make his works known in Russia have had little success up to now. Perhaps this small book will finally win a response."

We cite some of the most striking passages from K. Chukovsky's beautiful book: "Regardless of our wishes, one of these days, if not today then tomorrow, we shall be forced to face the problem of democracy and cope with it in some way. In Europe, as in America, the springs of inspiration had dried up. Classical antiquity and medieval romanticism could no longer nourish contemporary art. Literature and art, if they were to maintain their position, had to adapt themselves to new, to changing conditions. They were compelled to find a new faith—not in an esthetic, a style, a rhythm, but in their mission, their destiny: to give concrete and forceful embodiment to the new life, to its religion and essence, and to do so as powerfully as the Greek sculptors expressed paganism and the Italian artists medieval Catholicism."

Whitman undertook to accomplish this grandiose task, asserts the author of the cited book. He was the first to understand and to declare that in our renascent world it is necessary that democracy have a religious pathos, a religious ecstasy of its own—even though in secret—and he boldly announced himself the first priest of that universal religion. That secret faith was for him the road that democracy must take, and when, at times, he saw, with amazement, that despite enormous successes in the achievement of purely material prosperity democracy failed to realize its religious potentialities, he was prepared to turn his back on it. "It is as if someone had given us an enormous body and a small soul or none at all," he wrote in such a moment. The tremendous struggle of workers for better wages left him indifferent: their meetings, parties, proclamations, and strikes were not mirrored in his book. "According to you, dear friend," he wrote in one of his manifestoes, "democracy is achieved if there are elections, politics, various party slogans, and nothing else. As for myself, I believe that the present role of democracy begins only when she goes farther and farther. . . . Her real and permanent grandeur is her religion; otherwise she has no grandeur."

Just as the people contain all, assimilating all nations, climates, ages, points of view, natures, religions, so the democratic bard rejects nothing and no one in the world: I left no one at the door, I invited all;
The thief, the parasite, the mistress—these above all I called—
I invited the slave with flabby lips
And invited the syphilitic!

In former ages no one ever dreamed of such mindless expansiveness. "I am both white and black, and belong to every caste—mine is every faith—I am a farmer, gentleman, mechanic, artist, sailor, Quaker, criminal, visionary, brawler, lawyer, priest, and physician. . . ." This sense of one's multiplicity, this identification with everyone—here we have the first great expression of the personality of the democratic bard.

He never forgot, even for a moment, that around him were myriads of worlds and behind him were myriads of centuries. In each drop he saw the ocean; in each second he sensed eternity. Nothing petty, nothing small! He had a soul like a telescope: he knew only the far and the wide. "I am only a period, only an atom in the floating desert of the world"—such was his inexhaustible sense of things. . . .

There is neither better nor worse—no hierarchy!—all things, all acts, all feelings are equal and right, and a cow, dully chewing her cud, is as beautiful as the Venus of Melos; and a small leaf of grass is no less than the ways of the sky's planets; and to see a pod of peas transcends the wisdom of the ages; and the soul is not more than the body, and the body not more than the soul; and one may pray to the bug and to manure: they are as worthy of prayer as the very holiest of holies. Everything is divine and everything is equal: I'm glad for all the weeds that grow; I'm ready to water them!
Or do you say that the laws of the universe are wrong and must be changed?
A frog is a masterpiece; there can be none greater! And a mouse is a miracle
     which can stagger sextillions of infidels!

I do not call a turtle evil because it is only a turtle.
Because you are greasy or pimpled, or were once drunk, or a thief,
Or that you are diseas'd, or rheumatic, or a prostitute,
Or from frivolity or impotence, or that you are no scholar and never saw your
     name in print

Do you give in that you are any less immortal?

Life is as beautiful as death; honor as good as dishonor. Victory and defeat are one. "Have you heard that it is good to win and to conquer? I tell you that defeat is good too! It is all the same: to destroy or to be destroyed!"

Universal equality, identity! And science, toward which every microbe and vibrio contributes as much as the greatest among us in this universal life, and according to which the metals and gases under my feet are the same as those on the farthest suns, and even the erratic comet moves by the same laws as the ball of a playing girl—science strengthens, broadens the contemporary spirit's democratic feeling of equality.

For the poet it has come to this, that he speaks for whatever he sees: and this is I!—and here we have no scheme, no formula, but the living human sensibility. He feels in every nerve his equality with everything and everyone. . . .

"I have no amorous stanzas for women with stomach aches! Away with the sweetness of meter!" shouted the American bard—and spent several years cutting out of his work all the effects and embellishments of ordinary verse, seeing them as servants of a dead feudal culture, the heritage of an aristocratic world.

"We have in America such mad storms, such mighty men, such tremendous events; we have the largest oceans, the highest mountains, limitless prairies—how, then, can we tolerate these soft, pretty dolls, made with flabby fingers! . . . " he said of American letters. "The awakening of the people and the destruction of social barriers served as a call to contemporary poetry, and unconsciously I answered it."

In the name of democracy he rejected the heroes of the old balladry, all former themes, the old esthetic:

"Muse, migrate from Greece, give up Ionia, the stories of Troy; stop singing of Achilles' wrath, of the wanderings of Odysseus and Aeneas! Affix this placard on Parnassus: Removed. To Let.

"My purpose is to invest the gray masses of America with that shining greatness and heroism with which the Greek and feudal poets invested their gods and heroes."

Traditional poetry was nailed up in a coffin. "The locomotive has its own rhythm, the streets of Chicago resound differently from the ancient pastures of Arcadia." Whitman regarded himself as the greatest reformer of versification, "the Richard Wagner of poetry," and it is indeed remarkable that the finest esthetes, traditionalists, guardians of classic canons now speak enthusiastically of his daring rebellion against the standards of traditional beauty.

But I fear that the singer of the gray multitude, among whom everyone is equal, among whom all are as one and one as all, does not see or distinguish separate human beings.

If he regards Hamlet as identical with Chichikov and Shakespeare as Smerdyakov's twin, then we are not dealing with Shakespeare or Hamlet or personalities but with some sort of statistics or algebra that is both horrible and oppressive.

If the poetry of the future is to be found in this depersonalized personality, then I do not want either poetry or the future!

I would not give up even the nose of Cyrano de Bergerac, the famous fundamental nose without which Bergerac is not Bergerac, or even the hunchback of Quasimodo, or the scent of Petrouchka, for these are distinguishing traits—and I find it painful to read poems dedicated to the First Met.

"I celebrate each one and everyone and love anyone!" the poet reiterates continually, and he does not look at the person whom he celebrates. Why should he look, if everyone is alike? The First Met, some depersonalized personality, is the new Aeneas, the Ulysses of the future democratic epoch, and all we know about him is that he is like a million others. . . . But no, he is not a single person: He is not alone!
He is the father of those who themselves become fathers!
A many-peopled kingdom flourishes inside him, proud, rich republics,
And do you know who stems from the descendants of his descendants?

And the woman whom he praises is a general woman, everybody's woman, and not this one or that one, marked by a mole, who has the most distinctive and peculiar gait in the world. He sees her as a productive womb, but does not sense the fascination of her personality.

"I pour myself into you!" he declares to his lovers: "For thousands and thousands of years I shall be incarnated through you!" We hear of thousands more, of ages and ages as yet unknown; will Juliet or even the latest "doll" consent to serve her Romeo for all these nameless, incarnate centuries?

When you love—how powerfully, how keenly, you sense the individuality of the loved one, her singularity, her "inequality with anyone": This hair-line running to the left
Is the only one in the world;
This childish, wistful glance
Is singular and best.

But can one discern anything singular in these crowds, legions, billions of the loving, compassionate poet? Here he is blind, and hopelessly blind. "Out of the ocean of humanity, out of the roaring sea a droplet splashed and whispered: I love you"—this is his experience of love. From the world turn to the ocean, my love;
I, too, am but a drop in the ocean. . . .

And, characteristically, when he wished to mourn the death of President Lincoln, he mourned for all those who are dead, for every death, and the personality of the great warrior found no place at all in his majestic poem. He is the wholesale poet of the herd! And the enemies of democracy exult: what else can one expect of poets of the crowd, of the commonplace and the ordinary!

"O divine average! O divine banality, platitude!" he shouts defiantly, and because of his scorn for individuality many are led to speculate as to the failure and bankruptcy of democratic taste.

Now these many, happily enough, are in error, and I am as wrong as they are. The poetry of democracy is especially the poetry of personality! Never before has personality been expressed so impetuously, so enchantingly, as in this bard of the gray, undistinguished mass! And the first personality that he celebrates is himself: I celebrate myself, I sing myself!
I am divine both inside and outside; I look into a mirror, and I see God before
     me (even though the mirror reveals a disheveled man, without a neck-tie,
     with a swollen neck).

Isn't this the revolt of personality, unbridled, satanic, Promethean? The poet falls before the mirror and kisses his reflection as the image of God. I too work wonders.
I am not the enemy of revelation and the Bible: the smallest hair on my hands
     is a revelation and a Bible.

He is ready to build himself a shrine and perform his own liturgy and cry out on every side that all the universe is one and that he is the center of all world-views: "It is for me, earth, that you have set forth these flowering apple trees which now perfume the air. . . ." Ascending sun, blindingly bright, how soon you would have destroyed me,
If the sun inside me had not ascended to meet you!

He has brought up all the gods, they are in his pocket, and on every altar before which people worship he sits sacrilegiously in order to banter with the gray, equal multitude which he has just sanctified. . . . He is not false to them; he does not betray. You are side by side with me on the throne—we are one, whoever you are,
     and if you glance into the mirror you, too, will see God there.

Now what if one sees mean little eyes in the mirror, the face of a syphilitic, a hangman, or an idiot? Is this indeed God? It is! Psalms and exaltation are due to the most abominable among us! Odes! Hymns! You do not know of yourself how great you are!
Oh, I do not celebrate anyone in my poems, not even God, if I do not cele-
     brate you!

No one has so fine a gift that you do not possess it too, or such beauty, or such
     goodness as you already have!

"These measureless prairies! These boundless rivers! You are measureless and boundless like them!" he assures everyone: the first met, the idiot, the hangman, the syphilitic. And soon not a single human being is left on earth: all have been transformed into gods. The old ikon painters placed a golden crown on one Head and left all others dark and uncrowned; on the poet's ikonostasis there are numberless crowds of heads, and each has a golden halo. The former God-man has been replaced with a throng of man-gods; they swarm on the street, in the stores, on the Exchange, and each of them is a messiah, each has come from heaven to work miracles, and each is himself a wonder incarnate. In this, then, lies the triumph of democracy, that she considers every man Unique, that she not only does not scorn personality but, indeed, brings it out and sanctifies it. The wails of the fearful have been meaningless: Huns! Vandals! Save yourselves, those who can: run. They are crushing,
     destroying us!

Well, the Huns came, and they not only failed to crush anyone, but—according to their poet—they said to all: you are divine. It is precisely for that reason that the poet joins Derzhimord, Schiller, Smerdyakov, and Hamlet under the same crown: he senses, he plainly sees, that at the root, in their mystic essence—under deceptive covers—their souls are equal, alike, similarly divine, immortal, and beautiful; and he denies that the envelope of the soul distinguishes Smerdyakov from Schiller. Remove the shell, the husk, dispel the mirage, and only them will you see their authentic, eternal personalities. Only then will you realize that the famous nose of Bergerac and the scent of Petrouchka and the mole of Karamazov's Grushenka and the genius of great men and the vulgarity of the vulgar are not aspects of personality, the expression of personality, but masks behind which it hides. Our individuality begins where our particular traits end, and through checkered and many-imaged veils the poet sees everyone's unique soul: Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of dreams,
I fear these supposed realities are to melt from under your feet and hands,
Even now your features, joys, speech, house, trade, manners, troubles, follies,
     costume, crimes, dissipate away from you,

Your true soul and body appear before me,

They stand forth out of affairs, out of commerce, shops, work, farms, clothes,
     the house, buying, selling, eating, drinking, suffering, dying. . . .

The mockeries are not you,
Underneath them and within them I see you lurk,
I pursue you where none else has pursued you.

In these magnificent words the poet gives us the eternal, granite basis for the development of democratic equality: a belief in the mystic essence of man's immortal ego—so that democracy might "with flower, fruit, radiance, and divinity achieve true humanity" and strengthen the new religion of universal divinity.

Democracy has given mankind a new word: comrade. The sense that we are the soldiery of some Great Army which goes from victory to victory without Napoleons and marshals has sprouted in the people who fill the public squares, theaters, banks, universities, restaurants, cinemas, street-cars of today's teeming cities.

Now this wonderful sense which, as we know, the poet felt so strongly that it drew him to the wounded and dying in hospitals, wards for infectious diseases, fields washed by blood—this sense has not yet found full expression in contemporary poetry. The chivalrous adoration of woman, proper to the Middle Ages, the cult of the Beautiful Lady which ennobled sexual love and achieved social refinement, is now insufficient: the future of humanity needs a cult, too—the cult of the comrade, the cult of democratic union, for a new tenderness suffuses the hearts of men, a love of the fellow warrior, co-worker, fellow traveler, of him who journeys with us shoulder to shoulder and takes part in the general movement; it is this still weak feeling, this embryo or beginning of feeling, that the poet strengthened in his gigantic soul, brought to flame, to passion, to that all-encompassing, grand emotion with which, as he believed, he transfigured himself in a vision of the world triumph of democracy.

He anticipated the future even in this. And if today his odes to comrades, to those whom he called camerado, seem unreal, strange, and remind one of serenades to a lover—they are excessively pleading and flamingly affectionate—that is so because the days have not yet come when our hearts, too, can flame with such magnificent passion.

There is a whole anthology of these strange love poems in his book.

Words have not yet been found for such a feeling. The formal word comradeship does not express it. This is a burning, stormy, almost alarming love of man for man, and without it, as the poet believed, democracy is only a shadow, an illusion.

"These lovers will have full freedom, these comrades will have full equality. Or do you ask that some public official join you as comrades? Or do you wish some sort of agreement on paper? Or force? No, no one in the whole world or in the universe can bind you so."

Now it is clear why the fratricide and bloodshed of Europe drew this request from the bard: I'd like a poem from over the sea:
You, heart of free hearts!

More than all contemporary poets he is the singer of joy, the hopeful messenger of future happiness; and what do we tired, impoverished, degenerate souls need today if not this new gospel of universal divinity, universal beauty, and universal happiness?

Review of Poeziya Gryadushchei Demokratii: Uot Uitmen, 2d ed., trans. Kornei I. Chukovsky, Biulleteni Literaturi i Zhizni (Bulletins of Literature and Life) 22 (July 1914): 1253—1258. Translated by Stephen Stepanchev.

2. D. S. Mirsky

"Poet of American Democracy"


Walt Whitman is the last great poet of the bourgeois era of humanity, the last in the line that began with Dante. Just as the appearance of Dante marked the birth of a new, freer, more progressive age in that country which was the first to start breaking from its feudal prison, so did Whitman's appearance in the youngest of the great capitalistic nations mark the latest historic moment at which it was possible still to believe in the triumph of bourgeois ideals of humankind and, strong in such a faith, to discover the soil for a great poetry. . . .


Whitman is the poet of American democracy of the fifties and sixties, in all of its organic strength. He gives poetic voice to democracy's illusion that a new humanity has already been born, one that has but to grow and develop normally; his is the highest expression that we have of such illusions. But with all of his genius, he bears the indelible brand of that democracy's anti-revolutionary and provincial character.

The individual quality of Whitman's poetry derives in good part from the strange and even weird combination that we find in it of originality and inspired daring, in a choice of themes never before treated by poets, with a provincial naïveté that is utterly incapable of beholding itself through the eyes of others. Out of this provincialism comes a break with the culture of the past and the poet's obstinate depiction of himself as prophet and preacher. Such a provincialism, obviously tinged by and akin to religious sectarianism, enabled Whitman to build up out of the illusions of American democracy a system which to him presented the same appearance as had that historic order which was based upon the religions of the past. If on the one hand Whitman is a brother spirit to Dante and Goethe, his other affinities would include such individuals as Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon sect, and the founder of "Christian Science," Mrs. Eddy.

Being a systemization of far-flung illusions, pointing to a luminous future to be evolved out of a present that was bubbling with life and energy, Whitman's ideology was a reasoned admixture of materialistic and mystical elements. Taking an environment that was ready at hand, in the fullness of its sweep and scope, with all of its material and practical implications, as a high and authentic reality, Whitman was unable to grasp that reality in its true revolutionary unfoldment. His optimism was not based upon a correct and active comprehension of what lay wrapped up in all this energy, and so, had need of a "higher" strength by way of support. While his point of departure was materialism, he could not avoid falling back upon mystic pantheism. He felt the need of an imminent god, the "soul" of matter. This soul was in the nature of a pledge, to the effect that all was making for a brighter future, that all was right with the world and moving in a necessary direction, one that would assure a better order of things. Whitman's mystical pantheism was an expression not alone of that illusory character of his ideals, but of their anti-revolutionary character as well. Animate nature might be left to see to the progress of her offspring.

At the same time, however, it is Whitman's democratic pantheism, which underlying that cult of the common man, constitutes the fundamental pathos of his poetry. In his pantheism, he is not highly original, nor does he stand alone among democratic (and pseudo-democratic) ideologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Optimistic in outlook, this pantheism is sharply inimical to the old dogmatic religions; but it is nonetheless definitely religious in mental attitude and definitely mystical in world-view; in substance, it is above all a popularization of the philosophy of bourgeois democracy. The kernel is from the contemplative Rousseau, while Hugo, in his historiosophic poems, supplies an embodiment which in poetic strength is second only to Whitman's own. A plain traveler, this, in that stream of petty bourgeois thought that gravitates toward socialism, one which, in our own time, was to be given a notably vulgarized, though for a wide circle of the petty bourgeoisie, an extremely effective expression in the Saint Joan of Bernard Shaw.

The mystical basis of Whitman's system will be found set forth with the utmost clarity in the fifth section of the poem "Walt Whitman," in a language which is quite familiar to all who possess an acquaintance with the "classics" of mysticism.

Whitman's mysticism, however, was not uprooted from materialism; just as democratic illusions regarding the future still had their roots in the reality of present-day democracy. It was a spontaneous, idealistic outgrowth of materialistic premises that were true enough, even as the illusions were swift-growing, optimistic offshoots of real conditions. Whitman very definitely extols science and that knowledge of the world which it affords. But science was not sufficient. In addition to it, there must be a "higher knowledge": in the Foreword to the edition of 1876, he wrote: Only (for me, at any rate, in all my prose and poetry) joyfully accepting modern science, and loyally following it without the slightest hesitation, there remains ever recognized still a higher flight, a higher fact, the eternal soul of man (of all else too) the spiritual, the religious. . . .

One can no more shut his eyes to the anti-revolutionary character of Whitman's ideology than one can to his mysticism. His position in American democracy was not on the extreme Left. If a man like John Brown, striving with a handful of companions to stage a slave uprising, is an exceptional and well-nigh solitary figure, the Whitman of before the war stands definitely apart, not only from a John Brown, but from the abolition movement of the world, which was fighting to do away with slavery by legal means.

Whitman's democracy, organically and in deepest essence, was nationalistic. Democracy for him was something specifically American. He accepted it as something already existent in the nature of the American people and needing only to be brought to light. At the beginning, he believed—as a present-day prophet—that the publication of Leaves of Grass would be the signal for the discovery of a true democracy. Later on, in the seventies, he had to confess that America of the present was yet far from the ideal; but all the same, he continued to assert that . . . the morbid facts of American politics and society everywhere are but passing incidents and flanges of our unbounded impetus of growth . . . weeds, annuals, of the rank, rich soil—no central, enduring, perennial things. . . . At the same time, he had learned that . . . the true growth-characteristics of the democracy of the New World are henceforth to radiate in superior literary, artistic and religious expressions, far more than in its republican forms, universal suffrage and frequent elections. . . .

Thus it was, Whitman was led to that assertion of the inferiority of politics, its lack of worth as compared to "higher values," which is be met with in Shelley, and which is so characteristic for the whole of non-democratic humanism. His historic world-view will be found expressed, in extremely concise form, in the following verses, bearing the curios subtitle "After Reading Hegel" (the title is "Roaming in Thought"): Roaming in thought over the Universe, I saw the little that is Good steadily
     hastening toward immortality,

And the vast all that is call'd Evil I saw hastening to merge itself and become
     lost and dead.

In American, the "little that is Good" was already at work and might be left to complete its task to the fullest extent. As for other peoples, Whitman, like American democracy as a whole, sympathized with them in their struggle with kings and feudal barons. He occasionally sings the praises of the French Revolution, and he extends greetings to the émigré rebel of 1848 (for Whitman, "The 72d and 73d Years of These States"). But his sympathy is purely a passive one, and the class war never comes within range of Whitman's themes. If the Southern slaveholders were his enemies, it was not because they were slaveholders, but for the reason that they wanted to cease being Americans.

Human brotherhood meant for Whitman, depending upon the direction it took, two very different things. In the one case, it was something wholly concrete and related to life, an emotional brotherhood with the "mass" of "average" Americans round about him. In the other case, it was a pantheistic feeling of fraternal sympathy with each and every human being, and—what is more—with every living creature and with all matter. This latter sentiment is thoroughly passive, and is unaccompanied by any arduous desire to struggle for a real, democratic brotherhood of peoples. It is measurably nearer to Christian brotherhood than it is to a communistic solidarity of workers. If there was in Whitman, in relation to his brother Americans, an active "love of comrades," one that is given an inspired lyric expression in his verse and a practical application in his hospital work during the years 1861–1865, his feeling of brotherhood, on the other hand, toward mankind in general, toward men of another race or class than his own (e.g., the slave), was no more than a "survival," no more than an "inner experience." He is conscious of a fraternal, pantheistic identity with the fugitive slave; indeed, he migrates into the slave's body and soul ("Song of Myself," section 99); and the verses he has given us on this subject are among the strongest that we have from his pen.11 Yet, earlier in this same poem (section 16), speaking of his sense of universal identity, he is equally one with the slaveholder: "A southerner soon as a northerner—a planter nonchalant and hospitable; down by the Oconee I live." In his no less inspired "I Sing the Body Electric," he speaks thus of the sale of a slave at auction: A man's body at auction;
I help the auctioneer—the sloven does not half know his business.

Gentlemen, look on this wonder!
Whatever the bids of the bidders, they cannot be high enough for it. . . .

Back of man's vileness and degradation, Whitman beholds his native grandeur, but in such a manner that the vileness and degradation are skimmed off, as an inferior and unauthentic reality, and so, ceasing to exist, are no longer an occasion for struggle. This is precisely the path followed by Christian thought, which announces that "there is neither slave nor free man, Greek nor Jew, but that all are children of the heavenly father and the partakers of his glory."

It is not possible to disavow or gloss over these aspects of Whitman's as being the inconsistencies and contradictions of an insufficiently thought out system of reasoning. For Whitman's ideology is fully thought out and rounded. Its contradictions are the organic and unavoidable ones to be found in all bourgeois thinking. It is the one that is still held, in the full force of its implications, by all social idealists and left-revolutionists. We are, accordingly, obliged to adopt a critical attitude toward it. For it would be a gross distortion to attempt to cover over its anti-revolutionary and mystical aspects, and to behold in Whitman a seer with the brain of a proletarian revolutionist, looking forward to a classless society of the future. If his ideology is a democratic one, his brand of democracy is thoroughly bourgeois.

However, we do not judge writers and thinkers of the past by their ideologies, nor by that element of the ephemeral and that nationalistic which in inevitably to be met within each of them; we judge them rather by what is progressive and enduring in their work.12 This progressive and enduring element in the case of Whitman is his poetry.


The basis of Whitman's art lies in a vanquishing of Romanticism upon its own ground, that of "exalted" poetry. Arising out of a protest against the realistic path taken by the French Revolution and by capitalism in its development, Romanticism affirmed a break between knowledge and the ideal. Leading poetry out of the concrete real of today, it proceeded to confer upon it a heavenly-incorporal or retrospective character. This attitude was a widespread one; it is to be found not merely in a few Romanticists, but throughout the whole of nineteenth-century poetry in Europe. The contemporary scene—political, economic, and technological—might make its way into the poet's pages only when symbolically transmuted, only when trigged out in a more or less precapitalistic garb. Even where, as in Faust, poetry was an expression of underlying forces at work in the present, its gaze was turned aside from the element of concrete falsity inherent in those forces. Only in the field of satire did it remain realistic in style, preserving a bond of union with the prose of the literary realists. In Russia, Whitman's contemporary, Nekrasov, was at work here, broadening the scope of satire and creating a new poetry. But satire as a whole was looked down upon, as being of a lower order; and even when they sympathized with its ideas, Nekrasov's countrymen deemed his work of little value from the poetic point of view, holding it to be nothing more than "prose in verse." This orientation of poetry in the direction of realistic prose was marked by a repudiation of the great philosophic themes dealt with by bards of a more exalted kind, and by an abandonment of free lyricism.

In this orientation lay, too, an avowal of the triumph of prose over poetry, of the poet's subdual by capitalistic reality. Don Juan and Germania were not capitulations to a "century hostile to poetry"; they represented a forced understanding to the effect that the century in question was to be combated on its own field, that of prose.

Whitman, breaking sharply with all nineteenth-century poetry, brought a new affirmation of reality, by creating a lofty, lyric interpretation of the present. This it is which is basic and central in his work, rendering it a forerunner of the poetry of socialism. And this affirmation, needless to say, is inseparably bound up with the poet's democratic illusions, with his system of thought. These twin phases of Whitman are wholly different in value. His system provided a logically complete, abstract generalization of environing reality and that future which was reared upon it. His poetry afforded a true and concrete reflection of that same reality. The system put a false estimate upon the internal tendencies of bourgeois democracy. The poems laid bare in the bourgeois-democratic consciousness that humanity which could come to full bloom only under socialism. And that which was false when given an abstract-theoretic generalization thanks to the saving concreteness of art was left standing as truth.

That reality which Whitman affirmed was a bourgeois reality. But in this affirmation, the poet stressed not that which was essentially bourgeois, but that which was creative and progressive. This spark of the creatively progressive was one that he fanned and nursed; and if his system the result was a crude distortion of perspectives, in his poetry the sane impulse went to enrich a hyperbolism that is legitimately and organically present in the domain of science.

Whitman keeps telling us, over and over again, that "I celebrate myself." One of his bold and original "sorties" is the calling of himself by his full name in the course of a sustained lyric poem ("Song of Myself"). But in essence, Whitman is as genuine a specimen as any that there is of the impersonal type of poet; the poet in this case is no "lyric hero"; he is without lyric biography; he but gives "choric" expression to feelings and ideas that are not dependent upon any personal destiny. Another especially good example of such a poet in modern times in Schiller; but in contrast to him, Whitman stands out brilliantly by reason of his originality and his innovations. The contemporary scene enters into Schiller's poetry after it has been abstractly purged of its concrete aspect. In Whitman's it is all there, with all of its everyday, prosaic topicality, in all its grime and mire. It is lifted and generalized into poetry, not through any process of abstraction or catharsis, but by a means of a symbolic expansion, predicating the importance of the discovery of types and their significance in the scene's lowest and most trivial elements.

Whitman's poetry is profoundly realistic. And like all enduring art of the kind, it is based upon a disclosure of the typical in the individual. Whitman's realism, however, does not consist in an unfoldment of plots and characters such as we know from our reading of the classic realities in the form of the novel.

This is a realism that is achieved by separate strokes, with subjects and incidents neither described nor depicted, but simply and swiftly listed, listed with a definitive concreteness. From the conjunction of these strokes springs Whitman's essential, generalized poetic form—which is, at the same time, that of American democracy.

The quality of Whitman's verse is very uneven. When the poet loses his realistic concreteness, it degenerates into a noisy rhetoric, crude and monotonous in rhythm and yet cruder and more monotonous in its tone, which is like a prolonged, continuous shout. Here belong many declamatory lines which come not so much from the poet as from the prophet and system-builder. Under this head are those verses where Whitman, striving to remain concrete, is led to speak of things that he knows nothing about, inasmuch as they exceed the bounds of his American horizon. Such clumsily rhetorical passages are sometimes redeemed by their unconscious humor. This, for example, may be said to be true of the celebrated poem, "Salut au Monde!," constructed in accordance with his favorite method, that of cataloguing. Whitman's provincialism and lack of cultural background are here evidenced in a fortuitous piling up of appellations for objects and incidents taken from a popular geography and compelled to yield a grandiose and vulgarized picture of present-day humanity in the bulk.

The core of Whitman's work, its rock-bottom, so to speak, will bear comparison with the best poetry that the world has produced. One may mention here such poems as "Song of Myself," "I Sing the Body Electric," The Sleepers," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," "Song of the Broad-Axe," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "Pioneers! O Pioneers!," "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (on the death of President Lincoln), and a whole series of shorter poems, including one so notable for its lyric qualities as "Tears" (from the group "Sea-Drift"), and "Drum-Taps," which is almost a whole collection dealing with the Civil War, 1860–1866. All the pieces mentioned belong to the fifties and sixties, which witnessed the simultaneous dawn of American democracy and of democracy's great poet. In 1873, Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke, which definitely shattered his health. This coincided with America's rapid capitalistic decline and the crushing of that objective optimism which had marked the preceding decades. It was in this period of depression that Whitman's work made its appearance. The last two decades of his life added little to the substance of that work, although those years do include so surprising a poem as "The Dalliance of the Eagles," which contains, it may be, the concentrated essence of his genius, of all that he wrote.

The "Walt Whitman" whom Whitman "celebrated" was not an individual endowed with a definite biography, a definite personality differentiating him from others; he was a metonymical type, the average man, the average American, bringing from out of the American masses the sum and substance of the contemporary scene. The individuality that Whitman hymns is crystallized with precision in the opening lines of the first poem (first in the final group) of his collected verse, "One's Self I Sing." This untranslatable blending of an impersonal "one" with a recurring "self" might be rendered as "the self of everyman," or "everyman's self"; it has a light to throw upon bourgeois democracy, and upon democracy's poet.

The pathos of Whitman's poetry is the pathos of union, equality, human dignity and progress. The artistic expression of these themes in verse is not to be identified with their theoretic development in the ideologic system; the former is not to be viewed in the light of the latter. In thinking out, intellectually, the subjects that he took for his verse, Whitman was led to abandon a poetic concreteness of imagery for a false and one-sided process of abstract generalization which comes as a break in the true pathos of his work. It is Whitman the prophet acting as self-interpreter for Whitman the poet. Inasmuch as it is difficult to demarcate one from the other with exactitude, we should proceed from the premise that the prophet's interpretations not only are not binding upon us, but that they actually interfere with a proper understanding of the poet.

Thus, in connection with the theme of unity, there is no need for us to accept, naively and unquestioningly, the "prophetic" explanation of it, as pantheism. The sentiment of unity with respect to the nation, humanity, the world order is in Whitman a direct lyric expansion of the vital sympathy he felt for the democratic masses. It receives an incarnation in the form of a feeling for the political unity of "These States," as expressed in the war poems, in a concrete feeling of brotherhood with the American who is one of the people—in the theme of "comradeship," as democracy's basic cement. As for the theme of unity as a common link embracing all humanity, while it is given a glowing expression in certain isolated instances (the fugitive slave in "Song of Myself," the episode of the mother and the Indian squaw in "The Sleepers"), it is in general set forth in verses that are abstract rather than realistic. But at the other pole, the theme unfolds in an opulent lyric bloom, in the form of verses on the oneness of nature, the sea and the universe. This motive, indeed, that of a union with material nature, is accorded in Whitman a simpler, more direct and immediately lyric treatment than in any other poet of modern times.

The idea of an actual union with the whole of things attains a highly original peak in the theme of death. In the Whitmanic acceptation, death is a "cool" and happy fusion with the material universe, a conception in which there is no room for weariness or decay. It is a thoroughly optimistic feeling, this, and one that springs from an animating sense of identity of direction, the feeling that each man is traveling a path along which others will continue after him—the classic sense of succession and survival. Nor is it strange if the theme in question stands out with especial clarity in the notable poem written on the death of Abraham Lincoln, leader and hero of American democracy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (in particular, the song of the hermit thrush).

The theme of equality, likewise, enters into Whitman's poetry, as one of its organic and organizing constituents. This it is which at bottom explains the poet's passion for bestowing an exalted lyric treatment upon everything which up to his time had been looked upon as vile and "unworthy of the Muse." Closely related to this are Whitman's realistic innovations and his cataloguing, a method of which he is so fond. With him, the sentiment of equality is especially directed against unilateral affirmation of the "spiritual" man at the expense of the flesh-and-blood being. This theme comes, accordingly, to be closely interwoven with the exaltation of the body, which lends itself to the development of another, broader motive, the forceful revelation and assertion of human dignity. One of the nodal passages in all Whitman's poetry is the famous ninth section of "I Sing the Body Electric," where he applies his inventory method to the parts of the body, from the head to the lower organs, all the way down to the heels, by way of affirming their equal worth with the human consciousness or "soul."

In this dignifying of humankind through the human body, Whitman aligns himself with the followers of Saint-Simon, bent upon a "rehabilitation of the flesh." But in working out the idea poetically, Whitman displays a maximum of originality. The rehabilitation of the flesh, as a counterpoise to Christian repression, had already been brilliantly dealt with by Goethe. Goethe, however, was unable to get along without stylization. Just as in Faust he had need of a Renaissance dress, so in his Roman Elegies and other erotic verse, he still was unable to dispense with antiquity. Like the men of the French Revolution, he felt the necessity of justifying and fortifying himself with the authority of the ancients. In essence, his eroticism comes close to the practical materialism of the Southern slaveholder. A woman for him is above all an object of enjoyment and possession. There is here, as well, a trace of that art for art's sake, all exaggerated development of which is to be seen in Théophile Gautier and—carried further yet—in Rémy de Gourmont. Whitman is free at once of artiness and of stylistic tricks. Beauty to the latter is merely the complete unfoldment of man's nature, one mode of realizing human dignity to the utmost. Of the very warp and woof of Whitman's eroticism is the merging of the physical passions with a sentiment of equality and respect toward womankind, something that is absolutely new in world poetry, even though, ideologically speaking, the Saint-Simonians are the precursors here.13 Hung upon a lovely poetic thread in "I Sing the Body Electric," this theme is expressed with a definitive concision and in a truly inspired manner in that pearl among poems, "The Dalliance of the Eagles."

And then, finally, there is Whitman's fourth theme, that of the inorganic possibilities unfolding to man's view through a conquest of nature, the theme of democratic expansion and democratic construction, the principle embodiment of which is to be found in the "Song of the Broad-Axe" and in "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" (1856 and 1865, respectively).

One cannot but be struck by the parallel between this motive and our own socialist construction. There are, needless to say, sharp contrasts which are equally striking. Not to speak of the fact that American democratic expansion was essentially predatory, so far as Indians and Mexicans were concerned (a circumstance of which, naturally, no notice is taken in Whitman's poetry), democratic construction, both in reality and in the pages of its bard, was an elementary, one-man affair. But for all of that, in his handling of the theme, Whitman is undoubted forerunner of the poetry of socialism. The chief thing that goes to make him such a harbinger is the fact that he was the first to introduce the theme of labor into poetry, in the form of a creative, lyric statement. Amid all his work, Whitman's poems on the subject of democratic construction come the nearest of all to the ode form. But these are odes of an utterly new kind.

It is not the idea of labor, not labor in general, that finds a place in Whitman's verse, but rather, labor's realistic, concrete, and technical processes. The "Song of the Broad-Axe" may be compared to Schiller's "Song of the Bells," one of the rare instances in bourgeois poetry where such processes are treated in the concrete. In the first place, Schiller singles out work as a theme for the reason that it bears, to begin with, the stamp of religious approval in this case—the labor of casting the bells; in the second place, work is here, in a special sense, precapitalistic, being closely associated with the guild organizations; and lastly, the work of the bellfounders is no more than an allegory, symbolizing a prudent bourgeois progress that knows how to ward off revolutions.

In place of one traditional process, Whitman takes the work of construction in all its range, all the infinite variety of its applications, processes and products. There is no allegory within. No antithesis between the construction of the material object, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the social construction of democracy. Out of isolated fragmentary images, the "Song of the Broad-Axe" is built up, an endless succession of images, metaphors, instances, fashioned out of the same stuff as constructive democracy. Inventoried with the greatest conciseness and the utmost concreteness, objects and incidents form an impressive generalized image of the whole of democratic America.14

Based upon the favored Whitman method, of inventory and catalogue, the poem consists of a number of successive strophes of a cumulative intensity. Following a lyric introduction, the third section serves as a sort of index, being made up of a series of nouns (alluding to objects or actions) with their attributive definitions. This is done in such a way, creatively, that objects and actions stand out in a delimiting sharpness, as if they were parts of a poetic encyclopedia of carpentry that is to function as a symbol of democratic construction in America.

This is followed by a fresh catalogue of objects created by the broad-axe. The construction here is a parallel and again a cumulative one, ranging verbally from monosyllabic nouns like "hut" and "tent" to lengthy adjectives, and ideationally, from the same hut and tent to "Manhattan steamboats and clippers, taking the measure of all seas."

In a third movement, we have the enumeration of no end of objects having to do with the builder's trade, saturated, all of them, with a complex and elevated social content. Starting from simple terms ("factories, arsenals"), the poet goes on to build up a picture out of objects taken as points of departure for incidents replete with social meaning— The shape of the step-ladder for the convicted and sentenced murderer, the
     murderer with haggard face and pinion'd arms, . . .

The door whence the son left home, confident and puff'd up;
The door he enter'd again from a long and scandalous absence, diseas'd,
     broken down, without innocence, without means.

This movement is rounded off with the significant and unifying "shapes" that mark the national scene—American democracy and its accompaniments.

And thus is constructed a new and unprecedented type of realistic ode, one springing out of an everyday and prosaic reality and catching up the myriad artistic threads of a highly variegated American life.

On the side of form, Whitman shows himself to be a thoroughgoing innovator, breaking completely with an older poetry of a "feudal" Europe and Asia (and its American imitators) and building up a new poetic art from the very beginning. Assuredly, in all the history of art there is no other case of so absolute a break; we shall have to acknowledge that Whitman was a truly great innovator, the greatest that the world of poetry has known.

His innovations in form are directly derived from his novelty of content. This is a fundamental point, involving a liquidation of the dignity of the disparity between the conventional, stylized and retrospective idiom of elevated poetry and the language of the present. Whitman's language is that of the prosaic and democratic scene about him. His democratic speech, however, is of a different order from that of a Mayakovsky15 or—to stay within Anglo-American precincts—of a Kipling or a Vachel Lindsay. The prose idiom that Whitman employed in bringing new life to poetry was not the colloquial tongue of the street, the factory or the barracks; it was, rather, the language of printed prose, of newspapers and of popular science. Today, when American colloquial speech is at so very far a remove from that of literature, and when, at the same time, it is making such enormous gains in the literary field, the difference between Whitman's poetic vocabulary and that of his contemporaries, such as Emerson and Longfellow, is less noticeable. The truth is, Whitman avoided not only jargon and slang, but, in general, any tendency to colloquial syntax. The linguistic novelty of his poems springs from a new store of themes; the new words that we find there are for the most part the names of objects which up to his time had been held to be unpoetic.

To a considerable less degree dependent upon the novelty of content is another fundamental tenet of Whitman's stylistic credo, namely, the avoidance of rhyme and metrics for the sake of rhythm and cadence. The poet's contempt for such "feudal playthings" is an immediate result of the one-sided character of the bond that held him to the democratic masses. Whitman gave expression to the masses, but he did not speak for them. He spoke in their name, but not to them. This was because he failed to realize that poetry written for the masses must first of all be easy-flowing, readily memorizable, and therefore it must possess a rhythmic transparency of form. Now, in the English language (as in the vast majority of contemporary European tongues, including the Russian), this calls for rhyme. But Whitman—in his own eyes—was first of all a prophet. The important thing was not that the masses should memorize the words of his poems, but that they should adopt his teachings. He was writing, not songs, but books of sermons, scriptures. . . .


In connection with Whitman, we are vividly reminded of what Marx had to say of the capitalistic era's hostility to poetry. Here, we have a poet of genius, bringing us a veracious, substantial, deep-rooted expression of American bourgeois democracy; yet that same democracy did not take him in. He himself, of course, was in part to blame for this, in so far as his poetic form was distinctly anti-popular. But though Whitman may have grievously erred on this question, despite the fact that he was possessed of a profound and structural acquaintance with, and understanding of, the society in which he lived, this but serves to cast into deeper relief the fact that, on all questions save that of poetry, he spoke the same language as democracy's self.

Bourgeois democracy could not accept a poetics such as his. Poetry for it meant "fine" poetry, of the sort purveyed by a Longfellow. Of great poetry, a poetry related to life, it felt no slightest need.

If the unpopularity of Whitman's poetic form was but the fruit of a thoroughly anti-poetic attitude on the part of the bourgeois-democratic masses, this was not any the less of an obstacle to its acceptance by the proletariat. A popular proletarian poet Whitman was not. Instead, he was the favorite of a sufficiently wide circle of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia. his enormous growth in popularity and influence at the close of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century was closely associated with the growth of those democratic illusions that marked the rise of imperialism.

Notwithstanding all the really new elements that he brought into poetry, it was not possible to appraise Whitman at the start of the new era. As for the history of poetry after Whitman, it is one of degeneration and decline. Verhaeren stands to Whitman in the same relation that European democracy of the imperialistic epoch does to American democracy of the Civil War years. Whitman's direct descendants—the Unanimists in France, Carl Sandburg in America—have taken above all the weaker sides of his poetry, the rhetoric and abstraction of his worst pieces; they have carried these phases still further and have given to the Whitmanic form, yet more of an unpopular character. Whitman is for them Whitman the prophet, not Whitman the poet.

These abstract and rhetorical blemishes go to explain the place that Whitman occupies in proletarian poetry. He is integrally a part of an earlier stage of that poetry's development, when abstractions alike rule with regard to the revolution and to the cosmic process, a view of the world dependent for expression upon a rhetorical form. He was not able to open up a new poetic era in bourgeois society, for the very good reason that, in such a society, there could be no such new era. Down to this day, he does not succeed in reaching the proletariat, inasmuch as he is handed to the masses by petty bourgeois disciples who have taken from him precisely that which is of least worth.

If Whitman did not succeed in inauguration a new era, he did create a poetry containing much that is not to be found in any of the classic bards of old, and which, without a doubt, brings him near to the proletariat and to socialist man. It was through a statement of environing reality that he did this; and if that reality, as stated by him, is a bourgeois one, he for all of that selected what was most worthwhile and progressive in it—democracy, labor, the conquest of nature. He brought to poetry a new concreteness, a new feeling for the material object, not as an owner aesthetically sensing it, but as the man who works with his hands and who has an interest in the product of his labor. He it was who created the poetry of human dignity, a practical vision of that full man whose fullness is only to be realized under socialism.

It is not as to a prophet with a system that we should come to Whitman, but as to an artist. The important thing is not his views, with their resulting false and theoretic concatenation of ideas, but rather those concrete forms to which he brought all the depth and strength of his emotion, all that he as artist had learned from the American scene. This is the Whitman who occupies an honorable place with the great poets of the past, who have afforded us—I repeat—a vision of that full man who in reality is only able to exist as, at once, the builder and the creator of constructive socialism.

Introduction to Kornei I. Chukovsky's translation of Leaves of Grass, 9th ed., 1935. Translated by Samuel Putnam.

3. Kornei I. Chukovsky

"Many Thanks, Walt Whitman!"

It all began with my buying, quite unexpectedly, a self-tutor of English from a secondhand bookstall on Odessa. I intended to buy Flammarion's Astronomy. When this book could not be found on the stall, I bought the English textbook as a mark of gratitude to the bookseller, who had rummaged through all his stock for the Flammarion.

The English textbook was much the worse for wear; certain pages were missing, and it bore a generous spattering of ink and grease stains. Despite these deficiencies it had taught me, even before I got back to my attic, that "ink" means chernila, "dog" means sobaka and "spoon" means lazhka. I was so delighted at this invaluable information that I did not part with the book for a whole year. By the end of that time I was able to read without too much effort Longfellow's Evangeline and Poe's "The Raven."

In those days I had not so much as set eyes on an Englishman. A lonely, ever-hungry teenager, I had been thrown out of school and kept body and soul together by doing odd jobs such as sticking up theatre bills, working on the Odessa docks, and reading psalms at funerals. All my free time was devoted to memorizing the self-tutor as if this were my sole salvation.

I was then almost seventeen. Passers-by must have been startled by the sight of me: long, lanky, pale-faced, uncommunicative, with the clothes fairly falling off my back.

I read voraciously and without system. A conglomeration of Darwin, Schopenhauer, Dostoievsky and Pisarev left my mind in utter confusion. Out of this confusion I constructed a fantastic philosophy which was to defy all the Kants in the world and bring about the regeneration of mankind. Like most seventeen-year-old Russian youths, my nights were made sleepless by ruminations upon the origin of the universe, the mystery of life and the hereafter.

In the winter, when work on the docks was slack, I spent whole days in the snug and comfortable municipal library. It was there I discovered Carlyle's Heroes and Hero-Worship, a book I revere to this day.

Another year went by like this. I had broken completely with my family.

One day when I was working on the docks a foreign sailor beckoned to me and thrust a thick book into my hands, demanding 25 kopeks for it. He glanced furtively about as he did so, as if the book were a banned one. Sailors on foreign ships often brought forbidden literature into Tsarist Russia.

That evening after work I took my book to the lighthouse at the end of the jetty. It was a book of poetry written by a certain Walt Whitman, whose name I had never heard before.

I opened at random and read: My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps,
I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision . . .
Under Niagara, the cataract falling like a veil over my countenance . . .
Walking the old hills of Judea with the beautiful gentle God by my side,
Speeding through space, speeding through heaven and the stars . . .
I visit the orchards of spheres and look at the product,
And look at quintillions ripen'd and look at quintillions green . . .

Never before had I read anything like this. Clearly it had been written by an inspired madman who, in a state of trance of delirium, fancied himself absolutely free of the illusions of time and space. The distant past was to him identical with the present moment and his native Niagara Falls was neighbor to the millions of suns whirling in the void of the universe.

I was shaken by these poems as much as by some epoch-making event. The chaos of my emotions at that time was in perfect harmony with the chaotic composition of the poetry. I seemed to have climbed to dizzying heights from which I looked down upon the ant-hill of human life and activities.

But other poems followed, poems written from within the very heart of this human ant-hill and dealing with the commonplaces of ant-hill life. The poet appeared to have forgotten his cosmic ecstasy in the midst of the poor realities of every day. People and things falling haphazardly within his range of vision passed in endless procession: The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm'd case,
(He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother's bedroom),
The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco while his eyes blur with the manuscript . . .
As the deck hands make fast the steamboat the plank is thrown for the shore-
     going passengers . . .

The floor-men are laying the floor, the tinners are tinning the roof, the ma-
     sons are calling for mortar . . .

Many-peopled is this poem. It would remain in my memory as a vast collection of unrelated sketches drawn from life were it not for the wonderful concluding lines which give unity to the whole and deep meaning to each of its parts: And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.

Today it is hard for me to understand why I should have been so overwhelmed by this poem. No doubt the poet's ability to renounce the personal in himself and identify his own existence with that of every other individual completely answered my own spiritual urgings at the time, even though I myself was unaware of them. I felt that these lines were addressed directly to me.

For months thereafter Walt Whitman and I were inseparable companions. I took him with me to the docks and to the beach where I helped blind fisherman Simmelidi mend his nets. There were passages in the book I did not understand, there were others I found dull and trite, but when I came upon such treasures as "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" I felt I was rich.

By the coming of the winter my kinship with Whitman was complete. My youthful heart eagerly responded to his ecstatic call for human brotherhood, to the radiant hymns he sang to labor, equality and democracy, to the joy he took in the simple things of everyday life, and to his daring glorification of emancipated flesh.

Young readers have a marvellous facility for molding their lives according to the dictates of a book that has deeply impressed them. That was what happened with me. I began to see the world through the eyes of Walt Whitman and was, in a way, transformed into him. All that I saw about me, all people, all things, every manifestation of nature, was seen against the background of countless centuries, illuminated by a million suns.

It was only natural that I should want to share the happiness I had discovered with others. That is why, in 1901, I undertook the translation of those pages of Leaves of Grass which most delighted me.

But alas! I turned out to be a wretched translator. My translations were heavy, clumsy, uninspired. Whitman's lines lost all their force and vigour in my rendering. Since Russian words are nearly three times as long as English ones, my incompetent pen turned out flaccid, bloodless lines that a reader found tedious.

To overcome this tediousness I resorted to an expedient proscribed by all laws of translation: I transformed Whitman's free verse into lines with regular rhythm and ornamented by striking rhymes. I am even now ashamed to acknowledge so heinous (if unintentional) a crime, but one must remember that I was a lonely self-taught youth without the faintest idea of how literary translations ought to be done.

Of course I had not dared to hope my Russian version of Whitman would ever see the printed page. It was only in 1907, when I moved to the capital and began being published in St. Petersburg journals, that the student Youth Circle of the St. Petersburg University brought out a small edition of my translations of the American poet. The translations, I repeat, were bad; even so, the little book was a great success. After its appearance Whitman's name was met again and again in Russian literary magazines.

But this success brought me little satisfaction. I suffered from a guilty conscience. I loathed the beastly book and tried to redeem myself in Whitman's eyes by making a new translation.

In 1914 this new translation, which was far better, was published in Moscow. The book was destroyed by the Tsarist censor and never reached the public. I managed to obtain one copy of it.

Readers, however, insisted on having Leaves of Grass, and after the Revolution it was brought out and went through one edition after another (1918, 1919, 1922, 1923, 1931, 1932, etc.). I revised each one again and again.

In 1944, not long before the end of World War II, the tenth edition came out. This year, 1969, which marks the 150th anniversary of Whitman's birth, will see the twelfth edition, also revised and partly rewritten.

Whitman's poetry has exerted a powerful influence on many Soviet poets. A poem addressed to me by Boris Pasternak in the thirties ends with: . . . and a big bear hug
For your gift of Whitman.

I have never limited myself to merely translating Whitman; in extensive critical articles introducing every volume of his poems I have tried to interpret him and reveal his significance to the reader. In these articles I point out Whitman lines which in one way or another are reflected in the poetry of Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov.

The appearance of fundamental works on Whitman by the Frenchman Roger Asselineau and the American Gay Wilson Allen helped me to a better understanding of the poet's life and work. Today I know a thousand times more about him than I did in 1901 when, as an unsophisticated youth, I read the Song of Myself in the Black Sea port. But I cannot deceive myself into thinking that Whitman evokes the same fiery response in me today as he did then. Try as I will, I cannot feel my heart lift with joy as I did when I first beheld the whole world through the inspired eyes of Walt Whitman.

And it seems to me it is not the scholars and critics who truly understand poetry, but rather it is the youthful readers, who absorb this poetry into their very life's blood and draw from it such rich nourishment for the spirit.

Yet even today, with my ninetieth birthday in the offing, I am full of gratitude to the poet whose book so deeply influenced my anxious and unsettled youth.

Sputnik (June 1969): 30–39. This essay was published on the 150th anniversary of Whitman's birth.

4. Maurice Mendelson

Life and Work of Walt Whitman: A Soviet View

In the mid-1850s there appeared in the United States a new party of national importance, the Republican Party. This was a bourgeois party, but among the Republicans there were a great many honest champions of democracy and genuine enemies of slavery. The Republicans adopted several slogans from the Free Soilers. On the eve of the war the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln for president, and millions of working people gave it support. At that very time the ideas of Marxism, the teachings of scientific socialism began to penetrate the country. Whitman could scarcely have known of them, but like thousands of other Americans he had certainly been acquainted with utopian socialist ideas.

Walt was five years old when Robert Owen twice addressed the American legislators, once by invitation of the House of Representatives, and once by invitation of the president. In his speeches this utopian socialist expressed his hope for the foundation of a society which would guarantee the happiness of every man.

The utopian colony founded by Owen in America in 1825 ("The New Harmony") had dissolved long before Whitman was consciously aware of what was going on in the world around him. But the American followers of Fourier were quite active by the time Whitman was fully grown. The Fourierist Albert Brisbane published his book Social Destiny of Man in 1840. In it he described the world of the future as a kingdom of culture and beauty. In Brisbane's opinion it would be easiest of all in America to put Fourier's ideas into practice. Another outstanding Fourierist was Park Godwin, the son-in-law of the poet Bryant. In the mid-forties he published a book in which he protested against the division of contemporary society into two classes, one of which possessed everything, and the other nothing.

In 1841 the Brook Farm colony was founded, based on a rather original interpretation of Fourierist principles (several notable American writers took part in the venture, including Nathaniel Hawthorne). The colony, whose members strove to combine physical labor with spiritual development and moral improvement, lasted only a few years, but it attracted a great deal of interest. During these years several dozen other colonies were founded in the USA, all by people trying in some way to follow Fourier's teaching.

An active writer like Whitman, of course, could not bypass utopian socialism. There is no doubt that he read the New York Tribune, in which Fourierist articles appeared, and even the journal which was published by members of the Brook Farm colony.

At times the poet offered sober criticism of some of the more vulnerable features of Fourierism. On some occasions Whitman was taken in by the philistine interpretation of this social teaching. In any case an article which the poet wrote while in New Orleans contains the following: ". . . but to us it seems a great objection [against Fourierism] that nobody, as far as we learn from the system, is to do anything but be happy. Now who would peel potatoes and scrub the floors?"

Nevertheless, Whitman's ideas about "a great city," the city "of the faithfullest friends," ran along approximately the same lines as the dreams of both Owen and Fourier. Most probably the ideas of Marx were quite unknown to Whitman before the war, despite the fact that several American friends of the poet not only knew Marx's work, but Marx himself personally.

One of the participants in the Brook Farm experiment was Charles A. Dana, who later edited the New York Tribune together with Horace Greeley. Dana, who was a warm friend of the poet, visited Marx, together with Brisbane, in 1848. Describing the experience, Brisbane characterized the author of the Communist Manifesto as the leader of a movement of the people, and wrote than in Marx he felt "the passionate fire of a daring spirit." Soon Dana invited Marx to write for the New York Tribune, and Marx's articles appeared in the paper for many years. It is impossible to say for certain whether Whitman read them; we know only that the poet followed the New York Tribune with great interest. Some of his own poems were published in it.

A significant part of Whitman's publicistic writing in the fifties advocated the deepening of bourgeois democracy. He continued to fight the institution of slavery, but the pages of the newspapers were usually closed to his abolitionist articles. . . .

[In the 1870s] Whitman drew even closer to John Swinton. When he fell ill once, the poet asked Swinton to visit him. Whitman joyfully informed O'Connor that Swinton spoke very kindly of Leaves of Grass. Swinton more than once commented favorably on Whitman's work in the press. Incidentally, he authored one of the first articles about Leaves of Grass to appear in the Russian press. In 1880 John Swinton made the personal acquaintance of Karl Marx. In the New York Sun he called Marx "one of the most remarkable men of the day." Marx was a man who for forty years had played "an inscrutable but puissant part in the revolutionary politics." His mind, wrote Swinton, is "strong, broad, elevated," and his dialogue is "so free, so sweeping, so creative, so incisive, so genuine." Since Whitman always followed the New York press closely, it is quite possible that he read his friend's article. . . .

But the person who was closest of all to Whitman in the last years of his life was Horace Traubel. Traubel was fifteen years old when he began to chat occasionally with the white-bearded old poet on the streets of Camden. Later the young bank clerk, a convinced socialist who in secret wrote poetry similar to Whitman's, became wholeheartedly devoted to the poet. . . . Horace Traubel was in some ways a link between Whitman and that part of American twentieth-century literature which was inspired, to a greater or lesser degree, by socialist ideas. In the second decade of the century, and up to his death, Traubel wrote for the journals the Masses and the Liberator. . . .

As early as 1868 Ferdinand Freiligrath introduced Whitman's work to the German reading public by printing an article on the American poet in a German newspaper. It was one of the first critical works on Whitman to appear in the continental press. There is some evidence (the accuracy of which is, however, disputed) that Karl Marx became acquainted with Whitman's work at about this time. In his book about the life and work of Marx, first published in English in 1910, John Spargo affirms that when Marx heard of the "Good Gray Poet" he immediately became interested. According to Spargo, he would even quote sections from "Song of Myself" and the poem "Pioneers."

(Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 99–101, 298–299, 310.


1. This essay originally appeared in Gay Wilson Allen, ed. Walt Whitman Abroad (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1955), 144–155. It has been updated and expanded by Gay Wilson Allen. [back]

2. Walt Whitman, "Two Letters," in Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (New York: Library of America, 1982), 1049. [back]

3. Kornei I. Chukovsky, "Turgenev i Whitman," Literatura Rossiya 2 (July 28, 1967): 17; I. Christova, "Turgenev i Whitman," Russkaya literatura 2 (1966): 196–199. [back]

4. Since Latvia was at this time a part of the Russian Empire, it should be noted that a Lettish translation of Whitman by Roberts Skarga, Sahlu Steebri (Leaves of Grass), was issued in Riga in 1908. [back]

5. A. Lunacharsky, "Whitman i Demokratia" ("Whitman and Democracy"), in Kornei I. Chukovsky, Poeziya Gryadushchei Demokratii (The Poetry of the Future Democracy)(Petrograd, 1918), 150–153. [back]

6. Yassen Zassoursky, "Whitman's Reception and Influence in the Soviet Union," in Geoffrey Sill, ed., Walt Whitman of Mickle Street (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994), 286, 289. [back]

7. Lydia Chukovskaya, To the Memory of Childhood (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 151. [back]

8. Chukovskaya, Memory of Childhood, 154. Lydia Chukovskaya, Chukovsky's daughter, suffered more than her father for defending persecuted writers. Her organized support for Joseph Brodsky helped him gain release from a Soviet state farm, but she could not prevent his deportation. She also aided the great poet Anna Akhmatova, whose son was killed in prison and whose husband was tortured to death. Chukovskaya's novel about this experience, Going Under, was smuggled out of the country and published in the West but was banned in Russia until 1988. In a postscript to her memoir of her father, Chukovskaya reported that in 1988 she was still battling with the Soviet Union of Writers for control of the museum in Peredelkino, where her father's library is preserved. [back]

9. For more on Chukovsky, see Gay Wilson Allen, "Kornei Chukovsky, Whitman's Russian Translator," in Sill, Walt Whitman, 276–282. [back]

10. Zassoursky, "Whitman's Reception," 288–289. [back]

11. The point is to be stressed that Whitman was not a nationalist in practice. The European immigrant was as much a brother to him as was the "hundred per cent" Yankee. [back]

12. See Engels' letter to Schmidt, July 1, 1891. [back]

13. The erotic theme in Whitman's poetry, as developed abstractly and theoretically, attains a similar degree of distortion, serving as it does as a locus for that sexual mysticism which is typical of a new line of decadents, and of the founder of that line, who was an immediate disciple of Whitman, the theosophical "socialist," Edward Carpenter. [back]

14. The woodsman's axe serves Whitman as a symbol of construction. It is to be kept in mind that, in 1855, the "iron age" was just beginning (up to that time, America, outside the central sections of large cities, had been nine-tenths rural). Democratic construction was, in fact, construction in the rural districts. [back]

15. Whitman's influence on Mayakovsky . . . was ideologic rather than poetic. It shows most clearly in connection with the Utopian-humanistic stage of Mayakovsky's work. [back]


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