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What Whitman would say today

Friday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth

Friday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of poet Walt Whitman, seen in a portrait circa 1887. Credit: Library of Congress

Walt Whitman’s philosophy of inclusion is particularly relevant today if Americans are to overcome their anger over divisive politics and their angst about the future.

We are so divided. We argue about a wall on the Southern border. We quarrel over driver’s licenses for those here illegally. We fight over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. We feud over MS-13 gang violence. And we even squabble over who should be allowed in the country.

Whitman — whose 200th birthday is Friday — suggests the answer to our divisions over immigration policy is simpler than we think.

“I am large, I contain multitudes,” he wrote in “Leaves of Grass.” We are individualists, but we are also part of a great fabric that contains many threads. Our reliance on one another ensures the survival of our country. We need to think of the collective.

It sounds simple and down home. I grew up in Huntington, like Whitman, and thought he had been the owner of the then-Walt Whitman Mall. I, too, was a writer. At age 15, I published my first article in The Long Islander, which I later learned Whitman founded in 1838. I studied poetry at college and became a Whitman fan.

Far from being an elitist who wrote “Song of Myself,” Walt dropped out of school at age 11 to work. A working-class guy, he wasn’t prepped to be America’s poet, says Whitman scholar and New York University Professor Karen Karbiener. “While Emerson and Longfellow kept company in literary New England, Whitman was our first poet to celebrate the beautiful possibilities of the immigrants streaming into New York City,” she said.

Whitman lived an itinerant young life, residing in 30 homes in Brooklyn. “His most popular book, a potboiler, made $200,” Karbiener said. He’d readily identify with the challenges immigrants face in finding housing, gaining employment and earning a steady income.

In “Leaves of Grass,” his groundbreaking book of poems, Whitman is an everyman who envisions a living and breathing democracy. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he wrote.

He welcomed the other, populating his works with duck-shooters, deacons, prostitutes and lunatics. He wanted to be the voice of prisoners and slaves. In “I Sing the Body Electric,” he writes of immigrants landing in New York. “Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well off . . . just as much as you.”

Today, the former newspaperman would be an egalitarian for all ethnicities, races and sexual orientations. He’d question toddlers being separated from moms at the border, the concept of fake news and the nation’s top 1 percent having greater wealth than the bottom 90 percent.

He’d be disturbed by our use of hateful, divisive language about the other — the black man, the Jewish woman, the Muslim child, the Mexican immigrant or those who are LGBTQ.

Whitman’s poetry evoked the spirit of Americans as brothers and sisters toiling away for a better future in a democracy richer for its diversity. He himself spent two years nursing the wounded during the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers, blacks and whites.

During these disaffecting times, we bicker about immigration, the limits of hateful language and white supremacy. The gulf between family members and friends widens. We can’t seem to have conversations anymore about critical issues.

Why not take a cue from a poet’s enlightened vision of a country undivided? Whitman’s life-affirming poetry was conveyed in an American voice and included all types of people.

This is our country, and we must ensure that our democracy survives. After all, there is no other, only us.

Barbara Field is a writer who teaches memoir writing.

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