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  • Emma Behrens

Poetry and Patriotism: Walt Whitman’s “Election Day, November, 1884”

“Steel engraving of Walt Whitman, age 37, serving as the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass”

Walt Whitman was an American literary powerhouse. His unabashed patriotism and his signature brand of free verse place him chiefly in the canon of American poetry alongside the likes of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and T. S. Eliot. Garnering fame during his life and an everlasting legacy postmortem, Whitman’s works defined 19th-century American literature and served as architects of a uniquely American poetic voice.

One of Whitman’s most famous works is his poem "Election Day, November, 1884" in which he describes with great passion and reverence the titular electoral race.

Few writers are as optimistic about the American condition as Whitman or are as passionate about the democratic process. He sees presidential elections as a more powerful “scene and show” than any natural wonder, like Niagara Falls, the Great Plains, Yosemite, or Yellowstone. The beauty and majesty of presidential elections comes not from who is “chosen–the act itself” is “the main, the quadrennial choosing.”

Such passionate patriotism is present in numerous other Whitman poems, from “O Captain! My Captain!” to “I Hear America Singing.” Whitman was a vehement abolitionist and worked in Union army hospitals during the Civil War. His positivity about a newly reformed Union permeates his later works like “Election Day,” his patriotic poetry reflecting his private sentiments about the future of American democracy.

If only that were true.

Publicly, Whitman retained the most patriotic of personas. Privately, however, his disposition following the Civil War became less sunny. In an article published for the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review in 1988, Nicholas Natanson of the University of Iowa writes, “However fervent his ante-bellum political involvements had been, Whitman made increasingly frequent and graphic acknowledgments in his post-bellum notes and essays that American politics were devoid of legitimate issues, responsible candidates, and genuine concern for American ideals.” Whitman himself even proclaimed, “I can't enthuse any more over politics - the issues do

not provoke me to enthusiasm.”

This notion was epitomized in the election of 1884. This presidential race between Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican James G. Blaine was defined more by scandal, slander, and “mudslinging” than discussion of economics or domestic or foreign policy. To cap it off, Walt Whitman did not vote on Election Day, November, 1884.

Why would a writer with such a negative private opinion of contemporary politics produce a piece as overwhelmingly positive as “Election Day, November, 1884”? Natanson argues, “To have allowed his harsher realism to playa larger role in ‘Election Day,’ to have bewailed the shortcomings of American democracy, Whitman would have needed to abandon the characteristic persona that had emerged throughout most of Leaves of Grass - the celebrant of mass activities, the non-judgmental observer, the poet who, as he promised in "Song of Myself," is ‘no stander above men and women or apart from them.’” Whitman would have rather upheld his characteristic patriotic persona than make a genuine criticism about the country he formerly held so dear.

Such a notion calls into question the very definition of patriotism, which I argue “Election Day” works actively against. Patriotism may be devotion to a country, but it should not mean its blind worship. Patriotism should imply wanting a country to be the best version of itself, not fanatically praising even its most messy sectors.

Unfortunately, Whitman’s patriotic problem does not exist in isolation. One cannot watch cable news or read the paper for any extended length of time without finding an example of blind patriotism. They can at times be ridiculous, such as the attempt to rename french fries “Freedom Fries ” to protest France’s opposition to American military entry into Iraq. They can at times be reckless, such as the mob of “patriots” storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021 to violently protest the election results of two months prior. They can at times be despicable, such as George W. Bush’s Patriot Act of 2001 that legalized invasive government surveillance. They can at times be catastrophic, such as Barack Obama’s authorized 542 drone strikes that “killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians,” in the name of counterterrorism.

Acts of toxic patriotism both on the parts of leaders and ordinary citizens, blind pride in one’s country no matter the cost, can rapidly degenerate into nationalism and xenophobia. Now, I’m not saying that reading the work of Walt Whitman puts one on a fast track to jingoism. I simply caution readers of Whitman, or any consumers of media for that matter, to work to read between the lines.

Whitman was an American poet; he was an American before he was a poet. Let us not let patriotism or national pride temper our reason. Let us think critically as individuals about the actions of our nation, not following the masses simply because it’s easy or the norm, but thinking for ourselves as citizens of America. Whitman’s most famous works speak to such a principle. His 1892 masterwork work “Song of Myself” begins “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” Now, let us celebrate. Let us sing.


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