Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place

"The Machinist Rolls Up His Sleeves": Whitman and the Working Class
Lynda L. Hinkle Rutgers University-Camden 

The machinist rolls up his sleeves, the policeman travels his beat, the gate-keeper marks who pass
The young fellow drives the express-wagon, (I love him, though I do not know him) . . .
—Whitman, “Song of Myself”

            Whitman and his work embody the American ideal of crossing class boundaries on merit--of being upwardly mobile.  His ideas transform into an Horatio Alger tale, first found and loved on the street then “exalted”--through careful marketing--to the middle then upper classes.  Although Whitman gives lip service to loving the working class world he is forced to grow up in (due to a series of misfortunes on the part of his father), he ultimately aspires to middle- and upper-class security.  Some working class people of the period embraced aspects of his work and persona because they seemed to promise an overarching equality that the very oppressed working class, in a newly industrialized world, desperately sought.  By the end of his life, Whitman had been adopted both intellectually and financially by representatives of the elite, such as Andrew Carnegie. His failure to use this platform to lobby for the rights of workers or to reach back and propel other members of the working class forward, demonstrates his lack of interest in true reform and his affirmation of the class status quo.  In essence, Walt Whitman embodied a self-interested capitalist zeitgeist in which his capital--his persona and his poetry--became a marketable good and he an excellent salesman to whomever was buying. 

            In Walt Whitman’s America, David Reynolds states that Whitman’s early years were marked with class confusion not just for his family but also for America:

Historians often point to the 1815-20 period as the time when the agrarian, household economy in America gave way to the capitalistic market system that eventually created mammoth corporations, huge private fortunes, and wide class divisions. The panic of 1819 (the year Whitman was born) was the first of several massive depressions in a boom-and-bust cycle that would destabilize Whitman’s early years.  (7)

The Whitman family had an early prominence and inherited lands that remained in the family, though largely dissipated, from 1672 to 1912 (10).  It was the generation right before Walt’s, including his alcoholic and somewhat brutish father, Walt Sr., who would squander much of the family estate before the poet Walt Whitman would even make his first inarticulate baby cry.  It became necessary for the Whitman family to remove from the lands of their ancestors in search of work.  When Walt Jr. was four years old his parents and siblings did just that, moving to Brooklyn.  Walt Sr. hoped to regain financial stability by participating in the building boom as a carpenter.  This would not be the last move the family would make, as Walt Sr. tended to fail at an enterprise, pull up stakes and move--only to fail elsewhere.  For young Walt, the economic insecurity of his growing up years would profoundly affect his life and work, for although it made him able to relate to the working class it also fostered in him, I would argue, a deep desire to escape it. 

            When Walt Jr. goes to work as a teacher he expresses a certain bourgeois distaste for the townspeople where he works, even though this would not be in keeping with his financial or social class status at that time.  He writes in a letter during his tenure in Woodbury, New York, in 1840:

I believe when the Lord created the world, he used up all the good stuff, and was forced to form Woodbury and its denizens, out of the fag ends, the scraps and refuse:  for a more unsophisticated race than lives hereabouts you will seldom meet with in your travels. – They get up in the morning, and toil through the day, with no interregnum of joy or leisure, except breakfast and dinner. – The live on salt pork and cucumbers; and for delicacy they sometimes treat company to rye-cake and buttermilk. – Is not this enough to send them to perdition “uncancelled, unanointed, unannealed?”  (Whitman, Correspondence, 9)

Reynolds reminds us that:

There was little glamour about the job of a country teacher in those days. Job security was minimal, since some schools were open only three months. . . .Teachers usually drifted from school to school. . . . Salaries were wretched. A country teacher might expect to make around $40 a term or $160 a year.  (57-58)

Walt Whitman, raised on the abiding family mythology of a noble past (his mother indeed had descended from European nobility), must surely have felt brought down in the world, accounting for some of his distaste, but his commentary on the people of Woodbury shows an utter lack of understanding of the financial pressures which would have forced these rural people to be so frugal and productive in their daily lives. Young Walt already shows a taste for the finer things, beyond mere rye-cake (which may indeed have been all he could afford on a teacher’s salary as well) that will separate him from the working class.  What follows is the quiet drama of a man pulling himself up by the proverbial bootstraps as Whitman moves into a career in journalism, eventually becoming an editor in Brooklyn.  According to Andrew Lawson, Whitman had an eye toward upward mobility even then:

As a self-educated, respectable Brooklyn editor, Whitman looked to culture as the sign of upward mobility.  Before he became a poet, Whitman planned a career as a lecturer in the public lecture system based in town lyceums and young men’s associations, which drew an audience from across the range of the antebellum middle class from artisans and shopkeepers to doctors and clergymen.  (‘“Song of Myself’” 379)

            Despite his determination to sprint upward from them, Whitman romanticizes the idea of the working class in his later writing and life.  There is little doubt that he desired to be viewed as aligned with the working classes, particularly at the start of his career.  A primary indication is the frontispiece for the first edition of Leaves of Grass where Whitman dresses in a working man’s clothing, arm cocked saucily and with a gruff and ruddy stare at the viewer.  He once said of the portrait, “The worst thing about this is, that I look so damned flamboyant--as if I was hurling bolts at somebody--full of mad oaths--saying defiantly, to hell with you!” (Folsom).  His friend William Sloane Kennedy, a middle class theologian, hated the portrait, saying he hoped that this repulsive, loaferish portrait, with its sensual mouth, can be dropped from future editions, or be accompanied by other and better ones that show the mature man, and not merely the defiant young revolter of thirty-seven, with a very large chip on his shoulder, no suspenders to his trousers, and his hat very much on one side.  (Folsom)

Indeed, Kennedy seems to be objecting to the portrait largely on class grounds.  His protest of the “sensual mouth” certainly echoes the middle and upper class notion of working class people as particularly lusty and sensual.  Further, he infantilizes the working class look and appears to hope Whitman will “grow up” and maybe stop this mad slumming.  Thus begins Whitman’s education on rejecting his socio-economic foundation.  Later frontispieces found Whitman in decidedly more middle-class garb.

In an 1856 review for the Brooklyn Daily Times, Whitman writes of himself as a man who is art-and-part of the commonality [and] so loves the streets [as to] leave a select soree of elegant people any time to go with tumultuous men, roughs, receive their caresses and welcome, listen to their noise, oaths, smut, fluency, laughter, repartee.  (Lawson, “Spending for Vast Returns,” 335) Lawson argues that Whitman sees himself “somewhere ambiguously in between, a liminal space marked by ‘leaving’ one in order to ‘go with’ the other” and that “the Whitman presented here seems to have a foot in both camps” (“Spending for Vast Returns” 337).  Whitman does seem to walk a tightrope in between socioeconomic classes and perhaps much of his charm is in just that:  the upper classes seek him out to romanticize the freedom from care they perceive in the lower classes and the lower classes seek him out to bring them a taste of the freedom from care they perceive in the upper classes. 

Much like the Bible, Whitman’s writing is sufficiently sweeping and extensive that it may be easily adopted by all sorts of conflicting value systems.  One instance of this is the appreciation of Whitman by the working class or lower middle class socialist.  Horace Traubel is a keen American example of this.  His devotion to Whitman, spending hours daily recording volumes of his “final” words for posterity, is unmatched.  Traubel deeply believed that Whitman’s poetry supported his belief in the power of the common man.  Whitmania is also evidenced in some British socialist circles.   For example,  a group of lower middle class men in Bolton, Lancashire, formed a devoted core group of Walt worshippers who considered him not only a poet but a Jesus-like prophet (Robertson).  It is no wonder that the lower middle class in particular would find in Whitman’s poetical embrace a certain comfort, for as Robertson describes, for most working class Britons, the promise of upward mobility seemed an empty sham, although an array of working class institutions--trade unions, social organizations and pubs--offered at least partially satisfying alternatives.  The lower middle class . . . was left stranded.  Separated from working class havens by a gulf of respectability, they lacked access to all the varieties of capital that supported the middle and upper classes’ devotion to economic success and material comfort:  not only financial capital but the educational capital of a university degree, the social capital of a network of well connected friends and relations.

 The Bolton disciples, searching for a model, surely recognized in Whitman his ability to transcend class, the upward mobility that was more possible in the American system than in the British one in which they strived for change.  Seizing on Whitman’s notion of comradeship, this self-named Eagle Street College used Whitman’s work to hone their ideas of ethical socialism as a method to address their class malcontent.  They did this boldly and with Whitman’s complicity (the poet received frequent letters from the group and wrote back warmly) despite the fact that Whitman himself was a Jacksonian democrat who distanced himself from socialism completely. 

The leap from a Jacksonian democracy to socialist dogma was not as unusual as one might think.  British socialists frequently looked to the harbingers of American romanticism to propel their political movement.  Mark Bevir, in his article “British Socialism and American Romanticism,” argues, among many other things, that “Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman drew inspiration from Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democratic theory, which in turn restate the eighteenth-century belief in the perfectibility of mankind” (881).  This belief in perfectibility easily can be used as a mandate for social change, a propellant to a new world order in which all classes take ownership of self and society.  For Whitman, however, this perfectibility could be carried through under the auspices of capitalism, and the American democratic model is the redeeming value system that will ultimately lead humanity to its destined greatness.  According to Charles Molesworth, Whitman’s belief in the idea of America as a redeemer nation, for example, can be made out to be consonant with American imperialism, with its implicit dependence on ideas of American expansionism and exceptionalism.  He believed that the capital of the country should be moved much further west and saw nothing at all to object to in manifest destiny.Whitman might have accepted the praise and money of his British socialist fans, but ultimately he probably would have been horrified had their ideas taken root in his beloved America, which was its own redeemer and possibly redeemer for the world.

            Converse of the socialist adoption of him and his work, Whitman’s acceptance by those who had no interest in overturning capitalism and a great interest in maintaining status quo is also notable.  How did Whitman appeal to such radically different economic philosophies?  Richard Pascal in his article “Whitman and the Pursuit of Wealth” writes:

By overturning the standard meanings of terms associated with finance and commerce, Whitman attempts to twist capitalist discourse to his own purposes and subvert some of its basic assumptions without directly rejecting them.  The result is that through what in places amounts to metaphorical fast talk the desire for wealth remains legitimate, profit and interest are permitted to retain their allure and the status of ownership is still regarded as fundamental to the individual’s sense of security.  Americans, the implication is, have not been wrongheaded in their choice of a value system and corresponding conceptual framework within which to organize their lives and social relations--just insufficiently enlightened as to the broadest applications of that value system.  (149)

In other words, Whitman invokes the rhetoric of socialist change, but those who embrace him as their own fail to see that beyond the rhetoric Whitman is ultimately a poet for unification, for the reification of capitalism and democracy--he seeks the fulfillment of the current system, not its overthrow.  The working class is a nice abstraction, a beautiful bit of scenery that is glorified and romanticized in Whitman’s work.  However, the real problems of the working class in a brutal system of industrialization are not at all Whitman’s concern. 

Instead, Whitman’s philosophical concern is primarily with creating a stronger nation, a concern any good capitalist would share.  The highlighting of working class problems would create a divide that counterbalances his political interest.  Further, Whitman is also interested in himself.  Remember the young schoolteacher Walt Whitman who longs for a life away from “rye-cakes and buttermilk.” 

 His career as a journalist taught him valuable skills in marketing, and Whitman devotes a large portion of the latter part of his life to selling the product of the Walt Whitman mythos as well as his work.  Whitman frequently created his own copy when newspapers failed to cover him or his arrival in the course of his travels. It must be assumed that he did so with the intention of broadening his own fame and protecting his financial and artistic interests. Further, as David Reynolds chronicles, there was an outbreak of Whitman product, and Whitman was happy that someone was buying:

[I]t was during these years that there appeared a Whitman cigar, a Whitman calendar, a Whitman tree, Whitman anthologies, a Whitman church and various Whitman societies. The poet even fantasized whimsically about a Whitman popcorn.  Walt Whitman as capitalist commodity?  The poet often put up lipservice resistance to his own comodification. But he let it happen, in some cases with enthusiasm. He detested the pirating of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass; but in these years he accepted royalties from it and refused to go to court about it.  He said he was opposed to expurgated anthologies of his poems;  but he consented to three during this period and even fantasized about a Leaves of Grass, Junior on his deathbed. He said he hated big affairs, but he accepted star billing at them, and he gladly accepted the proceeds they produced.  (546-47)

Now late in his life, with his fame firmly entrenched, Whitman accepted pecuniary gifts from private “investors,” although he did not support the attempt of some friends to get him a federal pension.  As he said:

I am not in actual want; but when persons of wealth and kind inclinations, either at home or abroad, offer to aid me, I appreciate their kindness and good will.  I have been aided by gifts from men and women of distinction abroad, especially in Great Britain, during the past winter.  (Baylen 69)

The British donation stirred American friends who wished not to be outdone by foreign admirers, and “cottage funds” and other financial donations netted Whitman goods, trips, and cash somewhat regularly. Reynolds further reports that Whitman “collected a substantial sum from contributors who wanted to buy him a country cottage, but he never bought the cottage, pocketing the money instead” (547). Although his book royalties amounted to less than $100 a year (less than he made as a school teacher back in 1840), Whitman traveled extensively out West, to Canada and elsewhere, staying in the best hotels and private homes.  His home in Camden was hardly posh, though it would have exceeded his reach by book royalties alone, but he owned it, giving him a middle-class clout. He did not do without adequate health care, food, and vacation.  All these were funded almost entirely by benefactors.  One of these benefactors was Andrew Carnegie, a fact that caused some dissension between Whitman and socialist friends like Horace Traubel.  Traubel tried to convince Whitman of the abuse of American workers in Carnegie’s steel mills, but Whitman refused to criticize Carnegie because of the personal generosity he had shown.  Whitman said, “I speak for Anarchists, socialists, George men, whatever you choose, I include as well Kings, Emperors, aristocracies, financial men” (Reynolds 557-558).

In fact, despite having the ear of members of the intellectual and financial elite, Whitman never truly “spoke for” the Anarchists, socialists, or working class to these arching ears poised to absorb him. Part of the reason for Whitman’s apparent lack of empathy for the working class might be that he was somewhat removed from them as they existed within the new industrial epoch.  Although he had been more intimate with their machinations in his youth, as he aged times were changing and the working class artisan culture he memorialized in his poetry was largely giving way to a cog in the machinery of industrialism. Instead of:         

I hear American singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or bean,
The mason singing as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat bench

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands
The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown . . .  (Whitman 174)

We now have a much different workplace, such as the one recorded in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle:

Jonas pushed a truck loaded with hams from the smoke rooms to an elevator, and thence to the packing rooms.  The trucks were all of iron, and heavy, and they put about threescore hams on each of them, a load of more than a quarter of a ton.  On the uneven floor it was  atask for a man to start one of these trucks, unless he was a giant, and when it was once started he naturally tried his best to keep it going. There was always the boss prowling about, and if there was a second’s delay he would fall to cursing;  Lithuanians and Slovaks and such, who could not understand what was said to them, the bosses were wont to kick about the place like so many dogs.  (66)

As Ezra Greenspan observes in his book Walt Whitman and the American Reader:

The problem with this otherwise perfectly enchanting vision of a nation of individual workers, each one singing his or her song of contentment, is that, even as an ideal, it belongs to a bygone world of small, independent mechanics, craftsman, and farmers. That world . . . was being bypassed by the age of mass production and modern technology.  Rather than singing Whitman’s song of self-contentment and self-help, American workingmen in the period following the Civil War would increasingly be given to chanting the slogans of emergent unions, a movement, significantly, with which Whitman had little sympathy.  (216)

 Whitman’s only written or recorded statement on the strike question is an undelivered speech called “The Tramp and The Strike” (Whitman 1087-1089), a short piece in which he compares the American Revolution to a strike that “yet remains to be settled.”  He posits that “what most presses and perplexes to-day” is the question “of social and economic organization, the treatment of working-people by employers, and all that goes with it.”  He does not seem to offer a solution to this perplexing quandary in this piece, except to suggest that it is possible, “curious as it may seem,” that “it is in what are call’d the poorest, lowest characters you will sometimes, nay generally, find glints of the most sublime virtues, eligibilities, heroisms.”  Salvation, Whitman suggests, may yet come from these “strange quarters,” the working class.  These ruminations have the paternalistic qualities of one far removed from the class in question, yet Whitman lived out the end of his life in Camden, New Jersey--now considered the worst city in America, but then a bustling but largely working class hamlet, a spillover from the ports and the city of Philadelphia.  He is known to have sat at his window with it wide open, looking out on the loud crowds of workers.  Why is it, then, he speaks of them so distantly?  Perhaps it is because he was, at that time, something they were not--a property owner, living fairly well without needing to work beyond the occasional speech or publication? Although economically not wealthy, he is certainly removed from the activities of labor, and, therefore, perhaps did not understand the challenges that these passers-by of his window underwent.

  Nevertheless, further in “The Tramp and the Strike” Whitman reflects on an observation that for a moment demonstrates his awareness of the plight of the working class and poor in America, however dim that awareness may be:

I saw today a sight I had never seen before--and it amazed, and made me serious;  three quite good-looking American men, of respectable personal presence, two of them young, carrying chiffonier bags on their shoulders, and the usual long iron hooks in their hands, plodding along, their eyes cast down, spying for scraps, rags, bones, & etc.  (Whitman 1080)

Acknowledging the hardship of these men, Whitman admits, albeit briefly (and not in public, as this speech is never delivered) that the system is not working and the romantic assertions of his early poetry may not depict the whole story.  Showing that he has sympathies for the plight of workers and the poor in this piece only further convicts him of class betrayal, for now he cannot claim total ignorance. He simply chose to remain silent, accepting the financial benefits of his complicity with a system of exploitation that, were it not for his writing, he probably would have spent his life on the wrong and painful end of. 

            Although Walt Whitman’s poetry is richly and uniquely American and of significant importance to our literary and cultural history, he must be approached as a figure that embraces rather than critiques the socioeconomic system present at the time of its inception. Although he bruises contemporary values of the time with his sexual candor and brisk description of emotional and physical entanglements, he is in no way to be confused with the Leftist agenda that sought socioeconomic revolution.  His work casts the class system in relief, whitewashing it with romantic hyperbole that must not be mistaken for a desire for change.  When Whitman writes “The machinist rolls up his sleeves” in Song of Myself, it is not because Whitman’s machinist is about to change the world; rather, it is because he is engaged in Whitman’s view of his proper work: building a unified nation. Further, Whitman writes, “the young fellow drives the express-wagon, (I love him, though I do not know him),” and in this we are reminded that Whitman, well-meaning though he may be, is indeed a stranger to the working class, romanticizing from afar what he does not really know--cruising class, if you will, from the safety of property owned and belly full. 


Works Cited

Baylen, Joseph O. and Robert B. Holland. “Whitman, W.T. Stead and the Pall Mall

Gazette: 1886-1887.” American Literature 33.1 (March 1961). 68-72.

Bevir, Mark. “British Socialism and American Romanticism” The English Historical

Review  110.438 (September 1995).  878-901.

Folsom, Ed and Kenneth Price (ed.). Walt Whitman Archive.  “Images of Whitman.”


Greenspan, Ezra.  Walt Whitman and the American Reader. New York: Cambridge

University Press, 1990.

Lawson, Andrew. “‘Song of Myself’ and the Class Struggle in Language.” Textual

Practice 18.3 (2004). 377-394. 

Lawson, Andrew. “‘Spending for Vast Returns’:  Sex, Class and Commerce in the First

Leaves of Grass.” American Literature 75.2 (June 2003). 335-365.

Molesworth, Charles. “Whitman’s Political Vision.” Raritan 12.1 (Summer 1992). 

Pascal, Richard. “‘Dimes on the Eyes’: Walt Whitman and the Pursuit of Wealth in

America.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 44.2 (September 1989). 141-172.

Reynolds, David.  Walt Whitman’s America:  A Cultural Biography.  New York: 

Vintage, 1996. 

Robertson, Michael. “Worshipping Walt:  Lancashire’s Whitman Disciples.” History

Today 54.4 (April 2004).

Whitman, Walt. Correspondence of Walt Whitman.  Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols.

New York: New York U P, 1961-77.

---.  Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1996.


Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place