"The Machinist Rolls Up His Sleeves":
Whitman and the Working Class
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
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
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
Reynolds reminds us that:
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
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.
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,
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
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:
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:
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:
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
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:
We now have a much different workplace, such as the one recorded in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle:
As Ezra Greenspan observes in his book Walt Whitman and the American Reader:
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
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.
O. and Robert B. Holland. “Whitman, W.T. Stead and the
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.
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.
“Whitman’s Political Vision.”
Pascal, Richard. “‘Dimes on the Eyes’: Walt Whitman and the Pursuit of Wealth in
Reynolds, David. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography.
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Whitman, Walt. Correspondence of Walt Whitman. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols.
---. Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose.