Cancel Culture’s Latest Victim: Walt Whitman

 

Having worked in Camden, New Jersey, for 16 years, the 19th-century poet Walt Whitman is ubiquitous. Whitman’s final Camden home – the only one he ever owned – is a National Historic Landmark. Murals honoring or including Whitman are found throughout town. He’s also buried in Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery in an impressive mausoleum. The two leading bridges that connect Camden and Philadelphia are named after Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman.

Inscribed over City Hall are the words from a Whitman poem: “In a dream, I saw a city invincible.” Camden’s invincibility has been challenged for much of the last 50 years, which is still recovering from an exodus of people and manufacturing jobs. For a while, it had the nation’s highest murder rate. It continues to suffer high unemployment rates. But it is making an impressive comeback, thanks to a new medical school, its largest employer, Cooper University Hospital, and new corporate investments such as Subaru’s new North American headquarters and a new hotel on the waterfront. Police reforms of nearly a decade ago are a model for the nation.

And through it all, Camden has clung to Whitman and his brilliant career and contributions to American literature.

Whitman’s statue is also a centerpiece of Rutgers-Camden University. At least until now. Thanks to a petition with 3,853 names – less than the proponent’s goal of 5,000 – the chancellor and a “committee of scholars” associated with the publicly funded school is relocating Whitman’s formidable statue to a less conspicuous but still “historically significant” place on campus, whatever that means.

Walt Whitman, who died in 1892, is canceled. Who gets to tell thousands of writers he inspired, even today?

From the petition:

We are calling for the removal of the Walt Whitman statue which stands tall in the middle of our campus. Rutgers- Camden has been making efforts recently to remove symbols around our campus which continue to perpetuate a racist past. I believe that the statue of Walt Whitman glorifies a man who we should not hold such a place of honor on our campus. Our school encourages inclusion, diversity, and equity while Whitman stood for none of those things. He instead stood for white supremacy and racism against Black and Indigenous Americans.

Quote of Walt Whitman’s white supremacist beliefs: “The [REDACTED], like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable- always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out.” – Walt Whitman

Aside from needing an editor, the petitioners didn’t get everything they wanted. They wanted Whitman removed entirely. Ignored or denigrated, apparently, are all of Whitman’s work – including his seminal and most famous work, “Leaves of Grass” (you remember, the book President Bill Clinton famously gifted to White House intern Monica Lewinsky). As usual, things are a bit more complicated. From a Walt Whitman archive site:

Walt Whitman’s seemingly inconsistent and self-contradictory attitudes toward slavery have long been a source of critical debate. On one hand, Whitman’s opposition to slavery is demonstrated in Leaves of Grass by the way in which he consistently includes African Americans in his vision of an ideal, multiracial republic and portrays them as beautiful, dignified, and intelligent. On the other hand, various Whitman texts show that he had little tolerance for abolitionism, that he thought blacks were inferior to whites, and that his opposition to the extension of slavery had little, if anything, to do with sympathy for slaves. . .

How Whitman achieved such a vision is difficult if not impossible to trace. One possibility is that Whitman’s reading of Emerson, which occurred at about the same time, may have prompted Whitman toward a sense of his own divinity which he recognized as connected to the divinity of all others, including slaves. He may later have been sensitized to the plight of slaves during a four-month stint as editor of the New Orleans Crescent in 1848, when he wrote about persons of color he encountered and likely witnessed slave auctions. At any rate, by the late 1840s Whitman had established a pattern of opposing the extension of slavery as a Free-Soiler journalist while imagining persons of African descent in radically sympathetic and inclusive terms in his poetry.

Or this, from WaltWhitman.com:

Aside from writing poetry, Whitman moved to Washington D.C and found employment as a clerk. It was the time of the Civil War, and his eyes were opened to the sufferings of numerous men and women. He was deeply moved after seeing their pain and suffering, that he decided to devote some of his precious time visiting soldiers who were injured because of the war. He also helped them by dressing their wounds and sending messages of peace and hope.

His experience in helping wounded soldiers was one of his inspirations for the poems he wrote in the book published in 1865. Several titles were included in the book such as the poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, which was the poet’s elegy dedicated to President Lincoln.

Walt Whitman is the product of time he did not create. Many of his views reflected public opinion at the time – especially in the anti-slavery north. Instead of a university removing his statue, it should be an excellent opportunity to teach and provide context. Instead, many woke students want to erase history that is important and provides context during one of the most turbulent times in America’s history.

Major fail, Rutgers-Camden. Like so many others, you have again yielded to the woke impulse of presentism – applying words and actions of prior years to the “standards” of today (which apparently have substituted context for pretext). What’s the rest of Camden going to do with all their tributes and reminders of Whitman’s legacy? Time will tell, but I suspect not much.

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There are 17 comments.

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  1. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    I guess those cancelling him must be homophobic.

    • #1
  2. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    Kelly D Johnston: “The [REDACTED], like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable- always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out.” – Walt Whitman

    Sooooo…,  he didn’t argue that disempowered groups should be eliminated, but rather that he believed it’s inevitable that disempowered groups would be eliminated (and also that all human beings are comparable to rats).

    That’s unrealistically pessimistic (since history clearly shows that disempowered groups have an uncanny ability to keep hanging on in their isolated pockets of territory despite the best efforts of the ruling class), but it’s not quite racist (unless one argues that it’s racist to paint disempowered groups with the same brush as the ruling class).

    • #2
  3. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    God, I am just so sick of these people.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston: “The [REDACTED], like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable- always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out.” – Walt Whitman

    Sooooo…, he didn’t argue that disempowered groups should be eliminated, but rather that he believed it’s inevitable that disempowered groups would be eliminated (and also that all human beings are comparable to rats).

    That’s unrealistically pessimistic (since history clearly shows that disempowered groups have an uncanny ability to keep hanging on in their isolated pockets of territory despite the best efforts of the ruling class), but it’s not quite racist (unless one argues that it’s racist to paint disempowered groups with the same brush as the ruling class).

    Applying reason and logic to Rutgers will only hurt their feelings.

    • #4
  5. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    The lesson of communism is that none shall escape cancellation. That is one fascinating distinction that Solzhenitsyn identified between Communists and Nazis. Nazis saw some people as human beings. Communists saw no one as human beings, including themselves. And let’s face it: there’s no significant difference between socialists and communists. For both, everyone is mere fodder for the ever-shapeshifting Ideal.

    • #5
  6. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    And yet, the “grand kleagle” Robert Byrd is still graffitied on scores of buildings, bridges, roads….

    • #6
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Mark Alexander (View Comment):

    The lesson of communism is that none shall escape cancellation. That is one fascinating distinction that Solzhenitsyn identified between Communists and Nazis. Nazis saw some people as human beings. Communists saw no one as human beings, including themselves. And let’s face it: there’s no significant difference between socialists and communists. For both, everyone is mere fodder for the ever-shapeshifting Ideal.

    • #7
  8. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    Percival (View Comment):

    Mark Alexander (View Comment):

    The lesson of communism is that none shall escape cancellation. That is one fascinating distinction that Solzhenitsyn identified between Communists and Nazis. Nazis saw some people as human beings. Communists saw no one as human beings, including themselves. And let’s face it: there’s no significant difference between socialists and communists. For both, everyone is mere fodder for the ever-shapeshifting Ideal.

    I heard that at university in the early 80s, from some young woman on a platform speaking to a group of dozens. Living in your head is easy for the young. Mentally crippled teachers take joy in taking advantage.

    • #8
  9. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    22nd century people will find reasons to find something objectionable in every person of the 21st century, so every person currently alive should be preemptively cancelled, and no one should listen to anything anyone today says. 

    • #9
  10. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    I read about this, along with yesterday’s news about the city of Charlottesville tearing down the statue of Lewis & Clark (that also featured Sacagawea).  I’m running out of adjectives to describe today’s times (“Barbaric”, “Anti-Intellectual”, etc. have already been taken).

    If we survive this, I believe that future historians will refer to this as “America’s Dark Ages”.

    • #10
  11. GlennAmurgis Coolidge
    GlennAmurgis
    @GlennAmurgis

    So when will they cancel Marx – he is one dead white male these people will never cancel

    • #11
  12. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    CACrabtree (View Comment):
    yesterday’s news about the city of Charlottesville tearing down the statue of Lewis & Clark (that also featured Sacagawea)

    I hadn’t heard about this. I just cannot bear it.

    • #12
  13. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    I read about this, along with yesterday’s news about the city of Charlottesville tearing down the statue of Lewis & Clark (that also featured Sacagawea). I’m running out of adjectives to describe today’s times (“Barbaric”, “Anti-Intellectual”, etc. have already been taken).

    If we survive this, I believe that future historians will refer to this as “America’s Dark Ages”.

    How about “taliban”?

    • #13
  14. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    I read about this, along with yesterday’s news about the city of Charlottesville tearing down the statue of Lewis & Clark (that also featured Sacagawea). I’m running out of adjectives to describe today’s times (“Barbaric”, “Anti-Intellectual”, etc. have already been taken).

    If we survive this, I believe that future historians will refer to this as “America’s Dark Ages”.

    Nah, they’ll use the same inoffensive euphemism that they use for the disastrous years in Africa from the 1940s to the 1990s: “The Post-Colonial Period”.

    • #14
  15. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    22nd century people will find reasons to find something objectionable in every person of the 21st century, so every person currently alive should be preemptively cancelled, and no one should listen to anything anyone today says.

    There’s no need. Humanity will be extinct by then due to the effects of global warming. The Forces Of Woke are on a mission to purify the souls of the infidels before the end of the world.

    • #15
  16. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Sigh…  Ray grew up in Camden, and his brother still lives in the old family homestead, which Ray now owns.  The inmates are truly running the asylum, and that’s what the college has turned into.

    • #16
  17. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Kelly D Johnston: Walt Whitman is the product of time he did not create. Many of his views reflected public opinion at the time – especially in the anti-slavery north. Instead of a university removing his statue, it should be an excellent opportunity to teach and provide context. Instead, many woke students want to erase history that is important and provides context during one of the most turbulent times in America’s history.

    Never fear, the fact checking sites will rate this petition as “Missing Context.” 

    • #17
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