John Marsh teaches English at Pennsylvania State University and has a keen interest in labor and American poetry. His books include Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Bus Boys: Poverty. Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry and the award-winning You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-1941. His latest, In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself, offers a fresh and provocative view of Walt Whitman and his present-day relevance. Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Marsh confesses his love for the legendary poet, and by the end of this insightful homage, readers are likely to feel the same.”
RWR: Why does Whitman matter?
Marsh: Whitman matters because the same things that bother us—death, money, sex, and politics—bothered him, and instead of just bemoaning them, as I am inclined to do, he worked out solutions to them. We may not agree with every solution he found, but in a culture that does not often encourage us to think seriously about these subjects, Whitman does.
RWR: What can we learn from him?
Marsh: To put it very briefly, we can learn why death should not scare us, why sex should not shame us, why money should not compel us, and why politics should not disgust us.
RWR: How did working in army hospitals during the Civil War save him? How is that an example for us?
Marsh: On the eve of the Civil War, Whitman had begun to lose faith in the experiment of American democracy, largely because it dithered morally and politically on the question of slavery, which looked like it would destroy the union he valued so much. By extension, he began to lose faith in the American people who watched its destruction. He grew cynical. During the war, Whitman devoted his afternoons and evenings to visiting and comforting sick and wounded soldiers in the army hospitals. He came to know the soldiers well, and he was impressed by their fundamental decency. He reasoned that with young men like these, American democracy could never suffer too badly and eventually might realize its promise.
RWR: What was his vision for the future of democracy?
Marsh: Whitman had an intensely personal vision of democracy. He thought that it should emerge from and as much as possible reproduce the loving, comradely relationship between two friends. He wrote that he wanted to establish “the institution of the dear love of comrades.” In short, he wanted us to care for each other, and he thought care should be the bedrock of democracy. It is easy to scoff at such a vision, or reduce it to Whitman’s homosexuality, but he thought that democracy that did not aspire to and ultimately achieve this comradeliness did not deserve the name.
RWR: What would Whitman make of our present Gilded Age?
Marsh: It would repulse him. He thought that poverty undermined democracy, specifically, the capacity and willingness of the poor to participate in democracy. In this respect, at least, he was right, and we have not made much progress since. But wealth offended him more than poverty. Whitman believed that the pursuit of wealth insulted the very fundamentals of creation. He did not think anyone could truly own anything, so he thought of money and property as at best a necessary fiction and at worst a delusion. “What is it that you made money?” he asks in one poem, “what is it that you got what you wanted?” He doesn’t even bother to answer the question. I fear how many of us would answer it today.
RWR: Why did your researches take you to a strip club?
Marsh: Today, when we learn of someone surrendering to his or her lust, we usually either laugh at them or shame them, or sometimes both. For example, I live in a college town, and early on Saturday and Sunday mornings you can see young women in clothes from the night before making their way back home after having slept somewhere else. This is called, with some indulgent humor but altogether too much judgment, a “walk of shame.” All this would have saddened Whitman. He thought that, unlike money, lust put us in harmony with the fundamentals of creation, and he wanted to celebrate it, not laugh at or shame those who followed it. I thought a visit to a strip club would test my own attitude toward lust. Could I not just refrain from judging others or myself for feeling it, but celebrate it, as Whitman did? I found out that it is easier said than done.
RWR: What’s the problem with Whitman’s tomb?
Marsh: It flouts the best parts of his poetry. For someone who celebrated the fact that when he died his body would dissolve back into the atomic structure of the universe, and for someone who placed so little stock in material possessions, the tomb seems wrong. It shields his corpse from the grass he loved, and it cost a fortune and looks like it.
RWR: What surprised you most in writing the book?
Marsh: It will seem silly, but the poetry surprised me the most. I mean how good it was. I went to Whitman looking for wisdom, and I found it, but the things that stick with me, months after writing the book, are the turns of phrases and arresting images that embody the wisdom. Here is one example. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes, “I know I am deathless,” and that is more or less the wisdom that we came for. But he then follows that assertion with two concrete images that show it: “I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass,/ I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.” Two beautiful images for boundless and eternal life. It is the interaction between insight and illustration that makes Whitman such a powerful poet.