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A Poet of Multitudes, Whose Work Feels Newly Pertinent

The lesson we find in Walt Whitman is a reminder of the complexity of the individual, and how we can find succor in art even when its maker is deeply imperfect.

Louis Vuitton shirt, price on request, sweater, $1,230, and pants, price on request, louisvuitton.com, Orvis vest, $85, orvis.com, and stylist’s own hat and necklace.Credit...Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Jay Massacret

There are some artists who seem to have an uncanny ability to predict turns in the culture: Think of Judy Chicago in the ’70s, with her unclassifiable multimedia works that redefined what spaces women were able to occupy, or Andy Warhol, whose deadpan films and silk-screens — flat works, in fact and affect — predated memes, the hydra of art and commercialism and a consumption with fame. They are Cassandras, these artists, possessed of a weird and spooky gift.

Then there are artists whose work resonates long into the future not because they predicted it, but because their response to the events of their day feels so visceral, so undeniable, so true: To read or watch or listen to their creations is to understand, more vividly than one could from reading a history book, the tenor of the nation.

Such is the case with Walt Whitman, whose improbable role as the most popular American poet of his day feels newly relevant in ours. His was an unlikely voice in many ways: He was, as Jesse Green notes in his story about Whitman’s enduring legacy, first a rebel in word; his verse was energetic, unpruned, earthy and lusty in its subject matter, shaggy in its deliberately rocky rhythms, nothing like the pretty, tidily rhymed couplets of 19th-century European poetry. He was shaggy off paper as well, not to mention earthy and lusty: a man of appetites, a man who appreciated the beauty of other men, a man who did not bother to create one persona for the street and another for the page — what he celebrated in life, he also celebrated in poetry. His was verse for a new country, then in the final years of its first century, one still trying to make sense of itself and reckoning with the sin at the heart of its creation.

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Credit...Artwork by Andrew Kuo

But it was not, Green suggests, until the Civil War that Whitman came into himself, and wrote the poems that would define him forever after as one of the consciences of our nation. Beginning in December 1862, Whitman would spend two years visiting soldiers (largely white Union fighters, but also Confederate soldiers and Black men who fought for the Union) in hospitals, mostly around Washington, D.C., talking to them as they lay in various stages of recuperation and dying. In the war, Green argues, Whitman found something larger than himself; he saw the fragility of his young country, he saw the fragility of young lives. The works he produced during and after the Civil War — among them “Drum-Taps,” his 1865 collection of 53 poems about war and death, and of course his ode “O Captain! My Captain!” to Abraham Lincoln, assassinated in April of that year, shortly after the war’s end — mourned the dead while addressing the Americans of the future, those he would never know but who he had to trust would someday exist: As he wrote in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1892), he thought, too, of “you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.”

It’s our tradition to dedicate one story in our fall Men’s Fashion issue to an author or work of literature that seems particularly pertinent to our era. When we began planning this issue, it was April. We were inside our apartments and houses. Uptown, in Central Park, a group called Samaritan’s Purse had just opened a field hospital, one meant to serve what was projected to be — and was — the city’s immense population of Covid-19 patients. It would have reminded Whitman of the field hospitals he saw serving Union soldiers. But these tents came with a catch: They were run by a group that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, and a month after they appeared, they disappeared, just as suddenly.

That was early May. In late May, we all became witnesses to the death of a Black man, George Floyd, killed by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck. The protests that swept across the nation, “coming as they did in the midst of a disaster that was already changing the way Americans think about death,” Green writes, “ignited a movement where so many other matches had fizzled.” Here was an echo of that war whose destruction Whitman had seen for himself all those years ago. It was a season of ghosts, a reminder that what seems to be resolved — or what we collectively pretend is resolved — is often not.

But the other lesson we find in Whitman is a reminder of the complexity of the individual, and how we can find succor in art even when its maker is deeply imperfect. Green reminds us that for all Whitman’s extravagant humanity, for all his empathy, he was also a reflexive racist, indifferent to the enslavement of Black people and to the destruction of Native Americans; the American Arcadia he imagined was one populated with those who were white — he was so farseeing in so many ways, and yet in this, it did not occur to him to see past the prevailing bigotries and prejudices of his time.

We live in an age in which we are quick to lionize and swift to disavow. But as so many other binaries collapse, their boundaries revealed to be reductive or restrictive, we should be wary of enforcing this one: No man should be worshiped. Every man is flawed. Some flaws cannot be, and must not be, forgiven. But sometimes, grace can be found even when the person delivering it is less than gracious himself. “I contain multitudes,” Whitman wrote. Don’t we all?