- “We Fathom You Not—We Love You”:Walt Whitman’s Social Ontology and Radical Democracy
In a notebook from 1855–56, not long after he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) with high hopes but few sales, Walt Whitman paused to reconsider the overall purpose of his art. Across from lines for what would become “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” he notes, “The newer better principle / through all my poems.—(dramas? novels?, compositions of any sort.) / Present only great characters, / good, loving characters.—/ Present the best phases of / character, that any one, man or woman, is eligible to.” Whitman reiterates and clarifies this agenda a few pages later, explaining that the “Idea to pervade largely / [must be] Eligibility—I, you, any one eligible to the condition or attributes or advantages of any being, no matter who.” Such a statement is startlingly blunt, explicitly unveiling what Whitman chose to leave implicit in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (“What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?”). But the notebook goes on to explain the strategy behind the coy guardedness of the poem’s speaker. Simply announcing in the poem that “any one” has this “eligibility” would not be as effective as enabling people to locate it within themselves and among one other. So Whitman crafts an “indirect mode” of argument, involving an intricately staged sequence of addresses intended to make a reader “wristle [sic]” with him since “the good comes by wristling for it.”1 But what does Whitman mean by eligibility, and why does it become central not just to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” his most intricate metapoem, but to his understanding of his work as a whole?
This pursuit of eligibility seems consistent with Whitman’s advocacy of social equality encompassing “any one . . . any being, no matter who.” But the suggestion that any “condition[s] or attributes or advantages” belonging to “any one” may belong to “you” sounds epistemologically and perhaps even materially possessive and thus potentially in tension with the social equality he describes, a suspicion reinforced by his sly “indirect [End Page 761] mode.” However, the sense of belonging Whitman locates at the heart of his poetics of eligibility may be understood in a very different way, intimating not an act of possession so much as a state of association, a being-with that we all can share. This claim may seem to place a good deal of pressure on a few sentences from a drafting notebook, but this essay will show how “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” rests on a social ontology, an understanding of being in terms of being-with others, that serves as the ground of Whitman’s most radically democratic poetics and politics.
The essay starts with a reading of the beginning of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” that demonstrates how the speaker sets aside the epistemological urge to know others in favor of seeking to be with them. The speaker approaches “you” cautiously, using various carefully calibrated modes of address, along with extensive, elaborate anaphora, and a highly responsive free-verse line, taking care to base this relation in a sense of mutuality. But at the midpoint of the poem, just as the speaker feels convinced that he has found a way, even across the boundaries of time and space, to achieve an ontological proximity to others, he comes to realize that he must traverse internal as much as external distances, that he must be at peace with himself in order to be at peace with others.
Part 2 examines this difficult task. The speaker becomes unsettled by “questionings” about his “body” and its desires and temporarily succumbs to shame and self-loathing. The speaker’s challenge parallels those of contemporary theorists who struggle to formulate social ontologies capable of interrogating and even rejecting normative categories that potentially confine one within narrowly defined ways of being. A brief consideration of how Jean-Luc Nancy’s and Judith Butler’s social ontologies respond to the Hegelian concept of recognition highlights the distinctiveness of Whitman’s concept of eligibility. In the first sections of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the speaker affirmed the eligibility of others in a way that rejected the epistemological need to recognize and...