Love and Imperialism: Reading Whitman's Leaves of Grass Through Edward Carpenter and Maurice Bucke
This paper explores the complexity of Whitman’s nationalism and, with reference to Leaves of Grass (1856), examines the apparent paradox between Whitman’s poetry of love and recognition and his imperialistic impulses. This paper draws upon the work of Edward and Carpenter and Maurice Bucke to frame Whitman’s nationalism within its historical-intellectual context. Ideas of evolution and cosmic consciousness intertwine with concepts of national and human destiny to give Whitman’s nationalism its distinct form, irreducible to modern definitions of nationalism, yet relevant as a reference point today. Whitman’s poetry contains latent imperializing concepts that can be used in service of imperializing, totalizing, and racializing regimes, as is evidenced by the writing of Carpenter and Bucke. However, Whitman’s nationalism and poetry are also underpinned by a democratic and future-conscious ethos which retains enduring relevance and poses pertinent questions regarding our political mechanisms.
Can Walt Whitman be said to be a nationalist? Attempts to answer that question stumble upon the word “nationalist,” not only because of contradictions in definition, but because the word itself is too limited to contain the largeness that is Whitman. Whitman is “a kosmos” (Whitman 39) and the poet of the cosmos, melding minutiae and staggering vastness, and his nationalism becomes fully visible only when viewed on a universal scale. Interpreted through the works of two of Whitman’s “disciples,” Edward Carpenter’s Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure, and Maurice Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, Whitman’s nationalism can be construed as faith in an evolutionary and spiritual destiny: the progression of humankind towards a system of interconnected consciousness and being. Within such a vision is found the shortcomings of the word nationalism: Whitman’s nationalism is an instinctive advocacy for the spread, from America, of a spiritual and secular unity that will unite the globe as one organism, one empire.Whitman’s nationalism is less the dominance of America with regard to other nations, and more the subsuming of all nations under one banner, a banner that “liberates” (161) outwards from America and thus is American in timbre. The concept of manifest destiny is redreamed to include not only North America but the world. Within this unifying framework, imperialist sentiments are framed as fulfilling the natural order of the world. Carpenter interprets Whitman in terms of the evolution or exfoliation of the “divine Man” (Carpenter 32) and the interconnectedness of matter within a system of society, and articulates a future utopia. Bucke attempts to merge science and religion to prove the existence of higher states of being of which Whitman is a messiah, and uses this framework to insert a racist taxonomic structure within the concept of cosmic consciousness. Whitman is the poet of democracy and equality, of love and recognition, but imperialistic concepts latent within his poetry, when excavated and appropriated, can be used to theorize global and artificially naturalizing regimes in which homogeneity replaces multiculturalism and oversimplified conceptions of unity replace an acceptance of otherness.
Edward Carpenter was born in England in 1844 and attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge, being graduated in 1868 and joining the Anglican Ministry. Carpenter resigned his post with the church and became a lecturer in 1874, but grew disillusioned with his middle class audience and moved to Sheffield in 1881. Carpenter lived amid the working classes of the north as a staunch socialist, joining the Sheffield Socialists and the national Socialist League. Carpenter was an open homosexual and, along with his partner George Merrill, who was a member of the working class, provided inspiration for E. M. Forster’s Maurice (Weir 41). Reading Whitman had a “profound” effect on Carpenter, and Carpenter made the journey to visit Whitman twice, once in 1877 and later in 1884 (Kantrowitz). For Carpenter, “Whitman’s atomic spirituality was the foundation of a new politics” (Cohen). Carpenter was also influenced by his reading of the Bhagavad Gita in 1880-1881, and in 1890 travelled to India to study with the guru Ramaswamy (Weir 46). Carpenter’s writing, which extrapolated from contemporary scientific discourses, thus became infused with religious elements. Carpenter’s synthesizing of evolution, society, and states of consciousness is most fully articulated in Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure. Published in 1889, the book went through fifteen editions, and in 1921 was revised into the Complete Edition. This paper quotes from this last iteration.
Carpenter’s theorizing around evolution is Lamarckian rather than Darwinian, meaning Carpenter did not believe evolution was determined solely by an organism’s environment, but by “desire” within the organism to progress to a truer state of its nature (Carpenter 186). In Specimen Days, Whitman writes of “Creation’s incessant unrest, exfoliation” (197-8), and Carpenter adopts the term “exfoliation” to describe the “continual unclothing of Nature, by which the perfect human Form which is at the root of it comes nearer and nearer to its manifestation” (Carpenter 59). Evolution for Carpenter is driven by internal desire rather than external circumstances. Mankind’s evolution is the progression of destiny – we evolve not by chance but per innate design: “Evolution’s “ultimate aim” is the “deliverance and expression of the real human Being” (197). Through the stages of evolution, even at the most primal, man always possesses within him the “divine flower bud” of his higher nature. Whitman writes that man is “UNFOLDED only out of the folds of the / woman, man comes unfolded, and is always / to come unfolded” (Whitman 101). The word “unfolded” extends metaphorically as the blossoming of the “divine flower bud,” and this higher destiny of man is inevitable: “always to come.” Evolution is thus understood as a process that moves towards a definite end point. For this end point Carpenter has a term: unity. Unity is synonymous with health and “integration” and is opposed to disease, which is “disintegration” (Carpenter 39).
Carpenter theorizes that in the process of evolution/exfoliation human races pass through stages of unity and disunity, a conception which allows for a hierarchy of races depending upon their evolutionary state; within this hierarchy Whitman seems to position the American race at the summit. Carpenter understood pre-civilized man, who shares commonalities with animals, as possessor of a physical state of unity with his own body: “In the animals we find this physical unity existing to a remarkable degree” (40). Humankind’s advance into civilization brings about a loss of physical unity and, as such, susceptibility to disease (disunity). Civilized man exists in a state of disunity because he develops “the sense of Sin” (18); his urban life reflects a growing separation from nature, of which he is a part. By contrast, the “Barbarian . . . is more easy-minded and his consciousness of Sin is less developed than in his civilised brother” (26). Carpenter quotes Whitman’s passage: “The friendly and flowing savage, Who is he? / Is he waiting for civilization, or past it and mastering it?” (Whitman 74). Carpenter perceives that civilized man has regressed in terms of susceptibility to literal diseases as well as in an ague of spirit. However, this fallen state is a necessary step in evolution, as “Civilisation [is] . . . a definite historical stage through which the various nations pass, and in which we actually find ourselves at the present time” (Carpenter 19). Man’s destiny (unity) is foreshadowed beyond civilization, for only then “the goal of creation must be within measurable distance” (42).
The “barbarian,” then, while retaining physical unity, is still less evolved, less a human in the higher sense. Whitman, in America’s “race,” perhaps sees the current acme of evolution: “I see the mighty and friendly emblem of the power / of my own race, the newest largest race” (Whitman 150). Whitman proclaims the American race’s ascendency: “His shape arises!” and elaborates upon the nature of the race, which is “Of pure American breed, of reckless health, his / body perfect, free from taint from top to toe, / free forever from headache and dyspepsia, / clean-breathed” (153). The American race evolves towards unity, and thus the resolution of disease. America has a destiny: “Shapes of a hundred Free States, begetting / another hundred north and south” and then “Shapes bracing the whole earth, and braced with / the whole earth” (159). Further, Whitman writes: “Great is liberty! Great is equality! I am their / follower, / Helmsmen of nations, choose your craft! Where / you sail, I sail! / Yours is the muscle of life or death, yours is the / perfect science, in you I have absolute faith (160). Whitman exhilarates in and encourages the expansion of America on a global scale; such an expansion is the liberation of the global population from states of disunity into states of harmony, brought about by a more advanced, and therefore morally and intellectually elevated, American race. As Whitman writes, “Any period, one nation must lead, / One land must be the promise and reliance of the / future” (182). Within a framework of racial stages of which the American is the most advanced race, colonial and imperial enterprise can be reframed as charity, as benefitting humanity collectively, and American imperialism is not only justified but becomes a prerogative of the nation.
Carpenter imbued his theory of evolution with religious elements, sanctifying mankind’s evolution into a state of unity as a spiritual destiny. Carpenter’s analysis, while interacting with contemporary scientific theories, never moves beyond a religious framework or language. Man’s fall from the Garden of Eden is synonymous with his advent into civilization: “having lost a primitive condition of ease and contentment . . . each human soul, however, bears within itself some kind of reminiscence of a more harmonious and perfect state of being” (Carpenter 27-8). Upon man’s achievement of unity, he writes:
The language of “glorious resurrection” recalls the resurrection and ascent of Jesus to Heaven on a grand scale. Whitman seems to anticipate such a destiny himself: “My rendezvous is appointed, / The Lord will be there and wait till I come on / perfect terms” (Whitman 90). Whitman also contextualizes destiny and evolution with religious language: “All is a procession! / The universe is a / procession, with measured and / beautiful motion!” (174). The stage of civilization is necessary for the “glorious resurrection” because man must “attain to knowledge,” which is also “self-knowledge.” Knowledge engenders “shame,” however, from which “follows the disownment of the sacredness of sex. Sexual acts cease to be a part of religious worship” (45). Overcoming the disunity of civilization entails a return to worship of sexuality and the body, of which Whitman proclaims himself the poet (Whitman 34). Whitman is the author of this new, modern poetic: “Without shame the man I like knows and avows / the deliciousness of his sex, / Without shame the woman I like knows and / avows hers” (240). Whitman, prophesizing or inhabiting this future state of evolution, preaches the divinity of humankind and the body: “Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy / whatever I touch or am touched from” and “If I worship any particular thing, it shall be some / of the spread of my own body” (42). Whitman self-consciously assumes his role as the messiah of a new consciousness of human perfection: “By great bards only can series of peoples and / States be fused into the compact organism of / one nation” (188), and then, “Of the idea of perfect individuals, the idea of / These States, their bards walk in advance, / leaders of leaders” (190). Perfection is synonymous with the end state of destiny and evolution, and a future utopia is predicted: “as in the myth of the Eden-garden, with the appearance of the perfected human form that the work of creation definitely completes itself” (Carpenter 205). Whitman appropriates religious traditions to place himself as the “leader” in the vanguard of human progress. Whitman’s writing brims with love and recognition of others, and yet is woven through with threads of imperialism and totalizing ambition.
To understand the apparent contradiction between Whitman’s messages of equality and Whitman’s tones of imperialism, Carpenter and Whitman’s shared conception of matter is directly relevant. Carpenter, inspired by his Eastern learning, conceived of all creation as consisting of the same matter or energy, recyclable and immortal. During the 1890s, J. J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford were conducting their pioneering research on the nature of the atom, and Carpenter uses the word atom thirty-six times throughout his text, demonstrating an intersection of contemporary science and religion. Carpenter writes that “they [neighbours] are part and parcel of [an individual’s] life—bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.” By recognizing one’s neighbours as a different iteration of the same essential substance, a person “enters into a wider life, finds a more perfect pleasure, and becomes more really a man than ever before” (179). Achieving awareness of the shared matter connecting, and constituting, all human beings is a vital step in attaining a higher state of consciousness. Whitman, displaying his radical thinking, writes: “For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs / to you” (5). Whitman celebrates that matter is recycled through procreation: “Out of the dimness opposite equals advance — / always substance and increase, always sex, / Always a knit of identity, always distinction, / always a breed of life” (8). As essential in the process of transforming matter, women, from which man is “unfolded” (101), assume a religious significance while simultaneously being limited within the biological function of procreation. An essential characteristic of matter is that it connects all things. Carpenter asks: “What is that which is now a mollusc and now a man and now an inorganic atom?” and then provides his own answer: “man himself . . . I am. I am that which varies” (138). Within an organism exists not only a current iteration, but the matter of stars, and nature, and other people, and history. As Whitman says, “I am large, I contain multitudes” (99). In the same questioning tone as Carpenter, Whitman asks: What is a man anyhow? What am I? What / are you?” Whitman’s answer is an acceptance of interconnectedness, of the mutual existence of individuality and collectivity: “In all people I see myself” and then, “And I know I am solid and sound, / To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow” (33). To understand oneself, and the world, as consisting of the same matter is to recognize the potential of unity with all that exists: “[Man] is absolutely indivisibly and indestructibly a part of this great whole” (Carpenter 72). This concept of matter provides a biological basis for a universal understanding of human interconnectedness and evolutionary destiny, which in turn provides the basis for conceptions of spiritual unity and destiny.
To conceive of the universe as interconnected through matter is to assume a new relationship towards death as well as life, a relationship that reframes narratives of destruction and progress. Carpenter writes that when a man dies, he “unchanged (absolutely unchanged to all but material eyes) pass[es] on to other spheres appointed” (36). Whitman captures the same sentiment, articulating a holistic relationship between life and death, in which each engenders the other perennially:
Whitman’s poetics of recognition, his ability to imagine, or feel himself, to be such a variety of people amid a such variety of places arises from his metaphysical understanding of matter. He writes, “I am the mate and companion of people, all just / as immortal and fathomless as myself; / They do not know how immortal, but I know” (14). Recognition of others as oneself and others within oneself allows Whitman to “acknowledge, red, yellow, white, playing / within me” (22). Predominantly, Whitman displays his awareness of humankind’s universalism in a language of recognition and acceptance. However, by conceptualizing all humankind as of one body, justification can also be given to the establishment of one political, religious, and cultural body. The existence of multiple cultures and races in various stages of “civilization,” of boundaries, is threatened by such a theory, for universalism can be shaped to justify imperialism. The mission of global unity threatens the acceptance of difference between populations. Whitman writes, “To think the difference will still continue to others, / yet we lie beyond the difference!” (336). Thinking of death in the context of a continuation of life in a different form of matter can be abused when applied on a large scale, and even serve as an excuse for the cost of war. Whitman writes, “Muscle and pluck forever! / What invigorates life, invigorates death, / And the dead advance as much as the living / advance” (146). The conquered dead, of course, might disagree that they are advancing. The reasoning within this statement can be seen as supporting Whitman’s imperialistic tendencies and as redeeming war. Whitman’s attitude towards war may (or may not) undergo a shift with the American Civil War, but that is beyond the scope of this paper. To understand humankind as interconnected matter allows for the postulation of love, recognition, and equality simultaneously with discourses that sanctify homogeneity over difference, imperialism (a more evolved race liberating the rest, bringing them into unity), and war.
Having acknowledged the theme of evolution and humankind’s divine destiny leading to a state of unity in which all matter is acknowledged as interconnected, Carpenter promotes a further and more profound facet of the state of unity: cosmic consciousness. Carpenter writes that “there is in man a divine consciousness” (140), but this divinity does not blossom as individuality alone but also as the recognition of the individual as a part of the many: “by becoming thus one with the social self, the individual, instead of being crushed, is made far vaster, far grander than before . . . in accepting as his own the life of others he becomes aware of a life in himself that has no limit and no end” (177-8). Cosmic consciousness, an elevated state of awareness, recognizes within oneself the existence of a higher, divine being; recognition of this being coincides with recognition of the rest of humanity and nature as interconnected, overlapping and combining. Whitman writes
The soul Whitman recognizes is his divine soul, the cosmic soul. Acceptance of himself, of nature, and of the nature of the world grant Whitman unity within himself and harmony with the universe. Whitman has thus attained a higher, and spiritual, state of evolution: cosmic consciousness. Whitman declares his arrival, announcing himself: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos” (41). Since matter constitutes everything, each thing thus becomes a cosmos itself within the universal cosmos of all things: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars” (54). Whitman’s bombastic, empathetic proclamations that he is more than Walt Whitman begin to take on deeper implications. When Whitman writes, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I / myself become the wounded person” (64), he understands himself as literally connected, and sharing one existence with, the wounded person. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is not only the song of Whitman the individual, it is the song of the cosmic being that is Whitman which contains all people and all land. It is simultaneously the song of America, and all that which America contains, and even further – it is the song of the universe and its matter.
To attain cosmic consciousness is to attain unity, which is envisioned as a vast system, resembling in some respects a democracy, but in others veering towards a rigid and frightening behemoth of conformity to a central, ostensibly communal authority. To recognize all others as part of oneself is to recognize that “Whoever degrades another degrades me, and / whatever is done or said returns at last to / me, / and whatever I do or say, I also return” (41). Carpenter writes that “behind [the individual] sleeps the Demos-life with far vaster projects and purposes” (179). Carpenter writes, democratically, that we cannot
This is an argument for equality, but it is also an argument for conformity. It is an “evil” to resist being a part of the collective body, in other words, to create disunity within the whole. Carpenter writes that “disease begins when any passion asserts itself as an independent centre of thought and action. The condition of health in the mind is loyalty to the divine Man within it” (32). Further, “When we come to analyse the conception of Disease, physical or mental, in society or in the individual, it evidently means, as already hinted once or twice, loss of unity” (28). How does one respond to disease? By curing it, which is to say, eradication. Within Carpenter’s discourse on spiritual enlightenment and equality one begins to feel claustrophobic, to sense an Orwellian aspect. Humanity’s arrival in the next stage of evolution, cosmic consciousness, is envisioned in utopian terms: “out of the endless variety of human nature will spring a perfectly natural and infinite variety of occupations, all mutually contributive; Society at last will be free and the human being after long ages will have attained to deliverance” (67). Carpenter goes further: “both the masses and the thinkers of all the advanced nations of the world are consciously feeling their way towards the establishment of a socialistic and communal life on a vast scale” (73). Carpenter died in 1929, before the onset of the Second World War, yet his theories of amalgamation and cohesion coincide eerily not only with the Bolshevik regime, but the Nazi regime. What is utopian in one conception is dystopian in another.
Aspects of Whitman’s writing, when interpreted through Carpenter, can be read as advocating for the spread of cosmic consciousness outwards from America and, by extension, the exportation of a universal democratic regime to which conformity is demanded, which in turn results in homogeneity. Whitman writes that “The diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall / flow and unite—they unite now” (289-9). And earlier:
This passage once again amalgamates that mixture of love and imperialism, recognition and forced absorption. Democracy is good, freedom is good, but there arises a paradox and a problem: the imposition of a particular quality of democracy and freedom upon a population as an absolute but abstract end. In this act, the bestowal of freedom becomes the taking of freedom. Such an act is sanctified by the claim that it is in service of the “liberated” population. By conceiving of cosmic consciousness as an evolutionary final stage, and of democracy as inherent in that stage, the expansion of democracy becomes inevitable and gains moral and religious authority. For example, Carpenter writes that “the progression of the systemic consciousness of man—is necessary and continuous” (204). Both Carpenter and Whitman believe in the goodness and harmony of cosmic consciousness. At the personal level it is may be a state of peace with oneself and the universe. When cosmic consciousness becomes an ideology, however, it becomes exportable, exportation is mandated, and the erasure of culture and difference is threatened. Disloyalty to the ideology becomes further grounds for oppression. The doctrines of equality and evolved consciousness in both Whitman and Carpenter can thus become grounds for imperialism. This danger is better seen and understood in today’s modern context which, through the benefit of hindsight, looks warily upon mass ideology in any manifestation. Imperialist pitfalls exist in both Whitman and Carpenter in part due to their historical context, and perhaps despite the better intentions of both authors.
Maurice Bucke was an avid devotee of Whitman, a connection which led him into a correspondence with Carpenter which was sustained intermittently for more than twenty years. Bucke’s relationship with Whitman allowed Bucke to elaborate upon the theories of cosmic consciousness and Whitman’s role in its emergence. Bucke was a Canadian physician and head of the provincial asylum for the insane in London, Ontario. Bucke’s first contact with Whitman’s work occurred in 1867 (Nelson). Bucke credits Whitman with inspiring Cosmic Consciousness, writing of himself in the third person: “Whitman led him into his theory of consciousness; religious experience (revelation); bliss and aftertaste of heaven” (10). The experience of reading Whitman left Bucke “elevated and purified” (218) and, after an encounter with Whitman in Philadelphia in 1877, Bucke found himself in “a state of mental exaltation” (217). Bucke and Carpenter first exchanged letters in 1880 (Weir 39), and Bucke ascribed Carpenter’s emergence into cosmic consciousness, like his own, to Whitman: “there seems little doubt that the study of the “Leaves” was a material factor leading up to [Carpenter’s] illumination” (239). Through his analysis of Whitman’s poetry, Bucke believed that Whitman gained the “new sense” of cosmic consciousness in “June, 1853 or 1854, at the age, that is, of thirty-four or thirty-five” (226). Believing the 1856 Leaves of Grass edition to be the writing closest to Whitman’s apotheosis to a “godlike” (80) state, Bucke quotes from that version, which is why this paper also limits itself to the Whitman of 1856. Bucke was in contact with Whitman until Whitman’s death in 1892 and spent significant amounts of time with the poet, acting as a medical advisor during the period in which Whitman’s health deteriorated. Bucke’s biographical observations of Whitman’s character preface Bucke’s interpretations of Leaves of Grass. Bucke notes that Whitman “had deepest sternness and hauteur, not easily aroused, but coming forth at times, and then well understood by those who knew him best as something not to be trifled with,” yet also ascribes to Whitman “benevolence, evenness and tolerant optimism” (222). Bucke thinks of Whitman as having attained divine status, and yet notes that Whitman “always disclaimed any lofty intention in himself or his poems.” Bucke takes these declamations as further proof of Whitman’s attainment of cosmic consciousness and his recognition of the interconnected universe, for “the simple and commonplace with [Whitman] included the ideal and the spiritual” (218).
Lorna Weir argues that Bucke privileges a “secular, scientific understanding of cosmic consciousness” (49) more so than Carpenter, yet overlooks that Bucke operated upon even greater religious faith than Carpenter in his articulation of a new form of religion which would emerge as cosmic consciousness itself. Bucke writes that the “intellectual enlightenment” entailed by cosmic consciousness “would place the individual on a new plane of existence – would make him almost a member of a new species” (3). Utilizing cultic language, Bucke theorizes that “initiation to the new and higher order of ideas” (10) elevates one to “the rank of gods” (3), which is also the “attainment of the splendor and power of the kingdom of heaven” (226). Bucke foretells a cosmic and religious merging, a union: “In contact with the flux of cosmic consciousness all religions known and named to-day will be melted down. The human soul will be revolutionized. Religion will absolutely dominate the race” (5). All creation will be recognized as divine by those with cosmic consciousness, and thus religion will no longer be an institution but an inalienable fact of life. Whitman echoes a similar idea, writing:
Whitman asserts that divinity is within each thing, and therefore religion is an internal state, not an external apparatus. To build from Whitman to Carpenter, to Bucke, the “unfolding” (Whitman 101) of the “divine flower bud” (Carpenter 42) within a man is the “transhumanizing [of] a man into a god” (Bucke 17). For Bucke, the godlike state of cosmic consciousness is a condition which can only exist among the “advanced races of mankind” (11). Sharing, whether by coincidence or intention, Whitman’s phrase “new race” (276, 347), Bucke declares the superior “spiritual status of this new race” (11). This spiritual status, however, extends into “a quickening of the moral sense, which is fully as striking and more important both to the individual and to the race than is the enhanced intellectual power” (3). In the formulation of a new religious mode, then, is laid the groundwork for racial superiority, not merely in terms of spirituality, but also in terms of morality and intellectual power.
Before turning to the racial politics of Bucke, it is useful to examine Bucke’s vision of Whitman as the messiah of cosmic consciousness and the emerging “new race.” Bucke, while moving beyond traditional Christian beliefs, like Carpenter, does not move beyond a Christian framework and symbolism. Bucke writes that “the Saviour of man is Cosmic Consciousness – in Paul's language – the Christ” (6). Bucke believed Jesus was an early figure who attained cosmic consciousness: “Jesus was a man--great and good no doubt, but a man” (7). Jesus’ divinity, then, is found in his transcendence into higher consciousness. Bucke places Whitman in the same messianic tradition as Jesus, praising Whitman’s “Christ-like benevolence” (222), and even claims Whitman’s superiority: “Walt Whitman is the best, most perfect, example the world has so far had of the Cosmic Sense” (225). For Bucke, Whitman is the prophet of the “inevitable” (19) cosmic consciousness. Whitman seems to have imagined such a role for himself. He writes,
Whitman, possibly in his own conception and certainly in Bucke’s, signals the beginning of transcendence into cosmic consciousness and “destroys sin, shame, the sense of good and evil as contrasted with the other” (Bucke 6-7). Whitman is the “exalted human personality” which “supplies the pre-conditions” (61) for the birth of “a new heaven and earth” (4). Whitman is thus the messiah, leader, and first being of the “new race.”
Bucke writes of cosmic consciousness as elevating the race to a superior state of being, but when his use of the term race is interrogated, it appears that he uses the term to refer to Caucasian European and North American male populations at the exclusion of other races and women. Bucke, elaborating upon Carpenter’s stages of civilization, draws a distinction between primeval and civilized man: “The chief differences between the primeval, the infantile and the savage mind on the one hand and the civilized mind on the other, is that the first (called for the sake of brevity the lower mind) is wanting in personal force, courage, or faith” (136). It is significant that the primeval mind is “infantile”; for infantility implies a need for education, instruction, structure, all which have been posited as historical justifications for colonial enterprise. Bucke’s distinction between civilized man and “savages and semi-savages” is clearly racial, as “Civilized man” is “especially in the Aryan race” (56) while primeval man composes the “low races, such as the Bushmen of South Africa and native Australians” (15). Bucke performs mental gymnastics to fit his racism within the theory of cosmic consciousness. He writes that “the longer a race has been in possession of a given faculty the more universal will that faculty be in the race. . . . Every new faculty must occur first of all in one individual” (45). By “faculty,” Bucke means stage of consciousness. As seen in Carpenter, there are three stages: the primeval (animal), self-consciousness (current state of Aryan race), and the final state, cosmic consciousness. Low races are relegated to the first, animal stage. The individual in whom cosmic consciousness was occurring, the frontrunner of the race, is, of course, Whitman, both herald and proof of the Aryan race’s “rapid evolution” (58). To form his racial distinctions, Bucke uses an analogy: “As in the evolution of an individual tree some branches flourish while others fail” (52). In Bucke’s formulation, then, universal consciousness is not nearly as universal or inevitable as grandiose statements claim. Bucke’s explanation is that some races are less human than others by dint of evolution. By recalling that evolution is tied to the concept of exfoliation, we can see that Bucke implies an inherent inferiority in certain races.
Bucke creates a racist taxonomy by drawing upon concepts of genealogy and evolutionary destiny, similar strands of which can be plucked out of Whitman. Bucke traces the “spiritual genealogy” of Caucasian North Americans to “the primitive undivided Caucasian family” which was supposedly the common ancestor to the Chaldeans, the Jews, European Christians, and now finally Caucasian North Americans (42). Bucke, like Carpenter, imagines evolution as an inevitable progression: “in the forward march of the collective human mind across the centuries some individual minds are in the van of the great army, while in the rear of the column stagger and fall vast numbers of defective specimens” (53). It has already been noted which races lead and which Bucke considers “defective specimens.” Such overt racism is not visible in Whitman. However, articulations of American racial primacy seep through. Whitman writes of Americans, foreshadowing the genealogical and militaristic language of Bucke:
That “nativity is enough,” in other words, that an American’s origin is justification, indicates a belief in the superiority and destiny of the American race. The language of this passage is martial, and Whitman seems to anticipate, and relish, his role as a poet of war as well as of peace. As he writes of the poet (himself), “In war he is the best backer of the war—he / fetches artillery as good as the engineers, he / can make every word he speaks draw blood” (189). Whitman proudly vaunts that “I am he who tauntingly compels men, women, / nations, to leap from their seats and contend / for their lives! (181). Whitman relishes the emotion of war, but also his power to galvanize messianically both nations and individuals. But galvanize to what? The answer, given by the theory of cosmic consciousness, is global unity. Bucke anticipates that “national boundaries, tariffs, and perhaps distinctions of language will fade out” (4). Whitman seems to exhort the American race to fulfil its destiny of uniting the globe in cosmic consciousness. Using “English brood” as a linguistic group which ostensibly represents some combination of races sharing common Aryan ancestry, Whitman writes:
Once again Whitman displays his faith in the destiny, and therefore moral right, of a “new rule” by the English-speaking races. They “must” rule not only their own nations, but the “earth,” portending a global empire, a global rule over a grateful population. The new rule is one of love and equality, but as we have seen in the work of Carpenter and Bucke, such notions can swiftly be appropriated and drawn in directions of totalizing regimes and racial taxonomizing. Whitman, when he writes of cosmic consciousness in the abstract, articulates an ideal of harmony and beauty. When tainted by a latent imperialism, however, Whitman’s cosmic consciousness becomes attached to a destiny, and justification, of conquest.
Carpenter and Bucke are commonly referred to as disciples of Whitman. From Whitman both derived the theory of cosmic consciousness as well as tinctures of imperializing instinct within the 1856 Leaves of Grass. Carpenter, explaining cosmic consciousness as the evolutionary exfoliation of the divine man through stages of being, articulates a manifesto of spiritual and physical interconnectedness. His theorizing, however, trends towards the establishment of a new world order that is both homogenizing and an absolute authority. Bucke conceives of cosmic consciousness as the emergence, both biologically and spiritually, of a new form of religion. Whitman is the messiah, seemingly self-consciously, of this new world order. Capitalizing on Whitman’s celebration of the American and, by extension, genealogically Caucasian race, Bucke pervades the theory of cosmic consciousness with racial stratification. Whitman is a poet of recognition, love, and acceptance. Whitman is also the poet of cosmic consciousness and American exceptionalism and destiny. Whitman’s belief in the inevitability of globalization, of the erasure of boundaries and the unification of the human race, remains, in light of modern issues of climate change and political instability, and future issues of space exploration, of enduring relevance. Global integration is, perhaps, essential. However, the logistics of such a federation remain murky; culture arguably depends upon boundaries, and an amalgamation of cultures is perhaps equivalent to the destruction of all cultures. Advocating unification, as suggested by the American exceptionalism of Whitman, also leaves the door open for justifying the domination of one nation. Whitman, in 1856, not only predicted issues of the early twentieth century, but humanity’s struggles of tomorrow. The politicization of spirituality and the fervent desire for unity can lead to ambiguous and perhaps inordinate consequences. Whitman is a nationalist, but he is a nationalist on the largest scale, that of the universal. His nationalism, his ambition, is a massive democratic unification of love and equality. When stripped of Whitman’s own assertions of American superiority and imperialism, and potential interpretations of cultural homogeneity and racial taxonomization, Whitman’s fundamental belief remains that humans are necessarily connected, through matter, in spirit, and by the natural world. Whitman’s robust democratic ethos has perpetually unfolding relevance, but a representative political mechanism for that ethos remains an enduring question.
Bucke, Maurice. Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. Boston: Ep Dutton and Company Inc., 1901.
Carpenter, Edward. Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD., 1921.
Cohen, Matt. Review of Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples. Biography, vol. 31 no. 4, 2008, p. 771-773.
Gershenowitz, Harry. “Two Lamarckians: Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. Detroit, vol. 2, Issue 1, Summer 1984: 35-40.
Hanson, Ellis. Review of Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples. Victorian Studies, vol. 51 no. 3, 2009, p. 558-559.
Hatch, Doxey. “‘I Tramp a Perpetual Journey’: Walt Whitman’s Insights for Psychology.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, vol. 51, no. 1, Jan. 2011: 7–27,
Kantrowitz, Arnie. “Carpenter, Edward [1844–1929].” The Walt Whitman Archive. 6 December 2020. https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_12.html.
Nelson, Howard. “Biography of Richard Maurice Bucke.” The Walt Whitman Archive. 6 December 2020, https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/disciples/bucke/biography/anc.00247.html.
Walt Whitman.Complete Prose Works. 1892.The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price. 6 December 2020, https://whitmanarchive.org/published/other/CompleteProse.html#leaf026r1.
Weir, Lorna. “Cosmic consciousness and the love of comrades: Contacts between R. M. Bucke and Edward Carpenter.” Journal of Canadian Studies, Toronto, vol. 30, Issue 2, Summer 1995: 39-57.
Whitman, Walt.Leaves of Grass. 1856.The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price. 6 December 2020, https://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1856/whole.html.