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The Church of Whitmanism?

The Church of Whitmanism?

Ed Simon, a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University writes, in an essay at the website Killing the Buddha, about the scriptural nature of Whitman’s lifelong work, Leaves of Grass.  But not as a Christian scripture, but as a kind of post-God work of divine inspiration.

In the 79th year of these states Walt Whitman received a revelation, and he recorded it in a book of sacred scripture he entitled Leaves of Grass. That we think of it as primarily a book of verse is a mistake of history, an interpretive error, for it is first and foremost a new gospel, a type of revelation that came from within, and has the wisdom to know that voice is the same as that which all other prophets thought they heard from the kosmos. For there is no moment any more sacred than that which is now…

I would argue that Leaves of Grass is the first great work of scripture to be penned since modernity killed God. Copernicus and Newton, Nietzsche and Darwin signed the Lord’s death certificate, but our most American of sages, Whitman, arranged the funeral service. The brilliance and importance of Leaves of Grass is that it has the bravery to acknowledge the current state of theological affairs, and the pragmatism to fashion an ethic of living in spite of it.

Long an admirer of Whitman’s poetry, I could probably be convinced of it’s scriptural aspects, but I would disagree with Simon’s pronouncement of God’s death and so cannot follow fully where he leads.  Nonetheless, it seems as though there has certainly been a shift since Whitman’s time in how we perceive of God and in the firmness in the foundations of faith.  And this seems true across the Christian spectrum; all Christians today are negotiating and discerning the place and role of God in our lives and in our world.  And Whitman’s work does seem to capture some essence of that unsettling tension while still celebrating the breathtaking magnificence that is life.


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Leslie Marshall

Walt Whitman was a Humanist that marveled at God’s creation; Man & Nature (but had disdain for the Creator). Such an easy trap to fall in!

Bruce Noll

This summer marks the 45th year that I have been bringing the words from Leaves of Grass to audiences across America and to 5 other countries. What holds me fast to Whitman is the spirituality of his poetry . . . “his evangel poem of love. . .”

After my performances it is not uncommon to hear comments from people that they feel as if they have been to a “good” church; or that they never heard the music before–Leaves must be heard, recited or read aloud.

In 2008 Michael Robertson produced a book, WORSHIPING WALT, the Whitman Disciples”, well worth reading. There is another text, which I do not have as yet, which explores the Quaker influence on Whitman. Certainly Walt had a “Cosmic Consciousness ” (title of early book by Maurice Bucke, still available in libraries.

JC Fisher

I don’t recognize Mr Simon’s “God is Dead” Whitman. If anything, Whitman’s God was BIGGER than almost anyone else’s (myself included!).

Nancy Barnard Starr

Good to see you’ve taken on the work of the Episcopal Cafe, Jon.

I once asked my Dad to send a copy of Leaves of Grass; the pages of my old one were faded, and few bookstores overseas carried his poems then. Whitman has been my ‘companero’ on so many open roads! His books have held a place on our bookshelves, and in our hearts, for a long time; his words are part of an American spiritual journey, alive, ripe, always striving toward the new.

Dropping off our son at a young writers’ gathering recently, we had the chance to scribble a literary quote in chalk on the slate porch. My husband quoted Melville, and I wrote a line from Whitman that withstood the summer rain.

Sometimes the poet’s words sound like Jesus calling us, too, as in these lines from ‘Song of the Open Road’:

“Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires.”

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