In 1848, 29-year-old Walt Whitman was for three months a reporter for the Daily Crescent in New Orleans, writing fluff pieces about local color and charm as seen through Yankee eyes. But he also saw darker spectacles there–streetside auctions of slaves–and six years later put his emotions into ironic verse.

I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business…
Have you ever loved the body of a woman?
Have you ever loved the body of a man?
Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations and times all over the earth?
If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred.

When he returned to New York, he became the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Freeman, the nation’s foremost voice of the Free Soil movement, whose motto was, “Free soil, free labor, free men!” He continued his advocacy of the movement, because of which, just before going to New Orleans, he had been fired as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. But intimacy with those in the movement had its effect. Whitman came to hate, on the one side, the abolitionists for their fanaticism, most of which went into infighting among themselves, and on the other, the hypocritical and corrupt men of the Democratic Party, all of them “born freedom sellers of the earth.” He resigned from the Freeman, despondent. His faith rested in the sympathy of the human heart, which had failed.

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud.

Whitman’s faith in democracy flowed from the same source. It was not a faith resting on constitutionalism, legalisms, political science schemes, natural law or laws of history. It was rooted in a belief in the best of the human souls of ordinary citizens, often dismissed as his “mysticism.” But when he was answering the challenge of whether the soul exists, his response did not depend on abstractions or esoterica but on the perceived experience of personal and historical growth. “No reasoning, no proof has establish’d it,/Undeniable growth has establish’d it.” His faith in democracy rested on a distinctly American populism of pragmatic human experience. So in a twentieth century obsessed with ideological convictions that politics, and especially economics, determine human behavior and history, he was brushed aside as a quaint American naïf whistling in the dark.

Another common error is to take Whitman’s faith in free humanity as a bombastic pollyannaism, or softheaded narcissistic, mystical messianism. Yes, he tells us that as a boy he was electrified by hearing a sermon by Elias Hicks of the Quaker Church on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn. (Hicks’s faith in the human spirit was so radical that even his fellow Quakers denounced him as a heretic.) Whitman was captured by the idea that “the fountain of all…truth…[is] namely in yourself and your inherent relations,” and that in this, Hicks was “a brook of clear and cool and ever-healthy, ever-living water.” But young Whitman, who’d been pulled out of school at age 11, developed his own pragmatic, experiential populism, so would not become a Quaker. “Logic and sermons never convince,/The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.” His mature populism was not of a Mary Sunshine kind.

Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871) should be read by all Americans. It is a lengthy, scathing critique of American democracy’s flaws at the time, and in ours–the flaws being the failings of its people and culture.

I would alarm and caution…against the prevailing delusion that the establishment of free political institutions, and plentiful intellectual smartness, with general good order, physical plenty, industry &c., (desirable and precious advantages as they all are,) do, of themselves, determine and yield to our experiment of democracy the fruitage of success…. I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face…. The spectacle is appaling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature…. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time.

Whitman’s enduring lesson about American democracy: “O I see flashing that this America is only you and me.” No better, no worse. “The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors…but always most in the common people.”

Whitman’s brand of populism mandated that he seek the liberation of people and culture, in a liberated poetic form. He did not invent free verse but embraced it and advanced it, against the ornamental, parade-ground regularities of meter and rhyme, which constrained his early poems to the point of banality.

Rhymes and rhymers pass away, poems distill’d from poems pass away…
America justifies itself, give it time, no disguise can deceive it or conceal from it, it is impassive enough.

In naturalism, freed from pie-in-the-sky otherworldliness:

And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

In exquisite sensuality:

Out of the rolling ocean…came a drop gently to me,
whispering I love you, before long I die,
I have travl’d a long way merely to look on you to touch you.

In sexuality:

Without shame the man I like knows and avows the deliciousness of his sex,
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.

And in sexual orientation. Although he resisted admitting his homosexuality, even to absurdly claiming he had six illegitimate children, he did so to avoid, as with regard to all matters, being pigeonholed, and thus vulnerable to easy dismissal. But his “Calamus” poems are frankly homosexual, even celebratory in the sexual orientation (Calamus is a plant with a phalluslike head):

O here I last saw him that tenderly loves me, and returns again never to separate from me,
And this, O this shall henceforth be the token of comrades, this calamus-root shall,
Interchange it youths with each other! let none render it back!

Whitman’s sexual poems, like many others, were courageous. He was fired from a badly needed job as a clerk at the Interior Department in Washington by none less than the Secretary of the Interior himself. Secretary James Harlan stole Whitman’s personal copy of Leaves of Grass from his desk, and noted, ironically, some of the heterosexual poems of the “Children of the Adam” section as “obscene.”

The female form approaching, I pensive, love-flesh tremulous aching…
The face, the limbs, the index from head to foot, and what it arouses,
The mystic deliria, the madness amorous, the utter abandonment.

Whitman’s courage, and humor, extended to his last days. Wheelchair-bound, sleeping on a waterbed “like a ship or a duck” to relieve constant pain from multiple ailments, including bodywide TB and strokes, he described himself as “some hard-cased dilapidated grim ancient shellfish or time-bang’d conch (no legs, utterly non-locomotive) cast up high and dry on the shore-sands.” (Years before, after suffering a stroke that left him paralyzed except for his head and one arm, he had brought himself back to complete mobility through his own efforts, including wrestling with saplings in woods.) He struggled against pain and paralysis to complete a ninth edition of Leaves. And succeeded.

Whitman saw in the risky experiment of a free people possibilities for a great polity, culture and morality. Three years before his death, in 1888, when he was 69, he wrote that there had been in his life one “purpose enclosing all, and over and beneath”:

Ever since what might be call’d thought, or the budding of thought, fairly began in my youthful mind, I had had a desire to attempt some worthy record of that entire faith and acceptance… which is the foundation of moral America.

His challenge to us, again typically American, is that the faith is to be fulfilled with each person and generation in the future.

Dear camerado! I confess I have urged you onward with me,
and still urge you, without the least idea what is our destination,
Or whether we shall be victorious, or utterly quell’d and defeated.