Whitman and Democracy

By Leon Botstein

Among the most arguably difficult of literary enterprises is the art of translation. Vladimir Nabokov was obsessed about the matter; his complicated and controversial views on the processes of transferring the sensibilities evoked by one language to another have themselves inspired volumes of commentary. The challenge resides in an irresolvable paradox: if the translator aims for laser-like accuracy of meaning, the intangible qualities of linguistic usage that allow us to employ language in more subtle ways than Google Translate are lost; but if one aims to replicate the artistry of the work, then the result is something other than the “original” work. This is evident in many of the great translations made by poets of the works of other poets. These are valued not as “accurate” but as artistic works in their own right: Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation of The Divine Comedy, August Wilhelm Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck’s German translation of Shakespeare. These translations achieved recognition as autonomous new works. Fidelity to the original was no longer the main critical criterion. They became cherished because they resembled the translator’s other beloved original works.

To take it even further, because language is not a stable human instrument, within a single language, distance in time and place between author and reader may affect comprehension. Translating from one language to another over a wide timeframe deepens the problem. Modern English speakers from the American East Coast cannot comprehend the English of Shakespeare or even Jane Austen without some reflection. (Indeed, even the space between one generation and the next can be daunting.) But this is because language is a living thing. There is a decided family resemblance over time within a language, but the differences in usage and meaning and in rhetoric and significance are always developing. Hence reference works such as the Oxford English Dictionary or Vladimir Dahl’s dictionary of the Russian language (Nabokov’s favorite) are so essential to readers—even native speakers.

The barrier that exists between languages has been responsible for one of the most powerful modern uses of language—the establishment of discrete large-scale national identity, particularly in the nineteenth century. The standardization of language in post-unification Italy or in Napoleonic France and certainly after the unification in 1870 of Germany was a crucial instrument in forging a unified modern national consciousness. Dramatic regional differences in these countries came under scrutiny and weakened. The masters of a national language—writers and poets—were celebrated as giving voice to a consciousness that was quintessentially emblematic of a nation; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander Pushkin, and Charles Baudelaire shaped the shared self-image of Germany, Russia, and France. Although the works of these writers have been translated into numerous other languages, these translations are often accompanied by a discouraging tagline, especially dear to “native” speakers: “You can’t really appreciate them unless you read them in the original language.”

One would be hard put to argue persuasively that Walt Whitman does not belong in the category of poets and writers who helped shape the dominant vision of the American nation. He expressed a quintessential American voice. His ecstatic, arresting eloquence celebrated democracy, freedom, and individuality that continues to capture American readers. What made Whitman’s poetry truly American was not mere patriotism or chest-beating about how great the country was (or could be), but rather the unspoken values of the country from which he came that allowed him to express individual and dissenting reflections of love, nature, sexuality, and humanity in poetry, just as his contemporary Herman Melville did in prose. Whitman’s poetry could only have come from a land that believed that it valued freedom, democracy, and plurality.

As we celebrate the bicentenary of his birth, the influence of Whitman has not diminished. Saul Bellow once jokingly constructed a genealogy in American letters in which Allen Ginsberg, the author of Howl, was actually a direct descendent of Walt Whitman. Whitman’s vision inspired generations of artists, painters, and photographers, notably the circle around Alfred Stieglitz (Georgia O’Keefe, Paul Strand, and Walker Evans, for example), as well as politically progressive composers such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. And Whitman was a favorite among émigrés fleeing autocracy and dictatorship in Europe.

Indeed, what is extraordinary about Whitman is the extent to which he gained an enormous following in Europe in translation. It was reminiscent of the European enthusiasm for Edgar Allan Poe. Many of these Whitman translations were rather undistinguished, but somehow, the essence got through. Whitman inspired German and British composers to set his words to the medium of music that demands no translation, at least on the surface. Whitman’s international influence debunks the myth that translation cannot work and is without value. Indeed, Homer and Virgil have triumphed in translation, as have all the Greek tragedians. The Divine Comedy has made its way beyond readers of Italian. For all the complaints leveled at Constance Garnett’s translations of Tolstoy, the popularity and reputation of War and Peace and Anna Karenina in the English-speaking world owe a permanent debt to her work. The music you will hear tonight sidesteps the controversies about translation and nationalism in favor of an example of the universality of the humanistic sensibilities contained in Walt Whitman’s poetry.

Three of the composers on tonight’s program came from German-speaking Europe, albeit from distinct linguistic regions. Kurt Weill was born in Dessau. Franz Schreker had his roots in Austria and spoke a Viennese dialect, and Othmar Schoeck was a proud Swiss with a lifelong allegiance to the peculiarities and beauties of Swiss German. The main work on tonight’s concert is by an Englishman with political sympathies that were easily associated with Whitman.

Whitman was one of the first American poets to gain a foothold as a major literary figure with readers who are not native English speakers. It is the international reputation of Whitman, his role as a conveyor of the most cherished of American hopes and dreams—democracy and inclusion that inspired a unique aesthetic—that the ASO celebrates in this bicentenary. Whitman’s success in speaking to peoples well beyond the borders of America speaks well for the enterprise of poetry—the power of language, despite the difficulties of translation. Poetry, like music, can communicate, despite seemingly unbridgeable differences in history, religion, geography, and ethnic identity. Whitman’s poetry was a natural candidate for music. The composers on our program shared divergent political views, but Whitman inspired them to create a common ground of the imagination.

Written for


A Walt Whitman Sampler