Walt Whitman's Influence on Germany
By Ute Ferrier
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is considered to be one of the greatest American poets of the nineteenth century. While Edgar Allan Poe may have been more widely read, Whitman had more international writers actively respond to him and his poetry than any other American poet. A century after his death, writers around the world are still in dialogue with him, pondering the questions he posed, arguing with him and elaborating on his insights. People have been attracted to Whitman for numerous reasons. For his time he was truly unconventional and introduced the modern lyric with his autobiographical collection of prose poems called Leaves of Grass. The impact Whitman has, however, exceeds technical innovation; it lies in his universal appeal.
Walt Whitman is many things to many people. The poet once remarked about the various photographs of himself he used to come upon, "I meet new Walt Whitmans every day. There are a dozen of me afloat." Perhaps even more manifold than the physical images of the author are the ways in which he has been perceived. The purpose of this paper is to examine how Walt Whitman's poetry influenced Germany. How the poet was received, which aspects of Whitman's philosophy most attracted Germans, ultimately has to do with the Zeitgeist, the intellectual climate of the day.
For numerous authors Whitman has primarily been a poet of democracy and political questions have often been at the center of the international responses to Whitman. While this aspect of his poetry has inspired people from states such as the former Soviet Union and China, it has not been the only theme to spellbind his admirers. Authors from India, for example, have been able to identify with Whitman on a spiritual plane, seeing in him a Hindu vision. Clearly the way in which people relate to the poet has much to do with what is essential and pertinent to their own lives.
For Whitman's contemporaries the most obvious deviation from the norm was his prose style. Whitman does not submit his thoughts to metered rhyme, yet they are rhythmic, just not in the traditional sense of a stanza. His free verse forms have been likened to the ebb and flow of the ocean tides, which inspired him throughout his life. The innovation of Whitman's poetry, however, exceeds structure and pattern and those who have admired his poetry have also been intrigued by its content. Whitman relished life and never lost that child-like quality to look at reality with curiosity and awe. He wrote about nature's wonders with the same enthusiasm he had for technological innovation. And his Leaves of Grass while intimately personal was at the same time a universal appeal to his fellows to strive toward higher ideals.
Whitman published his first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. In subsequent years he revised some of the poems in this collection, added new poems to it and deleted some of them. It was as such a "work in progress" which culminated in the sixth and practically complete edition that has been in print since 1882. While Whitman's literary career in the United States thus starts in the 1850s, it took over a decade before it made inroads in Europe. For Whitman's poetry the late 1860s marked the beginning of his European reception. In 1867 William Rossetti's British edition of Leaves of Grass introduced the author to Britain. That marked the beginning of Whitman's influence on the international literary community. In the assessment of Gay Wilson Allen, who devoted his life to studying Whitman, the poet was even more appreciated abroad than he was at home. Readers all over the world who seriously pondered democracy, took Whitman seriously long before he was recognized in the United States. He was more respected and more widely read in Europe well into the twentieth century.
While Whitman wrote relatively few poems about political revolutions, many political activists saw a compatriot in him. The Bolsheviks found his references to the brotherhood of all nations particularly attractive and a Russian journalist even called the poet "the spirit of revolt" and a champion of the oppressed. Allen considers this dimension of Whitman's work to have had the greatest impact. According to Allen, "Whitman's influence in world literature has been mainly in the realm of ideas, and especially as a symbol of love, international brotherhood, and democratic idealism rather than in esthetics." In this respect, Allen concludes, Whitman's impact is only rivaled by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Introduction to the German-reading public
Whitman's democratic content also appealed to the German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810-1876), who was a political exile in London. Freiligrath was a revolutionary poet and friend of Karl Marx, who was already known in the United States for his literary work. In 1868 he discovered Rossetti's edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass and consequently translated some of the poems into German. The ten Whitman poems and an essay introducing the poet were published in the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung and were well received.
For Freiligrath the American was a breath of fresh air. In his essay on Whitman he introduced the poet as "the only poet America has as yet produced." Freiligrath appreciated that Whitman was "[n]o follower in the beaten track of the European muse but fresh from the prairie . . .and from the earthy smells in hair and beard and clothing of the soil from which he sprang." He was an antidote to German stuffiness and perhaps even more importantly he spoke to those who were yearning. Whitman's admirers, Freiligrath pointed out, see in him "the only poet at all, in whom the age, this struggling, eagerly seeking age, in travail with thought and longing, has found its expression; the poet par excellence."
How should Germans receive Walt Whitman? Freiligrath was clearly taken by the poetry.
"We confess that it moves us, disturbs us, will not lose its hold upon us." At the
same time Freiligrath cautions his readers not to jump to conclusions. Still he cannot
resist to "have a closer look at this strange new comrade, who threatens to overturn
our entire Ars Poetica and all our theories and canons on the subject of aesthetics."
Clearly the potential for change seemed monumental and Freiligrath was aware that
this could be the poetry of the future.
Freiligrath's introductory essay is considered a historical turning point, the moment when Whitman was introduced to the German-reading public. Walter Grünzweig points out, however, that Freiligrath was highly selective in his choice of poems and as such did not offer an accurate picture of Whitman's work. Undoubtedly Freiligrath published the poems he most cherished. In the late 1860s Prussia was engaged in several wars and militarism was on the rise. In this political climate democracy was particularly appealing to dissenters such as Freiligrath. The poems he translated were mostly from Whitman's Civil War poetry in Drum-Taps and as such he did not do justice "to the essential modernity of the American's work." Nonetheless Freiligrath needs to be credited for being far enough on the periphery of German society to be able to appreciate Whitman, while at the same time still being connected enough to be able to bring the American to the German people.
For Freiligrath content may have been more important than aesthetics. This does not mean, however, that the unconventional forms went unnoticed. Freiligrath reflected on Whitman's style and pondered if "the age [has] so much and such serious matter to say, that the old vessels no longer suffice for the new content." Twenty years later, after the first book-length translation of Leaves of Grass (Grashalme) was published in Zürich, some critics were also puzzled over content and style. Overall Grashalme was well received and in the minds of German-speaking Europeans the work reflected "the newness of the New World" which at this time seemed very mythical.
Naturalist or Mystic
Freiligrath had initially introduced Whitman to the German public in 1868, but Whitman's work did not widely circulate for another two decades. After the publication of Grashalme in 1889, Whitman's work became well known, in part because of the efforts of Johannes Schlaf, leader of the German Whitman cult. The second introduction to this audience was more successful than Freiligrath's had been twenty years earlier. Whitman became well known and would remain influential until the 1930s. With this more prominent introduction came a shift of emphasis. Whitman's work was now seen from a different point of view than Freiligrath's and was utilized for different purposes. The political ideals that had attracted Freiligrath seemed less important to the new generation. Schlaf, along with Arno Holz and Gerhart Hauptmann introduced "naturalism" into German literature and they connected with Whitman on this level. In 1892 Schlaf wrote an essay in which he elaborated on how Whitman's poetry enabled him to escape from the limitations of German naturalism so that he could discover his inner self. In Whitman's cosmic musings, Schlaf saw a means of escape. To those who were distraught over rapid industrialization and the effects it had on society, Whitman's poetry was therapeutic.
Schlaf embraced the religious foundation of Whitman and noted that "his main theme is the sublimity of religion." Not the traditional religion that requires circumscribed behavior. "Not the cult, the dogma with its imperatives, but the powerful broad awareness of life whose force comprises the cosmos with love and wonder, the religious feeling, the intimate, jubilant consciousness of belonging to everything."
The fact that people were embracing this aspect of Whitman indicates how much they were searching for new meaning in a world that was changing too fast, where old ways of knowing and believing were no longer considered valid. Whitman was the symbol of a "new humanity" which defined itself according to new rules. He was the embodiment of the new generation. In this search for purpose one could easily utilize aspects of Whitman that fulfilled that longing.
As such the mystical side of Whitman could be linked up with his image as the "good gray poet" which he had earned during the Civil War. Whitman had already been established as a journalist and poet by the time he became a nurse in the war and the poems he wrote about these experiences were well received. According to Grünzweig, the persona of the "good gray poet" became the favored Whitman symbol in Germany because it appealed to those in search of the new humanity:
Sleep-I and they keep guard all night,
Not doubt, not disease shall dare to lay finger upon you,
I have embraced you, and henceforth possess you to myself,
And when you rise in the morning you will find what I tell
you is so.
Whitman himself did not necessarily reject the technological age that frightened so many. He was more complicated than that. In his Passage to India he admires the marvels of technology, such as the transcontinental railroad. Whitman was not looking to escape the material realities of his time, nor did he shy away from the spiritual domain. He was at home in both.
Perhaps, as Grünzweig noted, those readers who were "looking toward the American poet for assistance, the medicine they actually received was an aesthetic correlative to the newly industrialized culture from which they were attempting to escape." There is, however, another way of looking at this. Whitman may not be able to redeem the modern age, but he does by example of his autobiographical reflections offer a synthesis. Even at a time when organized religion (in particular Christianity) was under severe criticism, one did not have to abandon spiritual matters altogether in order to be recognized as an intellectual and sensible being. One could, indeed toggle between both worlds, admiring technological innovation while seeking communion with higher forces.
Whitman and Nietzsche
As far as scholars have been able to ascertain, there is no evidence that Walt Whitman influenced Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Both men have acknowledged a debt to Emerson but Nietzsche never mentioned or alluded to the older Whitman. It is all the more striking that their interests were parallel in many ways. There is always the possibility that Nietzsche was influenced by Whitman without publicly recognizing it, or perhaps that the influence was indirect and as such not evident even to Nietzsche. It could also be argued that both were part of the same Zeitgeist and tapped into similar realms without ever directly interacting.
Whatever the connection may have been between Whitman and Nietzsche may remain obscure. What can be stated with certainty is that the two men, as many of their contemporaries, were wrestling with the same issues. A parallel analysis of Whitman and Nietzsche is instructive. It clarifies the intellectual issues of the day. Comparing the two enhances the understanding of both. Juxtaposition often brings out the nuances and contours of an argument more than a solitary inquiry can.
One way to compare Whitman and Nietzsche is by comparing labels that have been attached to these two intellectuals. Whitman has been labeled many things, among them a mystic, a naturalist, a vitalist and a transcendentalist, and while there is some merit to each and all of these categories they still do not encompass the complexity of the poet. The multiplicity of labels suggests that Whitman was many things to many people. It also shows that he did not remain in a singular mode of expression (as Ernest Dowson did) but that he had a plethora of interests and that he changed over the years. In many ways Whitman and Nietzsche explored caveats that the other one did not, but on certain issues the two run on parallel tracks. Whitman's thought has a trajectory similar to Friedrich Nietzsche in the sense that both search for meaning through unconventional ways. Both were urging their fellows to stop and smell the roses, to embrace life to the fullest. Experiencing life was for life's sake, there were no other guidelines-especially not traditional morality, to worry about. From this point of view both men were vitalists.
However, Whitman was more at home in the spiritual realm than Nietzsche; he embraced the transcendental as well as the naturalistic. For Whitman a spiritual communion was part of his earthly experience and he was not afraid to use the term God, nor did he shy away from religion.
I do not despise you priests, all time, the world over,
My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,
Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern. . .
Whitman continues in this vein, adding the lama or brahman and referring to eastern traditions. He refers to Jesus and says he accepts the one who was crucified, "knowing assuredly that he is divine." And a few moments later he considers himself as "belonging to the winders of the circuit of circuits."
In the nineteenth century Whitman's concept of spirituality would have seemed blasphemous but in retrospect it was convention that he spurned, not necessarily the underlying concepts. If anything, Whitman's avocation of a universal brotherhood seems to embrace the essence of Christ's golden rule "love thy neighbor as you love thyself."
Nietzsche also understood the concept of brotherhood and was driven to educate his
fellows, to prod them into achieving a higher level of self-actualization. But Nietzsche
would never use Whitman's terminology; instead he distanced himself as far from God
as possible. In Nietzsche's mind, God was dead, or at least God in the traditional
understanding of the word. This realization, however, was far from comforting. It
left a void which Nietzsche desperately tried to fill. Key concepts of his philosophy,
such as experiencing reality to its fullest, transcending human limitation and reaching
the stage of the "overman", and being compelled to share that which you have learned
with others, can all be considered as secularized versions of Christian concepts.
Thus no matter how hard he tried, or perhaps even the harder he tried, to distance
himself from Christian philosophy, Nietzsche could not escape the framework. He could
use different words, make iconoclastic statements and tie intellectual knots but in
the end his highest concepts were essentially Christian.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche even utilizes metaphors and terminology from the bible. Zarathustra, the sage who elaborates on how to strive for perfection, suggests that the overman has to go through three stages: that of the camel, the lion and the child. The camel stands for those who shoulder the earthly burden, the lion is the one who seeks freedom and creates new value. At last, though, it takes the child to overcome all human limitations because the "child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred "Yes." For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred "Yes" is needed." The child clearly refers to one of Jesus' metaphors.
Nietzsche questions everything. He wants a clean slate and sets out to evaluate everything society has accepted as valuable. This extreme view in a sense necessitated that God be dead. Yet, as Nietzsche retraces his intellectual and moral steps he frequently recreates a slate similar to the one he set out to destroy. The only area in which he refuses to budge is that of spiritual authority.
Nietzsche has no problem discussing Jesus' love thy neighbor, but in the end he always
concludes that the ultimate authority is earthly.
In their refusal to conform to the church, Whitman and Nietzsche find common ground. However, Whitman was far less tormented over spiritual issues. He was not compelled to kill God, nor did he require an entirely blank slate. Whitman simply retained his core beliefs but expanded upon them to encompass other realities, other ways of appreciating existence. Perhaps he was grounded because of his strong Quaker influence. Whitman had an impregnable sense of the inner light and for him such a communion was as real as feeling the breeze of the wind. He did not fear that his intellectual integrity was undermined by believing in life after death. Thus while both authors cherished life and were obsessed with death, they differed significantly in their outlook.
Responses in Germany
It did not take long for "Whitman communities" to spring up in Germany. Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) even complained that soon the Germans would build altars for him and elevate his writings to that of a gospel. Clearly he was meeting the needs of many people. Perhaps Germans embraced him too readily, only partially understanding what it was all about. At least that's what Hesse implied when he stated that "already they are calling him all kinds of things that he is not, for example a great philosopher and a prophet of the modern laws of life." Hesse was seemingly not just criticizing the German people for their lack of discernment but also the culture at large and the times in which he lived.
Our age, with no culture and thoroughly without philosophy, has no longer a sense for dimensions. Enthusiastically they run after every true or false prophet. What have they made out of Nietzsche, of Emerson, even of Maeterlinck! Posterity will have a good and long laugh.
Hesse not even considered Whitman a gifted writer, but he recognized him as a great poet in human terms. Whitman did not have to draw from the old European treasures or "the junk shop" as Hesse called it. As Freiligrath earlier, Hesse also sees the freshness in Whitman and associates it with the fact that he is American. Whitman can be unconventional. He comes from a young country that is more interested in its grandchildren than its grandfathers. He is raw energy, a creative thrust, preaching the self. "With the proud joy of the unbroken fully-developed human being he speaks of himself, his deeds and voyages, of his country." Hesse's phrasing "the unbroken fully-developed human being" is revealing. It emphasizes that Whitman was intact and implies that this is a noteworthy feat; arguably many artists who tried to work against the grain eventually wore out. One could also infer that those who are not broken have not pushed against the boundaries of society and are consequently not fully developed. This view that the old European order stifles creativity was not only common at the turn of the century, to some degree it still persists today. America is still considered wild, which is both good and bad. It is good in the sense that it is "the land of opportunity." However, it is bad because in certain instances it lacks civility. It is too raw. Europeans' view of America is still ambiguous and seemingly contradictory. As such Hesse's assessment is timeless.
"Whoever reads in this book [Leaves of Grass] at the right moment will find something of the primeval world and something of the high mountains, the sea and the prairie in it. Much will seem flashy and grotesque, but the whole will impress him just as America impresses us-against our own will."
For many Germans Whitman represented the American spirit and global exploration. Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914), a poet and journalist translated several of Whitman's poems. He felt, as did Hesse, that the German people had gone overboard in their reception of Whitman and wrote several mocking parodies to air his disgust. Nonetheless, Morgenstern could not help but embrace Whitman's globalist poetry which seemed to break every bourgeois norm. In his poem "A Song by Walt Whitman" (Ein Gesang Walt Whitmans) he explores Whitman's internationalist theme, using the poet's writing style.
I sit, my gaze directed to my world map.
I sing the ocean, the mother of the earth.
Blackish it towers up, horribly it roars, like flowing mountains, unpredictable, terribly, a game of the storms.
It is blue, like a promise of manifold fortune.
Continents, carrying peoples, emerge from it.
The poem continues talking about the continents, its people and some of its characteristics. The treatment of America is once again revealing because it shows how Europeans both admired and scorned the young nation.
America, the most youthful, most immature, with forty-four chambers of the heart, but no real soul as yet, greedy, inventive, full of effervescent power, worldly with superior manners, a democrat (for the time being). . .
According to Walter Grünzweig, this poem by Morgenstern is rather earnest compared to his other parodies. Morgenstern was not necessarily out to mock Whitman but to mock the reception of his poetry. An example of the expressionists' "exaggerated adoration of Whitman" to which Morgenstern was reacting, is the poetry by Arthur Drey (1890-1965). Drey called Whitman a titan, a swinger of the torch, a universal man and a prophet. Carl Albert Lange also dedicated a poem to Whitman in which he likened the poet to the image of a giant, whose words cloak the earth. And according to Lange, in these words are the seeds to everything, to cosmic connectedness.
While the admiration may seem exaggerated from a distance, Grünzweig points out that the poems by Drey and Lange were not exclusively written to worship Whitman. They are also an outlet for the frustration that the expressionist poets felt. They were alienated and projected real or imagined deficits. By elevating Whitman to a giant or a titan, they expressed their own sense of inferiority and to Grünzweig this suggests "the degree to which the human individual is dwarfed by modern technology and industrial society. The violent emotions they ascribe to Whitman [. . .] are indicative of the impossibility of expressing subjectivity in a mechanized and controlled society."
Two Swiss poets, Gustav Gamper (1873-1948) and Hans Reinhart (1880-1963) also dedicated poems to Whitman, which were published in a Swiss literary journal in 1919. While they are less flamboyant than the poems of Drey and Lange, they have a solemn religiosity about them. In his "Homage to Walt Whitman" (Bekenntnis zu Walt Whitman), Gamper starts out:
On the path of my soul I encountered the master
and we greeted each other as wanderers.
Oh, to have recognized the face of the aged Camerado,
examining, admonishing, giving, with sparkles and smiles!
When a treetop now whispers, it whispers to me
from Walt Whitman, the wanderer.
Gamper considered Whitman to be the most influential person in his life and he tried to model himself after him. In his best-known work Die Brücke Europa's (The Bridge of Europe), Gamper tried to create a national epic for his Swiss homeland in a Whitmanesque style. The poem above in homage to Whitman is in the preface of Die Brücke Europa's.
These genuine admiration poems stand in stark contrast to the biting cynicism of his critics. Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935), although he admired Whitman's new style, found his optimism sickening. Tucholsky, one of Germany's most prominent satirists, wrote three Whitman parodies. In the poems he refers to "Walt Wrobel" which either refers to Tucholsky turned Whitman, or the other way around. Tucholsky particularly attacks the notion that life can be grasped by the five senses. He takes Whitman's awe of perception and replaces the stimulus that nature provides with "ridiculous observations from the author's everyday life." In the poem "The Five Senses," Tucholsky writes about taste:
What do you taste, Walt Wrobel-?
I taste the lower crust of the fruit tart which my aunt has baked; regarding the tart, it is a bit blackened below, this is where the dough got burnt, it crunches in the mouth like sand . . .
This what my taste tastes . . .
Tucholsky's satire was published in 1925 when numerous German artists embraced the
so-called New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit). This movement reflected the resignation
and cynicism of post-war intellectuals in Germany. In the troubling and highly volatile
atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, Whitman's optimism may have been out of place.
Indeed it is precisely this optimism which Tucholsky attacks. The concluding stanza
of "The Five Senses" speaks to the disillusionment of the times.
This world is imperfection, her lighting is imperfect. . .
Stumbling, my foot is searching for the way, the lanterns are flashing.
With all five sense I take it in, and it is not their fault:
mostly it is
For Tucholsky there was little solace in Whitman's optimism and his mockery is a striking contrast to the poems of Drey and Lange who almost worshipped Whitman. Extremely divergent views were nothing new though. Whitman's work had sparked controversy early on.
One of the most contentious issues surrounding Whitman have been around his homo-eroticism. Some of Whitman's poems are clearly erotic, indeed his early publications were publicly banned in the United States because of their sexual overtones. In general Whitman has kept his sexual life private and he never publicly admitted that he was a homosexual. However, many of his followers believed that he was. In some of his earlier drafts of "Once I Passed through a Populous City" he explicitly spoke of a male lover, but the same poem was later published referring to a female only.
Yet now of all that city I remember only the man who wandered with me
there, for love of me,
Day by day, and night by night, we were together,
thus was edited to read:
Yet now of all that city I remember only a woman I casually met there who
detain'd me for love of me. . .
While he was still alive there seemed to be no clear evidence one way or the other. Nonetheless, admirers of Whitman who knew of the earlier poem, took it as evidence that he had homosexual encounters. They believed that Whitman's orientation could advance their cause for homosexual rights.
Eduard Bertz (1853-1931) was devoted to several political causes, among them the early homosexual movement in Germany. Around the turn of the century the movement sought legal emancipation for homosexuals. In an effort to bring around public opinion, activists published scientific articles in which they tried to dispel the myths surrounding homosexuality. Bertz was convinced that Whitman could help the movement in this effort. He wrote an article praising Whitman and "referring to him as a sexually inactive homosexual." In the psychopathological language of the day he called Whitman a noble homosexual (Edelurning). Bertz admired Whitman and had no intention of harming the poet. Nonetheless other German Whitmanites saw Bertz's efforts as a direct affront. They immediately came to Whitman's defense and Schlaf published a vicious pamphlet accusing Bertz of slander. "Bertz misunderstood and believed that Schlaf and the "terrorists" of the heterosexual world wanted to repress Whitman's homosexuality in order to thwart the movement for homosexual emancipation." The quarrel turned quite nasty but in the end Schlaf persevered. Considering how strong the prejudices against homosexuals were at that time, it was fortunate that Bertz was unable to convince the public. "If Schlaf had not managed to deny Bertz's well-meant allegations, Whitman would probably not have been accepted in the German-speaking countries."
Whitman's eroticism affected people in strange ways. The nudists took the poet quite literally. Others were attracted to what they considered quasi-eroticism. Hans Reisiger (1884-1968) and Thomas Mann (1875-1955) even postulated that only a quasi-erotic relationship between people could function as the foundation for democracy. Mann, who before the war had been politically conservative, now publicly discussed that the old hierarchical order should be substituted by an erotic commonwealth. Eroticism and sexuality they believed could serve as a glue to keep society from disintegrating. Politically this notion did not go anywhere. However, the issue of homo-eroticism was less explosive this time. Reisiger and Mann openly talked about the homo-erotic content of Whitman's poetry. Fifteen to twenty years earlier the debate between Schlaf and Bertz had been extremely nasty. This time it evoked little response, although it is not clear how much people were paying close attention.
Reisiger and Mann's interest in Whitman did stimulate a brief revival. In 1919 Reisiger, published a selection of poems and three years later a two-volume edition of Whitman's major prose work and his Leaves of Grass. With this edition the poet became a "classic," a recognizable household word. During the Weimar Republic numerous authors imitated Whitman's style but by the middle of the decade actual interest in his poetry was declining. As mentioned previously the avant-guarde could not readily identify with his content, albeit they still embraced his style.
The Nazis had little use for Whitman. They made several futile attempts to use Whitman's poetry for their ideological purposes, but in the end he was too democratic to be useful. During the Nazi era three of Whitman's most ardent supporters in Germany were exiled: Stefan Zweig, Franz Werfel and Thomas Mann. Consequently Whitman's reputation in Germany declined.
Even after World War II, Whitman's poetry could not regain its former popularity. This does not mean, however, that German intellectuals have ceased all dialog with the poet. As early as 1945, Johannes R. Becher (1891-1958) wrote a sonnet about Whitman. Becher, who was to become the first minister of culture in East Germany thus insured Whitman's survival there. Several writers and poets from East and West Germany have likewise written about Whitman. After the political turmoil of the early 1990s there seems to be a renewed interest in Whitman's political message. Rolf Schwendter, a professor of sociology at the University of Kassel wrote his poem "You I Sing, Socialism" (Dich Singe Ich, Sozialismus) in 1990 for the festival of the Austrian Communist press in Vienna. Whitman's literary works are not yet exhausted even though they failed to regain their former popularity. Whitman addressed too many issues and even if some of them no longer speak to the Zeitgeist of today, there are others that are still pertinent.
Whitman was many things to many people. To some he was a political hero, a comrade in arms. To others he was a mystic whose visions were an alternative to positivism. He was able to speak to the Wandervögel, a German youth movement, who responded to his call for the "open road." And a few even tried to use him in their efforts to fight for homosexual rights. Most recently Whitman's democratic ideals have rekindled discussions in the re-unified Germany.
The fact that at the height of his popularity in Germany (1889-1925) Whitman was able to speak to so many Germans on so many different levels not only reflects the diversity of German culture, it also attests to the versatility of the artist. Even today one can meet as many new Walt Whitmans as one is interested and willing to find.
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