Walt Whitman and the Immigration Debate

May 31st was the 191st anniversary of Walt Whitman's birth in West Hills, an old travelers' hub located a few miles south of Huntington Village, Long Island. Whitman is regarded today as the quintessential American poet, but in his time he was also what today we would call a public intellectual--and what he had to say about the question of Hispanic immigration into an "Anglo" nation is well worth listening to once again.

As in Whitman's time, the nation is at a crossroads over the question of immigration. The immigration debate has become the moral equivalent of the fugitive slave law debates of ante-bellum America. The plight of undocumented immigrants--most of them Hispanics--is hardly comparable to the evils of slavery, but the lack of a comprehensive reform that resolves the legal status of about 12 million people underscores a humanitarian crisis of vast political, economic, and moral proportions.

The passing last month of a harsh immigration law in Arizona has exposed a deep national divide. Despite criticisms that this law will increase racial profiling and arrests of immigrants of any legal status and even of American citizens, the overwhelming majority of Americans support it. Polls show remarkable similarities between Hispanics and non-Hispanics on some points, such as the agreement that illegal immigration is a serious problem that needs to be fixed. But they also show that an alarming number of non-Hispanics have serious misconceptions and flat-out prejudices about Latinos and their alleged relationship with crime, unemployment, and taxes, among other issues. The fire of these misconceptions is stoked by anti-Latino groups and by conspiracy theories such as the Reconquista, the comparison of illegal immigration with a Mexican invasion of what were long ago parts of Mexican territory along the U.S. border.

We don't know exactly what Walt Whitman would have said about SB 1070, but about the supposed encroachment on American identity by Hispanics, his thoughts were clear. He wrote them down in a short missive later included in his last collection of prose, November Boughs, under the title The Spanish Element in Our Nationality.

In 1883, Santa Fe, the capital of the New Mexico Territory, celebrated its 333rd anniversary, and local authorities invited Whitman to deliver a commemorative poem. Living by then in his final retreat of Camden, New Jersey, Whitman declined to travel and sent instead this letter, which was reproduced in the national papers. The New York Times published it under the title, "Walt Whitman on America: The Good Gray Poet's View of Our Population and Our Future."

"We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them," he wrote. Those who believe that the United States is a mere Anglo-Saxon country are wrong; the "British and German stock," as he phrases it, "already threaten excess" and needed to be counterbalanced. Whitman decried the "seething materialistic and business vortices, in their present, devouring relations, controlling and belittling everything else." But instead of taking refuge in an imaginary utopian past, he regarded the harsh economic and social conditions of the day as a transient stage in the larger process of establishing a more just society.

Key to the establishment of that society is what Whitman calls "the composite American identity of the future." National identity is for him an inchoate formation, the image of a nation on the move, located not in the past--as the national essence conceived by all ethno-nationalisms--but in the future, a dynamic entity in which all the lines of force of past and present will come together to generate something new. Among those forces, says Whitman, one that will supply some of the most worthy ingredients of the mix is the "Spanish character"--in today's terms, the Latino or Hispanic element.

Four decades earlier, during his stint on a New Orleans newspaper, Whitman had noticed for the first time the "Latin race contributions to the American nationality," as he wrote in another essay. Now here he was, at the end of his life--once an admirer of President Polk, who prompted the war against Mexico--praising the contribution of "our aboriginal or Indian population" to the composite national identity and regarding it on a par with European immigration.

The future we now face is quite different from the future faced by Whitman and his contemporaries. Yet Whitman's vision of the American future is more relevant today than it was in 1883. It certainly provides a more accurate portrayal of the United States of Barack Obama than of that of Chester Arthur. Whitman's definition of national identity as a "compost" of different "stocks" echoes Cuban patriot and writer José Martí's notion of mestizaje (ethnic blending) and constitutes, along with it, a paradigm within which to rethink national identity and an antidote to the racism and bigotry that characterize the current immigration debate.