"THE SLEEPERS" AND RACE
In one of the most remarkable sections of the first version of "The Sleepers," Whitman makes the radical gesture of actually turning his narration over to an angry black slave, a "Lucifer," who, like his namesake, was an emblem of rebellion, a figure unafraid to confront the ultimate master.
Now Lucifer was not dead .
. . . or if he was I am his sorrowful terrible heir;
Damn him! How he does defile
This brief but powerful passage has received some illuminating commentary in recent years, including Christopher Beach's recent interpretation of it in the context of surrounding social discourses that connected whales and slavery: the significance of the passage, Beach argues, is in "Whitman's creation of enabling figures for the slave's self-expression; Lucifer and the black whale . . . represent at once the slave's inability to speak within the system of dominant white discourses and Whitman's poetic attempt to give a voice to the slave" (93). It is a passage that Whitman worked hard on in various notes and drafts. In one early notebook, where Whitman combined slavery scenes that would later find their separate ways into "Song of Myself" and "The Sleepers," he wrote:
The hunted slave who flags
in the race at last, and leans up by the fence, blowing and covered with
In another early notebook, Whitman lists gods, including "Lucifer," defined as "made up of all that opposes hinders, obstructs, revolts" (NUPM 2025). And in another draft of an early poem, "Pictures," Whitman again ties Lucifer to blacks and to revolt:
And this black portrait--this
head, huge, frowning, sorrowful,--is Lucifer's portrait--the denied God's
Picking up on this image, Whitman drafts the Lucifer passage, using the name "Black Lucifer" (LGC 628n): "Black Lucifer was not dead; . . . I am the God of revolt--deathless, sorrowful, vast" (NUPM 1300-1301n). It is an intense and explosive conflation, this joining of the angry black slave and the rebellious angel. In combining them, and in expressing sympathy for the resultant figure of rebellion ("I do not deny him"), Whitman creates an incendiary image, one that was particularly volatile in the mid-1850s, when slave revolts in the South--already numbering in the hundreds--were multiplying (in the year following the publication of this poem, there would be slave revolts in twelve states) and threatening a racial war, the very kind of war that John Brown would try to precipitate a couple of years later, leading to his raid on Harpers Ferry.
It is significant, too, that one definition of "Lucifer" in mid-nineteenth-century dictionaries was "a match made of a sliver of wood tipped with a combustible substance, and ignited by friction." Easily ignitable matches had begun to be manufactured in the 1830s, and these portable instruments of friction and fire were also called "lucifer-matches" or "loco-focos" (the name a playful derivative of Latin, meaning "in place of fire" or "self-generated fire"). "Locofocos," of course, was the name given to the radical wing of the Democratic Party (because in 1835 they used the newly invented matches to light candles when conservatives tried to silence them by turning out the gaslights in their convention hall); these radicals were adherents of William Leggett, who urged Locofocos to endorse an early and strong anti-slavery position. Standing behind Whitman's choice of a name for his first slave character, then, was his own early admiration of the Locofocos and of Leggett's egalitarian program. Whitman's "Lucifer" was a "combustible substance," too, a lucifer-match flaming into an expression of hate and rage and threatening to turn his apparent sluggishness into a massive movement of death--a loco-foco slave ignited by a lifetime of friction with his cruel master and with the dehumanizing institution of slavery.
When this powerful figure of Lucifer flames into speech in Whitman's poem, he becomes one of the earliest expressions of black subjectivity in a work by a white poet. He is the culmination of a voice Whitman was moving toward from his very earliest notes that anticipate the 1855 Leaves. In the notebook where we can first see the stirrings of his radical new poetry, Whitman hesitatingly inscribes a whole new kind of speaking, a wild attempt to voice the full range of selves in his contradictory nation:
This originating moment of Leaves of Grass has sparked a great deal of commentary recently. If nothing else, it reveals that at its inception Leaves was not an "abolitionist" work, at least not in the conventional sense of that term, for in abolitionist works the slave is pitied and the slavemaster demonized, and the irresolvable dichotomies of the nation are intensified. Whitman instead probes for a voice that reconciles the dichotomies, one inclusive enough to speak for slave and slavemaster--or that negotiates the distance between the two. This is the beginning of Whitman's attempt to become that impossible representative American voice--the fully representative voice--that speaks not for parties or factions but for everyone in the nation, a voice fluid enough to inhabit the subjectivities of all individuals in the culture. So Whitman in these first notes identifies the poles of human possibility--the spectrum his capacious poetic voice would have to cover--as it appeared to him at mid-nineteenth century: from slave to master of slaves. His dawning insight had to do with a belief that each and every democratic self was vast and contradictory, as variegated as the nation itself, and so the poet had to awaken the nation, to bring Americans out of their lethargy of discrimination and hierarchy to understand that, within themselves, they potentially contained--in fact potentially were--everyone else. The end of slavery would come, Whitman believed, when the slave-owner and the slave could both be represented by the same voice, could both hear themselves present in the "I" and the "you" of the democratic poet, when the slavemaster could experience the potential slave within himself, and the slave could know the slavemaster within himself, at which moment of illumination slavery would end.
It was a kind of spiritual and ontological abolition, a desperate attempt to speak a unifying instead of a divisive voice, and by the time Whitman published this voice in 1855, the nation was only five years away from discovering how fully the forces of division and violence would overpower the fading hopes of unity and absorption of difference. But when he was writing his poem about Lucifer, Whitman's faith was still strong.