Stephen A. Black, "Whitman and the Failure of Mysticism," 224:

     "The benevolence of the narrator's liberalism, in this first encounter with the slave, is suspect if compared to the rolling-eyed, gawky stereotype he transmits.  He is altogether too conscious of his tolerance, and the effect seems to be that he accepts this man only categorically--as slave."


Maurice Mendelson,  Life and Work of Walt Whitman, 130:

     "Whitman discovered heroic deeds in the daily activity of the ordinary supporter of abolition.  The hero of the following lines--who is both the poet and any one of his praiseworthy fellow-countrymen--has a ‘fire-clock [sic] lean'd in the corner' in case he should be called upon to save the Negro from his pursuers by force of arms."


Jonathan Arac, "Whitman and the Problems of the Vernacular," 46:

Arac sets himself apart from Leo Marx who celebrated the "solidarity between the two men."  Arac remarks in contrast: "as I read this scene, the slave remains an object by means of which the narrator is morally empowered.  Every single transitive verb in the passage has the narrator's ‘I' as its subject and the slave (or some part or feature of him--body, sweat, feet, eyes, awkwardness) as its object."


Richard Gravil,  "‘The Discharged Soldier' and ‘the Runaway Slave,'" 62:

     "To see the slave as in any sense an agent, one has to coalesce this passage with the closely related passages in ‘Song of Myself' in which a kind of collage of transfiguration is enacted: the hunted figure in section 33 crucified by his pursuers and with whose passion the speaker identifies; and the superb figure of the black drayman in section 13, in command of his horses and himself--Whitman's only representation of an African American as a figure of self- command."

Wai Chee Dimock,  "Whitman, Syntax, and Political Theory," 73:

     "In its scrupulousness and restraint, restraint especially from undue effusiveness or familiarity, this passage must stand as one of the most compelling moments of democratic affections in ‘Song of Myself.'  The runaway slave is not a particular slave, he is any slave, for the poet would have done as much for anyone bearing that generic identity, his goodwill also being offered generically, occasioned not by any qualities peculiar to the slave but by his membership in a collective category and transferable, one would imagine, to any other member of that category.  The poet is behaving ‘grammatically,' then, as I have disparagingly used that term.  But if so, what this passage reminds us is the tremendous need for grammar in this world, the tremendous need for structural provisions unattached to particular persons, and responsive to all analogous persons.  Substitutability and interchangeability, from this perspective, hardly detract from human dignity.  They guarantee it.

      Still, it must be said as well that this dignity, while guaranteed, is also carefully shielded from any hint of that very substitutability and interchangeability that make it possible.  And so the object of the poet's attention is introduced not as a runaway slave, but as the runaway slave, as if he were some previously mentioned figure, specially known to the poet, rather than the categoric person which he is.  What Whitman encourages us to forget, then, is the very condition under which the slave is admitted into ‘Song of Myself,' as one of its representative figures, one of its formal equivalents, succeeding the trapper and his Indian bride in the previous stanza, and to be succeeded, in turn, by the twenty-eight young men bathing by the shore in section 11. Indeed, these other figures--the trapper and his bride, and the bathing young men--must be forgotten as well, their lack of sequential connection to the slave being in no way a lapse, but a necessity, a desired effect.  This tender forgetfulness--this ceaseless transformation of "a" into "the"--thus generates a peculiar shape of time in ‘Song of Myself,' turning it into an arena of simultaneity, an arena in which antecedence carries no particular weight because it is simply not registered as antecedence."

D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, 183-184:

     Whitman said Sympathy.  If only he had stuck to it!  Because Sympathy means feeling with, not feeling  for the negro slave, or the prostitute, or the syphilitic--which is merging.  A sinking of Walt Whitman’s soul in the souls of these others.

     He wasn’t keeping to his open road. He was forcing his soul down an old rut. He wasn’t leaving her free.  He was forcing her into other people’s circumstances.

     Supposing he had felt true sympathy with the negro slave? He would have felt with the negro slave. Sympathy--compassion--which is partaking of the passion which was in the soul of the negro slave.

    What was the feeling in the negro’s soul?

    ‘Ah, I am a slave! Ah, it is bad to be a slave!  I must free myself.  My soul will die unless she frees herself.  My soul says I must free myself.’

    Whitman came along, and saw a slave, and said to himself: ‘That negro slave is a man like myself.  We share the same identity.  And he is bleeding with wounds.  Oh, oh, is it not myself who am also bleeding with wounds?’

    This was not sympathy.  It was merging and self-sacrifice. ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens’; ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’: ‘Whatsoever ye do unto him, ye do unto me.’

    If Whitman had truly sympathized, he would have said: ‘that negro slave suffers from slavery.  He wants to free himself.  His soul wants to free him. He has wounds, but they are the price of freedom.  If I can help him I will: I will not take over his wounds and his slavery to myself.  But I will help him fight the power that enslaves him when he wants to be free, if he wants my help, since I see in his face that he needs to be free.  But even when he is free, his soul has many journeys down the open road, before it is a free soul.’

Martin Klammer,  Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass, 113:

     "Leaves of Grass portrays African Americans as equal partners with whites in a democratic future and as beautiful and dignified people [. . .]   African Americans are seen as essential to the speaker's --and the reader's own humanity; Whitman repeatedly shows his white readers that to be a whole and fully realized human being in mid-nineteenth-century America is to participate in the experience of and even identify with, black people."

Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body, 77:

   "Whitman claims in this [first runaway slave] passage that the slave's body not only represents but is the locus of social divisions, so that healing the galls caused by the physical iron fetters of slavery actually sutures the divisions between the enslaved and the free, black and white.  The healing of the slave's body enables him to claim a free identity and become a grammatical subject.  In this passage physical contact merges the identities of host and slave, but the successful outcome of this merger, the slave's transformation into a freeman, requires that the barrier of pronominal difference be reerected.  If the assertion of a separate 'he' and 'I' is necessary for the achievement of freedom, it nevertheless reinscribes the divisions emancipation hoped to remove.  The 'firelock leaned in the corner' offers a sad reminder of the violence those divisions produced within antebellum society.  Indeed the question of the host's relation to the fugitive gains urgency from he presence of the gun: how secure is their merger, how wary their difference?  A pious abolitionist sentiment would simply interpret the firelock as a promise of protection against external enemies, but within the house, self and other, enemy and friend, merger and difference are not so easily and perfectly identified.  The waiting gun could equally well indicate the host's trust in the stranger beside him or his vigilant lack of trust.  In the previous scene a gun has already suggested the precariousness and explosiveness of interracial conflict.  Whitman describes the trapper bridegroom: 'One hand rested on his rifle . . . . the other hand held firmly the wrist of the red girl."

Sánchez-Eppler, Touching Liberty, 79-80:

   "The transference of the poet's 'I' to the figure of the hounded slave [in the second runaway slave passage], and the consequent merger of these two identities, is marked by the drib and ooze of wounded flesh.  Here Whitman employs a manifestly corporeal vocabulary to articulate the union of poet and fugitive, demonstrating how his poetics of merger depends upon the notion of embodiment. . . .
. . . Whitman's most adamant assertions of his poetics of embodiment consistently work to undermine their own authority. . . .  It is not just that the triumph of embodiment (I feel the bullets, I am the hounded slave) so easily collapses into the far lesser claim of sympathetic feeling, but that the assertion of embodiment expands to permeate the entire scene so that Whitman's 'I' belongs to it 'all,' not only to the fugitive but to the fence that supports him and the buckshot and bullets that wound him.  Normal distinctions between the animate and the inanimate are denied.  The bullets gain a murderous intentionality; twinges of pain becomes the agents that inflict pain.  Thus the embodiment claimed in these lines relies on a sense of identity that remains distinct from any specific corporeal manifestation and instead moves between them.  Identity appears infinitely flexible and transferable at the very moment when Whitman attempts to locate it in the human body."