Walt Whitman on the Crucifixion

May 5, 1888  – A Conversation between Walt Whitman and Leonard Corning (who was a candidate for the pulpit of the local Unitarian church) recorded by Horace Traubel…..

Walt: “And what may be the subject of your sermon tomorrow?

Corning: “My subject? Why—the tragedy of the ages.”

Walt: “And what may be the tragedy of the ages?”

Corning: “The crucifixion.”

Walt: “What crucifixion?”

Corning: “The crucifixion of Jesus, of course.”

Walt: “You call that the tragedy of the ages?”

Corning: “Yes—what do you call it?”

Walt: “It is a tragedy. But the tragedy? O no! I don’t think I would be willing to called it the tragedy.”

Corning: “Do you know any tragedy that meant so much to man?”

Walt: “Twenty thousand tragedies—all equally significant.”

Corning: “I’m no bigot—I don’t think I make any unreasonable fuss over Jesus—but I never looked at the thing the way you do.”

Walt: “Probably not. But do it now—just for once. Think of the other tragedies, just for once: the tragedies of the average man—the tragedies of everyday—the tragedies of war and peace—the obscured, the lost, tragedies: they are all cut out of the same goods.  I think too much is made of the execution of Jesus Christ. I know Jesus Christ would not have approved of this himself: he knew that his life was only another life, any other life, told big; he never wished to shine, especially to shine at the general expense. Think of the other tragedies, the twenty thousand, just for once, Mr. Corning.”

Corning said: “I have no doubt all you say is true. You would not find me ready to quarrel with your point of view.”

Walt laughed quietly: “The masters in history have had lots of chance: they have been glorified beyond recognition: now give the other fellows a chance: glorify the average man a bit: put in a word for his sorrows, his tragedies, just for once, just for once.”

Corning said: “You ought to be in that pulpit instead of me, tomorrow, Mr. Whitman. You would tell the people something it would do them good to hear.”

“I am not necessary,” replied Walt graciously: “You have the thing all in yourself  if you will only let it out. We get into such grooves—that’s the trouble—passing traditions and exaggerations down from one generation to another unquestioned. After awhile we begin to think even the lies must be true.”


Robert Ingersoll’s Eulogy to Walt Whitman delivered at Harleigh Cemetery on March 30, 1892.

“Today we give back to Mother Nature, to her clasp and kiss,
one of the bravest, sweetest souls that ever lived in human clay.
……He has lived, he has died, and death is less terrible than it
was before. Thousands and millions will walk down into the “dark
valley of the shadow” holding Walt Whitman by the hand. Long after
we are dead the brave words he has spoken will sound like trumpets
to the dying. And so I lay this little wreath upon this great man’s tomb. I
loved him living, and I love him still.”

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2 Responses to Walt Whitman on the Crucifixion

  1. Ann T. Dogma says:

    This, including the addendum, was beautiful, and such an important humanist approach. Thank you for posting it.

    It reminds me of the woman washing Jesus’ feet with her hair and the expensive oil, and Judas, who I happen to agree with in this instance, suggested the oil could be sold and the money used to alleviate the suffering of the poor, to which Jesus says, “The poor will always be with you.” Which sounds to me like, “Oh, the damn poor again. Stop being so selfless at my expense and let me enjoy this little luxury just this once. You can feed the hungry tomorrow.” Here’s my point: Why couldn’t Jesus defer his pleasure until death like all the preachers down through the centuries have expected the faithful to do? (That is, until our modern “prosperity gospel” types came along.)

  2. Jay Pea says:

    This was a very good exchange and Walt, I felt, was very eloquent in his approach.

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