Walt Whitman popped into my thoughts unannounced yesterday as I was listening to a nasty political discussion on NPR. Honestly, it’s hard to avoid the contentious, angry political noise in the air these days that’s camouflaged as debate and dialogue. People everywhere are irate and sounding off, often obnoxiously.
Granted, politics have always been rough, tough and bruising, and in this country, if you know history, you know there never was a golden age of political pablum or balmy rectitude when we were better, “nicer” people in choosing our elected officials. It’s amazing how consistently rife with personal insult, libel, defamation and even threats of physical harm (think assassination) all of our presidential campaigns have been. And candidates’ family members, including most of all wives, have always been fair game for pillory. Cf. Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson’s wife, viciously maligned on the basis of a mere rumor that she was a divorcee’.
Ho hum. The more things change …
And yet when we recall Whitman’s joyful celebratory poetry, his shameless praise and pride in the American people, their apparent innate goodness, and the as yet untested Idea of America as a democracy vastly rich in values and an honest belief in liberty and justice for all, we are transported to a more innocent, kindlier era quite unlike the moral wasteland of our selfish, self-centered, asphalt present.
the beautiful dreams of a beautifully innocent people . . .
Whitman’s expansive, incantatory and hugely optimistic Leaves of Grass was first published (self-published, actually) in 1855. It subsequently was heavily revised and enlarged upon many times and became Whitman’s lifework, ringing the depth and breadth of the beautiful dreams of a beautifully innocent people. Today it stands as a powerful witness and testimony of a better time and place, America’s Eden.
Though yet to make a big splash as a nation in international affairs, America at the time was young and full of itself. The nation took seriously the ideals codified in the Constitution and drew strength and social cohesion from this shared credo. Its people were astounded daily by new discoveries on the as yet unexplored western frontier and the seemingly endless bounty of our natural resources.
What a time and place to be alive. The newspapers, magazines, personal letters and diaries of the day attest to a zest, a joie de vivre, in the air for the simple thrills, chills and joys of living. An unquestioned rock solid faith in the future fueled a steely universal respect for effort, sacrifice and the work ethic. The sky was the limit; upward mobility everywhere in evidence. Human decency was reckoned an essential quality in everyone’s character and attainable; common courtesy was, well, common, a given and expected. Good manners mattered. Progress had yet to become a dirty word and our natural abundance seemed inexhaustible, infinite.
We were equipped for and capable of anything, we believed. And all eyes were on us in our unapologetic brashness. The rest of the civilized world was watching us with a raised eyebrow and a jaded jaundiced eye, expecting what history predicted (if past is indeed prologue), a fall from grace. Never had Democracy been attempted on a scale so grand by a country so grandly endowed. The myth became our reality. We embraced it as scriptural truth. We were confident of our ability to make most things right, both for our own people and, by example, for rest of The World.
Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
No other American poet than Walt Whitman has so ably and consistently given voice to the heady optimistic public spirit prevalent in the United States in the Nineteenth Century. We were bold, boastful, proud and hell-bent on making equal opportunity for all a reality.
Oh, the good old days. Today Whitman’s eloquent magnum opus whispers accusations of national malfeasance from memory’s rafters and roof beams; from the shadows of our subsequent common past, for our sins of omission and commission, of our grasping, greedy, me-first failures to realize the promises we made to ourselves and to rest of The (big bad) World.
An obsessive-compulsive, meticulous cataloger and compiler, Whitman was encyclopedic in his efforts to capture and render in his poetry the enormous bounty of the country and the energy and verve of the American people. A sweet sampling follows …
I Hear America Singing
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Source: Selected Poems (1991)
Below, note the crucial difference between Whitman’s sense of “self” and our contemporary lapse into the hubris of “Me-ism.” The “self” that Whitman refers to corresponds to all “selves,” not separate lives, superior or inferior. It is a unifying idiom/concept, not a separation of one from others. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
That is, it is no “selfie.” The very practice and attitude behind it would have scandalized the Nineteenth Century American mind.
“The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag . . .”
from Song of Myself (1892 version)
By Walt Whitman
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self. . . . .
[Click to read the rest of Song of Myself ]
For all his tireless inspired work, Whitman received little critical acclaim (other than the prescient endorsement of Ralph Waldo Emerson in a letter which he came to treasure) and scanty public appreciation in his lifetime, which was an archetype for the miserable lack of appreciation and dismal financial fate of most of our major literary figures of that era (Poe, Melville, Dickinson, etc.). In fact, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was reviled in certain quarters as pornographic (Emily Dickinson said in a letter that she heard he was “indecent”) and such misunderstandings of his poetry more than once got him fired from positions he very much needed to survive.
Even so, it’s clear from his verse that he had a wonderful life and, wherever he was in his constant traipsing back and forth over the unspoiled continent, even on a battlefield strewn with corpses of young American men during the darkest bloodiest days of our Civil War, he always fully explored and embraced the sundry nuances and delectations of his circumstances, savoring both good and bad, and immortalizing for anyone who might care that vanished golden moment of our history.