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
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
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
Hoping to cease not till death.
Nature without check with original energy.
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
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.