Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Walt Whitman and the America I Love

Walt Whitman in 1887
I've always loved poetry. I've even written some.  I have my personal favorites, mostly Americans.  Perhaps it is because poetry is so intimate, so dense, so tied to the cultural milieu of the poet that I find a closer affinity to American poets than I do to poets from other nations, other cultures.  Whatever the reason, most of my favorites are Americans.

Before Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Alan Ginsberg, Frank Bidart, or Charles Bukowski, there was "Uncle Walt," Walt Whitman. My favorite description of him comes from the film Dead Poets Society.  The teacher, played by Robin Williams, is trying to get one of the boys, Todd, to open up his creativity and his feelings.  Taking inspiration from a picture of Whitman hanging in the front of the classroom, he asks the boy to describe the picture.
Whitman was the "sweaty-toothed madman" of our dreams.  His poetry evoked a sense of place for Americans.  A sense of democracy to which we, as Americans, are the inheritors of.  An abolitionist before being an abolitionist was cool, he was there at the founding of the modern Republican party, a party built by radicals, followers of Marx and the French socialists, who sought to remake America as a just and righteous nation, free of the stain of slavery.  But Whitman was never a joiner, and he did not join any political party but his poetry and his writing closely associated him with the forces of reform and change in the America of the 1840s and 1850s.  While not officially a socialist, towards the end of his life, he did say that he felt that his own personal beliefs coincided well with the objectives of socialism.  His poetry was especially influential among the British socialists (pdf) of the 1880s and 1890s.

Whitman loved America.  More than that, he loved the idea of America.  Growing up in the shadow of the Revolutionary War, he was keenly aware of our nation's potential for good as well as her potential to do great harm to her people.  In his poem Song of the Broad Axe, originally part of his monumental Leaves of Grass,  the 5th stanza stands out (apologies for the formatting, HTML does not lend itself to poetry),
The place where a great city stands is not the place of stretch'd wharves, docks, manufactures, deposits of produce merely,
Nor the place of ceaseless salutes of new-comers or the anchor-lifters of the departing,
Nor the place of the tallest and costliest buildings or shops selling goods from the rest of the earth,
Nor the place of the best libraries and schools, nor the place where money is plentiest,
Nor the place of the most numerous population.
Where the city stands with the brawniest breed of orators and bards,
Where the city stands that is belov'd by these, and loves them in return and understands them,
Where no monuments exist to heroes but in the common words and deeds,
Where thrift is in its place, and prudence is in its place,
Where the men and women think lightly of the laws,
Where the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases,
Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons,Where fierce men and women pour forth as the sea to the whistle of death pours its sweeping and unript waves,
Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority,
Where the citizen is always the head and ideal, and President, Mayor, Governor and what not, are agents for pay,
Where children are taught to be laws to themselves, and to depend on themselves,Where equanimity is illustrated in affairs,
Where speculations on the soul are encouraged,
Where women walk in public processions in the streets the same as the men,
Where they enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men;
Where the city of the faithfulest friends stands,
Where the city of the cleanliness of the sexes stands,
Where the city of the healthiest fathers stands,
Where the city of the best-bodied mothers stands,
There the great city stands.
Whitman knew what made America great.  It isn't her guns and her ships or her captains of industry.  It isn't the elected officials who take advantage of the largess of the people. But it is the people who make America great.  Where "children are taught to be laws to themselves."  A place "Where women walk in the public processions in the streets the same as men / Where they enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men." These were revolutionary ideas in 1855. Women would not get the vote in America until 1920, and here was Whitman advocating for it in 1855.

Whitman describes an America I love. An America where intolerance, prejudice, hatred and violence are not acceptable. A place where equality reigns and opportunities abound for everyone.  A nation founded on human decency and not laissez-faire capitalism.  That Whitman saw in socialism the ideals of his own writing,  reinforces my own belief that, today, America is on the wrong track.  We are enthralled to all manner of base consumerist ideals, to corporations that thrive while we, the people, suffer.  A nation where the unjust rule and the just are silenced.  What has become of Whitman's America?

I plan to go back and re-read my Whitman, to draw inspiration from our "sweaty-toothed madman."  How about you?

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