WALT WHITMAN'S 24/7 CABLE MOMENT
Shortly after the Civil War, a middle-aged poet, famous for free verse, notorious for obscenity, paused to survey America. Walt Whitman loathed what he saw.
Before the war, he had been America's staunchest booster. The young country was "a nation of nations. . . " its vibrant energy making "these United States... essentially the greatest poem." Now, in a small green pamphlet that sold for 75 cents, Whitman took a darker view.
American society, he wrote in Democratic Vistas, was "canker’d, crude, superstition, and rotten. . . Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present. . . Genuine belief seems to have left us. . . the underlying principles of the States are not honestly believed in. . . nor is humanity itself believed in. . . The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism..."
The screed continued, page after page crafted to make patriots wince, cynics snicker. America must change, Whitman wrote, lest it become "the greatest failure of time."
How had time changed Walt Whitman? Though not yet 50, he looked like Father Time himself. But even as he became celebrated in Europe, Whitman remained profoundly American.
Born in Brooklyn in 1819, he idealized America’s democratic promise. The open sexuality of Leaves of Grass made some recoil, but its spirit, a quintessentially American optimism, brought him praise as "one of the great geniuses of our time." "Happy America," one British critic wrote, "that he should be her son."
In Democratic Vistas however, the native son is angry. The Civil War, which Whitman spent in military hospitals soothing dying soldiers, had taken a massive toll. In the war's wake, corruption reigned. Politicians bickered. Cities wallowed in graft. And everywhere Whitman looked, there was money, and more money, making America not "the greatest poem" but just another cheap commodity.
"In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain.” Even everyday Americans, he lamented, were "full of vulgar contradictions and offense... ungrammatical, untidy, their sins gaunt and ill-bred.”
These words were written in 1871, yet they have a timeless ring. They are the 3:00 a.m. jeremiad that haunts every patriot dream. You can hear Whitman's dark vistas in today's news. His warnings are the residue of the 24/7 cable screech which, though lacking his eloquence, still echoes his bitter judgment.
But read on. The difference between Whitman and the news is the difference between 3:00 a.m. and dawn. Whitman loathed post-war America, but he kept faith in its promise. That promise would be realized in a future scripted by literature and lore.
"I demand races of orbic bards, with unconditional uncompromising sway. Come forth, sweet democratic despots of the west!" Democracy, as paraded each Election Day, was not enough. America needed citizens. "To be a voter with the rest is not so much. . . But to become an enfranchised man, and now, impediments removed, to stand and start without humiliation, an equal with the rest, to commence. . . the grand experiment of development whose end (perhaps requiring several generations) may be the forming of a full grown man or woman -- that is something.”
America had gone through two formative stages, Whitman said. The first was political -- the Founders' ideals. The second was commercial -- the rise of business. But a third, just emerging, would bring "a native, expressionist spirit." From the plains, from the Western mountains, from the cities would come words to root the restless nation.
So when Americans, then and now, look around and loathe what they see, they might take heart from "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs. . ." For America wasn't/isn't done yet. Democracy neither. "The fruition of democracy, on aught like a grand scale, resides together in the future. . . Upon things that exist not. . . . By maps yet unmade."
It was for the bards, then, to restore America. The stories we tell ourselves, the lessons we draw, will lead us out of the mire. And Walt Whitman will be there urging us on.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.