My Country Right and Wrong: A Review of “Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography” by David S. Reynolds

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I’ll be the the first to admit I can be kind of a grump in these pages. I’m constantly bemoaning how badly my country fails to live up to its ideals.

Just last week I was writing about how horrible it was that we adopted greed as our national ideology in the 1980s and school shootings became our defining trait in the 90s. I often contend that most Americans are too fatheaded to see how indecent our society has become. With the cheapest of bribes–junk food, reality TV, violent spectacle, gameshow religion, and so forth–the established powers buy our bovine loyalty. And they ensure  a generous supply of guns, drugs, and booze for the self-euthanizing of the weak, the useless, whoever can’t hack.

See? There I go again.

I think I make it pretty clear, though, that my scolding is done in the spirit of self-improvement. My critique is a measure of respect for our principles. If I didn’t care so much about our failure to live up to our ideals, I wouldn’t bother with all the anguished soul searching.

Still, here’s a thought: If you were in a relationship with someone who was constantly berating you for your moral failures and who was assuring you they wouldn’t be so critical if they didn’t love you so much, wouldn’t you want to hear their positive case for being in the relationship? Don’t we all need to hear a simple, heartfelt “I love you” now and then?

Well, America will get by with or without my professions of love. But still, I wonder sometimes why this part of the relationship is so much harder for me than the Maoist program of self-criticism. If I believe, as Abraham Lincoln did, that our union consists not just in adherence to a set of philosophical principles, but in “bonds of affection,” should I not feel that affection–a simple, untroubled fondness for my country?

Feeling are morally significant after all. Aristotle wrote that being virtuous is a matter of choosing the best action and doing so on the basis of good character. But that is not the end of the story. Having a good character should not just inform our choice of actions (like, say, an algorithm could), but should also implicate an experience of corresponding emotions, which Aristotle’s expositors call “proper moral affect.” For Aristotle, a true patriot would not just make patriotic choices based on critical study of right and wrong but would also feel the emotions appropriate to patriotism, primarily as love of one’s country.

Do I ever really feel this? Yes, I do.

The America that I love is the America of Walt Whitman. I was reminded of this this week as I was reading David Reynolds’s absolutely superb 1995 book, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. It tells in scholarly and loving detail how Whitman’s writings created a therapeutic image of a joyous, unified, benevolent America out of the elements of a fracturing society in the 1850s.

Whitman

The last time I read Leaves of Grass, four or five years ago, I was so overwhelmed by the feeling it exuded of confident patriotism that I forgot how deeply divided the country was as Whitman was writing it. As I read, I pictured America simply as the lush Arcadia was painting in his poems. But this was not the actual state of the nation. The country was in deep trouble, and Whitman was forging an overt, calculated work of propaganda to try to keep it from falling apart.

A little context is needed here. In 1854 Whitman was in the midst of preparing the first edition of Leaves of Grass for publication, to come out the following year. As events unfolded, the 1855 edition and the next two–in 1856 and 1860–would all be framed by America’s deepening political crisis and Whitman’s evolving attitude toward it. Whitman thought Leaves of Grass could be the thing to save America, but the damage was mounting fast, and the America that needed saving kept changing right in front of his eyes.

In May of 1854 Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which called for any new states admitted to the union to hold popular referendums on the legality of slavery. The law overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had said there would be no new slave states north of the 36°30′ parallel, period. Thugs from Missouri crossed into Kansas in November 1854 and March 1855 to vote for pro-slavery governments, paving the way for Kansas to become a slave state.

Things were coming to a head across the country. In Boston on July 4th 1854, famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison burned the U.S. Constitution after a court ruled that Anthony Burns, an escaped slave, must be returned to his Virginia owner in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act. Deploring the failure of U.S. institutions to stand up to the South’s power, Whitman agitated for something close to open revolt in the streets. In his notebook he wrote that the Fugitive Slave Act was “to be defied in all parts of These States, . . . by speech, by pen, and, if need be, by the bullet and the sword.” In his poetry, soon to be published, he wrote, “Agitation is the test of the goodness and solidness of all politics and laws and institutions.– If they cannot stand it, there is no genuine life in them, and they shall die.”

Whitman had very recently been a stalwart of the Democratic party and and advocate of orderly political participation, but as the country spun into disarray in 1854, he came more to believe in a free-flowing populism that would overthrow and replace party politics. He saw a potential saving power in the masses, “the tens of thousands of young men, the mechanics, the writers, &c. &c. In all this, under and behind all the bosh of regular politicians, there burns, almost with fierceness, the divine fire which more or less, during all ages, has only waited a chance to leap forth and confound the calculations of tyrants.” The citizens would be the heart and soul of his poem.

But the divine fire of civil liberation wasn’t the only spirit burning in America as Whitman was preparing the second, much larger edition of Leaves of Grass. In May 1856, Missouri ruffians again crossed into Kansas, and in Lawrence they kidnapped several free-state politicians, burned their houses, and destroyed the printing presses of two free-state newspapers. After Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner called the marauders the “drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization” and condemned his South Carolinian colleague Andrew Butler for serving “harlot slavery,” the same cause as the Missouri thugs’, Butler’s cousin Preston Brooks walked into the Senate chamber and beat Sumner nearly to death with a gold-headed cane. Two days later, in Pottawatomie, Kansas, the radical abolitionist John Brown hit back at pro-slavery forces, massacring five pro-slavery settlers with homemade broadswords. Kansas was bleeding; the nation had no political center.

And so in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman strained even harder to try to stop America from tearing itself apart. The new collection was, Reynolds writes, more scattershot in its approach–offering something for everyone–and more polarized in its content. In a new poem, “Respondez,” Whitman condemns the republic to the ruin he seems to believe it deserves after the infamy of the Burns decision, the caning of Sumner, and the bloodletting of Pottawatomie. “Let there be no God!” he writes; “Let all the men of These States stand aside for a few smouchers! Let the few seize on what they choose! Let the rest gawk, giggle, starve, obey. . . . Let the infidels of These States laugh all faith away. / Let the white person again tread the black person under his heel!” (A smoucher is a greedy-guts, usually with political connections in Whitman’s writings.)

But then in the same volume, Whitman swings to the other pole, trying even more earnestly to bring America back from rock bottom. In another new poem, “Song of the Broad-Axe,” Whitman proffers new, more soaring visions of popular sovereignty as a mystical force, capable of replacing politics. Going straight to the point, he writes, “I see the headsman withdraw and become useless, . . .” The masses in Whitman’s nation are competent to take charge and purge the old system. He sees an America 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 outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority, / Where the citizen is always the head and ideal, . . . ” Ordinary people built America, Whitman says, so let them run it.

But America’s downward spiral continued, even as disappointing reviews came in for the 1856 Leaves of Grass, spurring Whitman to form up for still another charge. By the time the next edition came out in 1860, events were making a political solution to America’s deepening crisis appear even more remote. In 1857 the U.S Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slaves were not citizens, based on their race, and thus were deprived of any possible legal protections of their rights. In October 1859, after relocating from Kansas, John Brown launched his doomed attempt to spark a slave revolt by seizing the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He was captured and hanged. Politically, there seemed no hope even for a clear, decisive contest between pro- and anti-slavery forces at the ballot box: four candidates crowded the field for the following year’s presidential election, virtually guaranteeing the winner would lack majority support. Indeed this came to pass. When Abraham Lincoln was elected, he won less than 40 percent of the vote, and he didn’t even appear on the ballots of ten southern states. Whitman didn’t like him. (Although he would come to revere Lincoln later.)

Through all this trouble and murk, Reynolds relates, Whitman tried to legislate the mystical unity of Americans by poetic fiat. (“What I assume, you will assume.”) And his words have such power, they almost pull it off. The America he describes in this most forceful, expansive edition of Leaves of Grass is the one I love. It overflows with natural beauty, material wealth, purposeful work, selfless affection, sexual freedom, marshal determination, artistic novelty, scientific curiosity, everything that can make a people bold, dignified and large-spirited.

So it might not be simple, but it is heartfelt: here is my “I love you.” I owe much of it to Whitman, and to his America, which Reynolds limns so expertly.

Before all other qualities, the America that I love is a written country. We have inscribed and printed everything that says who we are. Our Declaration of Independence is a letter to the world. The debate over how to put our independence into action and make it compatible with freedom is contained the Federalist Papers. Nothing less than the Constitution followed. The meaning of our revolution for the world is boldly set forth in Thomas Paine’s essays. Frederick Douglass’s autobiography indicts our besetting sin of slavery and demands our republic rid itself of it. The Seneca Falls Declaration proclaims the equality of women as inherent in our founding principles and deserving of constitutional protection. Whitman’s belief that a written work would be the thing to save the nation was completely in keeping with our best and deepest traditions as a country that was written into being. I would love America best of all countries for this quality alone. (And, I would add, Whitman’s poetry continues the writing of America.)

Second, my America guards the sanctity of conscience. Because it takes in people of all faiths, America encompasses all faiths. We share a broad, generous vision of ecumenism, where many countries have an established religion instead. This goes well beyond the polite tolerance of other faiths or the hyphenization of them as “American.” American ecumenism, for Whitman, is the very ur-ground of all religion, the center of man’s universal search for meaning. We contain multitudes. Whitman effuses, “I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demi-god, / I see that the old accounts, bibles, genealogies are true, without exception.” Even further, Whitman holds up of an ideal of an American “[w]ho believes not only in our globe with its sun and moon, but in other globes with their suns and moons.” All new, as-yet uninvented faiths are also possible here.

As a liberal democrat, these are sacred pronouncements for me. They say to the whole world, come to America, because here your conscience reigns supreme. Your thoughts will not be policed; you may lead an inviolable life seeking whatever essential purposes you choose. I, Matt Herbert, might have hearty contempt for the particular articles of humankind’s religions (and I do), but I have the ultimate regard for the privacy of conscience from which they spring. When I stand up for your right to believe, I do so with the same, full affirmation as Whitman, adopting each of your theories, myths, gods, and demi-gods.

Third, the America I love is growing, dynamic and prosperous. In Whitman’s lifetime, the population of the United States grew six times faster than the rest of the world, Reynolds points out, reaching 30 million by 1860. Our national wealth grew from $8.4 billion in 1850 to nearly $50 billion in 1880. Whitman’s father was a carpenter in Brooklyn, where Walt spent most of his working life (for a while as a house builder himself), and where the family felt this growth rate personally. It was dizzying. Brooklyn’s population skyrocketed from 40,000 in 1840 to 250,000 when the first edition of Leaves of Grass came out in 1855. And while the city faced all the usual challenges that come with explosive urban growth, it evolved government institutions that met those challenges. Whitman believed then, and I believe now, that dynamic growth gives ordinary people the opportunity for adventure and purpose, grand enough for celebrating in poems. After the Civil War, large corporations drove growth on a new scale, which Whitman praised in his 1871 “Song of the Exposition”:

I raise a voice for far superber themes for poets and for art,
To exalt the present and the real,
To teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade,
To sing in songs how exercise and chemical life are never to be
baffled,
To manual work for each and all, to plough, hoe, dig,
To plant and tend the tree, the berry, vegetables, flowers,
For every man to see to it that he really do something, for every
woman too;
To use the hammer and the saw, (rip, or cross-cut,)
To cultivate a turn for carpentering, plastering, painting,
To work as tailor, tailoress, nurse, hostler, porter,
To invent a little, something ingenious, to aid the washing, cook-
ing, cleaning,
And hold it no disgrace to take a hand at them themselves.

Finally, my America has an urban cultural core, which I cherish. Those of you who know me at all might wonder where this is coming from. I grew up in rural Missouri, 10 miles outside the closest town, which had 360 people. And when I felt like escaping that scene, which I assuredly did, I went west, to seek adventure under the high, arid skies of America’s desert and mountain wildernesses. The parts of America I still long to see are great, lonely spaces–Glacier National Park, Montana, the mountains of southeast Alaska, Wyoming’s Wind Rivers. Nature is and will always be restorative for me; my American heart will always beat somewhere west of the Rocky Mountains’ Front Range.

But the city fuels the life of the mind. Socrates taught in Athens, not on some god-forsaken rock outcrop of an island. I didn’t live in my first city until grad school in Chicago, and that happened late in life, at 29, but it changed me. Today I would not choose a hometown that lacked bustle or, more importantly, pedestrian access to the things that stimulate the mind–libraries, schools, theaters, museums, stadiums, monuments, bars, cafes, train stations, harbors, and, yes, businesses of all kinds. I’m a convert. My heart may beat in the big-sky wilderness, but my mind hums in the city. Americans in Whitman’s day certainly felt the pull of urbanization. Only 6.5 of Americans lived in cities in 1830, but 22 percent did by 1880.

The most fascinating part of reading Walt Whitman’s America is seeing how all the elements of our culture that Whitman would synthesize into a national poem came to him in our most vibrant city, New York. Everything he needed to fire his vision was within a short walk of his newspaper office. An archetypal image of Whitman that’s easy to muster is him striding across the whole of the country taking everything in, from prairie to bayou to mountaintop to metropolis. But this never happened. Except for a nine-month job in New Orleans, Whitman really only worked out of Brooklyn, frequently taking the ferry into Manhattan to go the theater or whoop it up with young roughs from the Bowery. From his urban cockpit, he drew in all things current and American: Quakerism, political oratory, hokey pop music, sensational journalism, daguerreotype technology, high and low theater, minstrel shows, tent-revival religion, the quackery of spiritualism, pseudo-science such as phrenology and harmonialism, new biology, the transcendental philosophy of Emerson, and more. Had Whitman not lived in America’s buzziest city, his poetic vision would have been that much less. City life made Whitman, and Whitman, in his way, made America.

I’d like to leave this “I love you” at that, but I can’t. There are too many caveats, and Reynolds does such a masterful job of helping us understand them that I cannot let them go unmentioned.

Just as America was changing rapidly right before Whitman’s eyes in the crucial decade he was writing and revising Leaves of Grass, it has continued to change. It still does, even faster. Some of the cultural sources that Whitman drew on in the 1850s to compose his vision of a harmonious, bountiful, self-confident America no longer exist. Much of this change has been for the good: who needs phrenology or Christian Science anymore? But there are other losses that ache. Since the America I love is basically Whitman’s America, I have to say I mourn some of the things now departed.

For one thing, labor is now thoroughly alienated. Jobs are not as meaningful as they were in Whitman’s time; nor are they likely to be as secure or subjectively satisfying. For most people today, work simply cannot form the basis of a compelling, dignified life narrative. Many of the physical tasks about which Whitman rhapsodizes–say digging or hoeing–are no longer invigorating parts of holistic professions but have been isolated for efficiency’s sake and made the focal point of shit jobs–jobs so hard, unpleasant, repetitive, or mind-numbing they will only be done by the most surplus of surplus labor. Think Caesar Chavez’s grape pickers. Others of us have bullshit jobs–organizational busy work (admittedly sometimes demanding and well-paid) that serves no discernably human purpose and leaves no mark on the world worth having. If your job is described primarily using buzzwords (say, “data-driven content manager”), chances are you have a bullshit job. Gig work, which may incorporate elements of shit- and bullshit jobs, presents symptoms of a grievous new pathology that designs maximal precariousness into work.

I’m not trying to berate anyone here for working for their living. The point is only this: Today, a much smaller portion of the laboring masses knows what their job is for or how it connects to a wider community or an essential purpose of humanity. These things were hardly mysterious in Whitman’s time. If you were a dairy farmer, you got milk from cows for people to drink. And significantly, you did the whole job, from raising the cows to contracting with a dairy to come buy the milk and take it away. Today, if you are one of the 1,200 employees of the country’s largest dairy farm, you’re either stuck in accounting, or you specialize in dosing the cows with hormones and antibiotics. Maybe you put on a hazmat suit and remove excrement eight hours a day–literally a shit job. Point is, your usefulness to wider society has shrunk to the same vanishing point as that of Henry Ford’s assembly-line drone who affixes doodad A to doodad B.

So why is this important? The saving power that Whitman perceived in ordinary Americans lay precisely in their work identities. Late in life, he even thought the great, engrossing work of professionals would be America’s crowning glory. He wrote of this in millennial terms:

A new worship I sing,

You engineers, you architects, machinists, yours.

[. . .]

After the great captains and engineers have accomplished their work,

After noble inventors, after the scientist, the chemist, the

geologist, the ethnologist.

Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,

The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

Even in Whitman’s simpler, bardic visions, he thought an America that was working purposively was united–“singing.” His choice of a working man’s garb reflected his faith that “beneath the ‘scum’ of social rulers lay the hearty goodness of average workers.” Reynolds also records how, when the young Whitman started learning the newspaper business in the 1840s, an editor ran the whole show, from the nuts and bolts of type-setting to reportage, to choosing a business model and selling ad space. This was how Whitman learned to work, as someone who saw the whole value of his job, to himself and others.

So that’s all gone. Or rather, meaningful work is now so unevenly distributed in complex societies that its social capital threatens to vanish altogether. The optimist in me says we can (in fact must) look elsewhere for the elements of our individual identities–the basis of political action. But I don’t feel optimistic. Right now my analysis of the future of work is pretty much the same as Yuval Noah Harari’s, who believes that technology will keep taking our jobs and depriving us of stable professions. Constant, frenetic “retooling” awaits us all. My main fear for my children’s generation is that they will lack the inhuman level of resilience and flexibility required to cope with the coming cascade of disruptions to the very idea of work. We sit on the edge of this deluge now. We are, at present, coming to grips with the prospect of having a growing class of useless people. In fifty years, the useless class will claim the large majority of us. What then? Americans, like everyone else, lack the wisdom to answer this question.

Which brings me to my second caveat. Whitman believed American society was so great that even the common man shared in the life of the national mind, by a kind of instinct, or possibly through the overflow of surplus genius. In his poem “Great Are the Myths,” Whitman claims that mere peasants have equal access to the guiding ideas of civilization, the same as the judge, the politician, the philosopher, or the master of industry: “Justice is not settled by legislators and laws, . . . it is in the soul. / . . . the great includes the less.” Reynolds’s analysis of this idea of socio-cognitive equality is illuminating. He writes, “Whitman’s emphasis on the common denominators of experience–the earth, sleep, work, sex, and the appetites–shows him trying to regain fundamental laws that are unarguable and sound.”

In fact, today there is a nearly hermetic barrier between the informed and the ignorant in America, so complete that it threatens to dissolve our bonds of social solidarity. It is Whitman’s idea of intellectual osmosis that has proven to be a myth. We are still a written country, and America produces an embarrassment of riches in all sectors of expertise, in history, economics, technology, and sciences hard and soft. The publication of books that present complex, trenchant and deeply informed analysis of vital issues (along with idle considerations of “mere” curiosities) is truly astounding here. The provision of a stupendously large body of knowledge in the English language is an unremarked glory of civilization (there, I said something nice). But provision does not mean proliferation.

The truth is, the “less,” who were supposedly included in the “great” in Whitman’s poem, have been even further demoted in the information age. They are now less than the less. In 1850 America outshone the whole rest of the world in literacy, and surging improvements in public education brought the dream of informed intelligence within any citizen’s reach. America published, sold and read more books than any other nation by far. Lectures were a popular form of entertainment for goodness sake. Crowds attended them.

Today there is a yawning informational class difference in America, which is abetted and reinforced by the political and financial elite. I am not just talking about Americans getting dumber, a statistical artifact of our having gotten smarter in the recent past. There is something diabolical afoot. The artful defunding of public schools, the provision of fake- and pro-regime news (along with, crucially, the deliberate, reckless razing of epistemological standards for distinguishing information intended to be true from schlock that is meant to be false), and the swamping of the American mind with aggressively stupid low culture–these are the main tools of the power elite for ensuring a large majority of our citizens either actively resist being informed or lack the capacity to understand any public affairs of significance.

When Whitman, a successful newspaper editor who never graduated high school, professed his belief that the “less” could join with the “great,” it was credible that the less literate–those who filled America’s one-room school houses and the city streets’ schools of hard knocks–were oriented on the same horizon of human knowledge that was heroically being advanced by (American) expertise. Today, Americans exercise the “freedom to choose” other horizons, which are not defined by overweening “experts.” And increasingly, they see this choice as a virtuous one, in line with an “American” conception of freedom. If you find this claim extraordinary and therefore in need of extraordinary evidence, behold, right in front of your eyes: a whole class of Americans so ghoulishly committed to the cause of ignorance they are flirting with mass suicide rather than taking simple steps proven to promote public health in the current pandemic. (I might have saved my breath and just said: see COVID-19 parties.)

One more thing needs to be said in the way of a caveat. Whitman got race and slavery entirely wrong, and to that extent, his genius has limited healing power for us today. Although he protested the Fugitive Slave Act loudly in 1855, his basic political cause was–like the early Lincoln’s–unionism, not abolitionism. In his later years, Whitman became more socially conservative and was unapologetically racist. In many parts of Walt Whitman’s America, Reynolds tries to portray Whitman as splitting a political difference that made sense at the time, recording, for instance, Whitman maintaining “a moderate course on the slavery issue.”

So this last caveat ends up being a good one. The America we have today says there is no moderate course on slavery or racism. We are all radicals now, thank goodness. The America we lost, Whitman’s America, was in many ways well and truly worth losing. We have not just kept the republic that Whitman wanted to hold onto, we have transformed it into something better, something closer to what we said it was in the beginning when we wrote our letter to the world proclaiming that all men are created equal.

Still, when I read Whitman’s poems, especially from Leaves of Grass, I can’t help feeling he remains a giant. He is still at the center of our country’s troubled spiritual life, as his friend John Burroughs felt when he wrote, “America–my country–I fear I should utterly despair of it. [Whitman] justifies it, redeems it, gives it dignity and grandeur, bears it all on his shoulders, as Atlas the Earth.” Whitman thought “every atom belonging to me as good as belong to you.” So if he once held up the country, dignified it, redeemed it, composed the vision of what it could and ought to be, that job now belongs to all of us, who are made up of his atoms. I think he would be happy with that.

As usual, I avoided reading any other reviews so I could keep my thoughts fresh. You may like these reviews by professional critics:

The New York Times

Publishers Weekly

The National Review

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