WALT WHITMAN: THE MYTHOLOGY OF PERFECT AND FREE INDIVIDUALS

Walt-Whitman-1865-1060

Walt Whitman is America’s most renowned, most influential, and many say its greatest, poet ever. He spent his life writing endless prose essays and one book of poetry, his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. But Whitman wanted to be more than just a great poet. He wanted to be the nation’s first great myth-maker. “There could hardly happen anything that would more serve the States,” he wrote, “than possessing an aggregate of heroes, characters, exploits, sufferings, prosperity or misfortune, glory or disgrace, common to all, typical of all — no less, but even greater would it be to possess the aggregation of a cluster of mighty poets, artists, teachers, fit for us, national expressers, comprehending and effusing for the men and women of the States, what is universal, native, common to all.”[1] [Please scroll to the bottom of the page for all footnotes.]

Whitman made it clear that he aimed to be the first “national expresser,” the first poet to put in words what was “common to all” Americans: “I heard that you ask’d for something … to define America … Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.”[2] But he often said that he thought of his work as merely a beginning, inspiring even greater poets and myth-makers in the future. So far, though, no poet has arisen to challenge his preeminent status.

The poems in Leaves of Grass were written over some 30 years. They reflect his vast variety of experiences, moods, and inspirations over all those years. So they hold an equally vast variety of thoughts and ideas. This never bothered Whitman. “Do I contradict myself?,” he wrote. “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”[3]

However there are some basic themes that run consistently through all the poems. One of these is an enormous, enthusiastic love of America, reflected equally in his most famous prose essay about America, “Democratic Vistas.” Whitman’s thousands of lines devoted to America also hold great variety and even contradiction. So interpreters have been able to frame his views on America in many different ways. Sometimes he is seen as an advocate for a traditional American mythology of hope and change — a nation of “rugged individuals” all competing to get ahead, but all joining together to move west and fulfill the nation’s “manifest destiny” in typical mid-19th century fashion.

As I read Whitman, setting his words on America in the context of his whole poetic work, I find something quite different — an alternative mythology of hope and change that still sounds radically new and challenging today, well over a century after his death. What follows is that alternative mythology as I have assembled it from Whitman’s words and my understanding of those words in their full context.

America is a marvelous geographical land, full of fascinating, often stunningly beautiful, places, “from forests of pine in Maine” to “Florida’s glades” to “California’s golden hills and hollows.”[4]

But America is more than a place. It is a project — a process with a purpose. Though Whitman describes that purpose in many ways, he comes closest to the heart of his vision of America when he describes the mission of a true American poet: to proclaim “the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals.”[5] Since he maintains that the true American poet embodies the entire nation, he clearly implies that the mission of the entire nation is to promote “the great Idea,” to create and nurture perfect free individuals — an idea that turns out to be the central thread of his mythology of America.

Sometimes Whitman describes this mission as a goal to be achieved only in a distant future era of perfection, in what is traditionally called the millennium. More often he writes as if he were describing America’s reality in the present.

Of course he knew that reality does not always live up to the ideal; the nation’s actuality from day to day deviates from, and often works against, fulfilling its mission. He knew that America “illustrates evil as well as good,” that “the wrestle of evil with good, the sounding and resounding, keep on and on.”[6] But it is this dynamism, this unending process, that is the essential reality of the present. Precisely because the nation is always moving toward its goal, no matter how distant, the millennial ideal is always part of its life in the here and now.

That ideal is the “unseen moral essence of all the vast materials of America,” Whitman says, the “hidden national will.” America’s “past and present purposes” are “tenaciously pursued,” even if only unconsciously. Those purposes are fixed truths, “unswerv’d by all the passing errors,” which are merely “perturbations of the surface.”[7] Like any myth-maker, Whitman is telling a story compounded of fact and fiction — a subtle blend of how America is now and how it ought to be.

The crucial point of his story is that the process of moving toward the ideal continues, and must continue. Wherever we are, “we must not stop here, However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here.”[8] “It is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.”[9]

Whitman’s most original contribution to the tradition of millennialism is to proclaim that the process has no end. America is constantly fulfilling its mission, constantly moving toward a fuller realization of its purpose: “Others take finish, but the Republic is ever constructive.”[10] The nation’s highest goal is to keep its millennial project alive forever. The road to paradise is itself the American paradise.

AMERICA’S “GREAT IDEA”

But why should America’s project, its “great Idea,” be summed up in those three words: perfect, free, individual? Why should every true American follow the road of becoming an ever more perfect and free individual? Let us follow Whitman’s story by looking in turn at each of those key words.

It is not the earth, it is not America who is so great,
It is I who am great or to be great, it is You up there, or any one …
Underneath all, individuals,
I swear nothing is good to me now that ignores individuals,
The American compact is altogether with individuals.[11]

Why privilege, even glorify, the individual? Because all the ways we usually mark our sense of identity and the meaning of our lives — our families, social groups and institutions, communities and nations — are ultimately nothing but collections of individuals. The individual is the most basic truth:

One’s-self must never give way — that is the final substance –
that out of all is sure,
Out of politics, triumphs, battles, life, what at last finally remains?
When shows break up what but One’s-Self is sure?[12]

Of course our individual identity is shaped, to some degree, by all those collective groupings that existed before us and gave rise to us. They endow us with a basic foundation of personality:

Something long preparing and formless is arrived and form’d in you,
You are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes.
The threads that were spun are gather’d, the weft crosses the warp,
the pattern is systematic.[13]

Those we encounter throughout life enrich our experience and expand our personal identity. So identity is never static; we are always on a journey. And everyone who has ever influenced us (which means everyone we’ve ever known, and many we haven’t known directly) comes with us:

Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them, I am fill’d with them.[14]

This is obviously not the familiar “rugged individualism” that sets each American against all others in a race for wealth, power, and success. Here, each individual emerges from, and remains enmeshed in and “fill’d with”, a vast network of others. To understand this new kind of individualism better, we have to understand those crucial adjectives, perfect and free.

To be perfect does not mean we have no faults or never do anything wrong. Like our nation, we are each always caught in the interplay of right and wrong: “How the whirl, the contest, the wrestle of evil with good, the sounding and resounding, keep on.”[15] So perfection is not a moral category in the traditional sense.

Nor is perfection some far distant goal. Perfection is a kind of experience anyone can have at any moment, by being open to the promptings of “the soul.” Again we come across a familiar word that is used in an unfamiliar way.

The soul is not something inside us that is separate from and opposed to the material body. Indeed there is no difference between body and soul; in “I Sing the Body Electric,” after cataloguing all the body parts of man and woman in loving detail, Whitman concludes: “These are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, O I say now these are the soul!”[16]

Soul is, rather, the entire person in those moments when he or she recognizes their connectedness with every other person and everything. (Some may call this inner spirit, heightened consciousness, fully awakened awareness, or use other words to name it.)

Each individual is the center of an endless web of interconnections, which the awakened soul can feel. This web extends beyond the realm of human relations: “Whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud, And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d universe.”[17] To put it somewhat differently, everyone and everything is a link on the same universal chain, “each hook’d to the next, Each answering all, each sharing the earth with all.”[18]

This awareness of universal interconnectedness is the essence of human perfection. The boundaries that seem to separate one person from another and from all the other realities of the world are seen for what they really are: bridges that connect the individual to everyone and everything else. When the soul evokes even a glimpse of perfection, the individual realizes “the plenteousness of all, that there are no bounds.”[19]

In interpersonal relations it goes a step further, to a realization that we each contain in ourselves everything that is contained in anyone else: “In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less, And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.”[20] “I swear I will have each quality of my race in myself.”[21]

FREEDOM AND LOVE

If we are all parts of the same single pool of humanity — if there are no boundaries that actually separate one from another — then there are no limits to define and confine the individual. Moved by a powerful awareness of his soul, Whitman exclaims:

From this hour, freedom!
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute.[22]

Given the awareness of infinite connection — that each of us contains all others — each individual must extend the freedom they feel to all others:

I am for those that have never been master’d,
For men and women whose tempers have never been master’d,
For those whom laws, theories, conventions, can never master.[23]

Each individual is the “purpose of all, pois’d on yourself, giving not taking law.”[24]

All is eligible to all,
All is for individuals, all is for you,
No condition is prohibited, not God’s or any.[25]

The result of all this freedom is not universal conflict and anarchy, though. A man or woman growing to full perfection will be guided by an inner moral compass because he or she will be religious. For Whitman religion does not mean following the creed of any organized religion but “possessing the idea of the infinite,” which is the “rudder and compass sure amid this troublous voyage, o’er darkest, wildest wave, through stormiest wind, of man’s or nation’s progress.”[26]

Why “rudder and compass”? Because the idea of the infinite stems from the awareness that everyone and everything is part of a web of universal relationship. That experience, in turn, evokes a universal sense of concern for others, of “love, that is pulse of all”[27]

This is less a logical deduction than an immediate intuition:

Swiftly arose and spread around me peace and knowledge that pass
all the argument of the earth,
And I know that …
all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women
my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love.[28]

“Underneath all is the Expression of love for men and women.”[29] Universal love insures that, in any conflict, we will transcend selfish impulses and seek an orderly resolution that is best for everyone.

In sum, the perfect person extends perfect love, and accords perfect freedom, to everyone. Perfection and freedom are thus two expressions of the same reality: the individual soul.

The soul, like America, is a project — a process with a purpose: to enhance and deepen the individual’s unique way of experiencing limitless perfection and freedom. The soul is the goal of human life, but it is not a distant end point; it is a process constantly available; the process is the goal of life.

The process of each individual soul began long before birth; it is a product of all that has come before it:

For it has history gather’d like husks around the globe…
For it the real to the ideal tends …
Health to emerge and joy, joy universal.[30]

But the perfect freedom of the soul allows each person to explore limitless new roads and discover their own unique identity, their own optimal health and joy, their own way of experiencing and encompassing the totality of humanity and the entire cosmos.

America’s mission is to create perfect and free individuals by awakening and nurturing the soul of every person. Whitman sometimes addresses the “hidden national will” as its soul, saying that his chant to America is for “the soul in thee, electric, spiritual.”[31] Ultimately, though, there can be no national soul apart from the souls of all the individuals who make up the nation:

O I see flashing that this America is only you and me,
Its power, weapons, testimony, are you and me,
Its crimes, lies, thefts, defections, are you and me,
Its Congress is you and me, the officers, capitols, armies, ships,
are you and me.[32]

THE TRUE MEANING OF DEMOCRACY

The souls who have gathered to make up America have created a nation well suited to its mission. There are a number of distinctive features of American life that make it a land where each individual soul can grow and flourish.

There is no doubt that individualism has been, and remains, a dominant feature of the American culture landscape. Though it is rarely the kind of individualism Whitman calls for, the seed of that ideal — the valuing of individual freedom — is certainly already here.

The political expression of individualism is democracy. American democracy, at its best, recognizes the unique value of each person — that each is an equally important link in the universal chain binding all together. “The ever-overarching American ideas” are “the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood.”[33] So it is only natural that America is founded on the ideal of every individual having equal worth and dignity, and respecting the worth and dignity of all others.

Whitman knew as well as anyone, and could say more eloquently than most, that American democracy has always been, and still remains, tragically limited and stunted, a faint foreshadowing of what a true democracy would be:

Society, in these States, is canker’d, crude, superstitious, and rotten … [with] the depraving influences of riches just as much as poverty … We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. … Using the moral microscope upon humanity, a sort of dry and flat Sahara appears.[34]

But his is a mythic tale. It is not meant to be a snapshot of reality as it exists now. Rather it is a story of the nation’s project, the road that it follows to bring the real ever closer to the ideal, with many “passing errors” and “perturbations” along the way. And there are, in the nation’s past and present, realities that are a partial (sometimes very partial) fulfillment of the ideal. The foundations of the ideal are already set in place, here and now, to point the way.

America has taken some important first steps on the road leading to real democracy. The Declaration of Independence enshrined the “rights of immense masses of people … the American programme, not for classes, but for universal man.” The Constitution, as amended, promised “general suffrage.”[35]

But democracy means much more than just the right to vote:

To be a voter with the rest is not so much; and this, like every institute, will have its imperfections. But to become an enfranchised man, and now, impediments removed, to stand and start without humiliation, and equal with the rest; to commence, or have the road clear’d to commence, the grand experiment of development, whose end … may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman — that is something.[36]

“The main thing,” Whitman writes in the culminating words of “Democratic Vistas,” is “the average, the bodily, the concrete, the democratic, the popular, on which all the superstructures of the future are to permanently rest.”[37] Earlier in the same essay he warns: “Of all dangers to a nation … there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.”[38]

(As part of America’s process of ever-expanding equality, he calls for “a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort — a vast, intertwining reticulation [network] of wealth” and a recognition that woman is “as great, at any rate, as man, in all departments.”[39])

Whitman claims, quite rightly, that American society has already gone far toward prizing the “divine average” person. Often enough, in our literature, film, television, news reports, and the like, the heroes are not from a small group of elite people. The heroes are some average Joe and Jane or Juan and Maria. Any one of us can be a hero.

On this foundation, America is building a future where “the average man of a land at last only is important. He, in these States, remains immortal owner and boss.”[40] An important part of America’s mission is “to teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade”[41] and to appreciate the same glory in others:

the noble character of mechanics and farmers …
their manners, speech, dress, friendships, the gait they
have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the
presence of superiors.[42]

A true American will stand in awe of the “interminable swarms of alert, turbulent, good-natured, independent citizens … so fresh and free, so loving and so proud,”[43] “the crowds, equality, diversity, the soul loves.”[44]

This is the test of a true, patriotic American:

Are you really of the
whole People? …
Have you too the old ever-fresh forbearance and impartiality?
Do you hold the like love for those hardening to maturity? for the
last-born? little and big? and for the errant?[45]

THE LOVE OF COMRADES

Human love is central to Whitman’s vision of America. His poem, “For You, O Democracy,” is devoted entirely to this theme:

I will make the continent indissoluble …
With the life-long love of comrades.
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,
and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades.[46]

Though he clearly means to include same-sex erotic love, his praise of love extends to all kinds of interpersonal affection as the key to effective democracy. America’s democratic mission has two complementary sides: “Not that half only, individualism, which isolates. There is another half, which is adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing all.”[47]

“Many will say it is a dream,” Whitman confesses.

But I confidently expect a time when there will be seen, running like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long … having the deepest relations to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship, as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain, and incapable of perpetuating itself.[48]

Genuine democracy  means that every American affirms their indissoluble link with, and concern for, every other American:

Whoever degrades another degrades me,
and whatever is done or said returns at last to me. …
I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their
counterpart of on the same terms.[49]

True Americans will say:

I have loved the earth, sun, animals, I have despised riches,
I have given alms to every one that ask’d, stood up for the stupid
and crazy, devoted my income and labor to others,
Hated tyrants, argued not concerning God, had patience and indulgence
toward the people, taken off my hat to nothing known or unknown,
Gone freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young,
and with the mothers of families, …
Claim’d nothing to myself which I have not carefully claim’d for
others on the same terms …
Rejecting none, permitting all.[50]

True Americans will also extend this sense of connection, acceptance, and equality beyond the nation itself. They recognize that America’s borders, like all other borders, are not dividers but connectors, that there is no break in the chain that links each one of us to all of humanity. So the genuine American project can never be one of imposition: “In vain do we march with unprecedented strides to empire so colossal.”[51]

Ultimately, America’s mission is to promote the perfection of limitless freedom and love for all humanity, “Libertad and the divine average, freedom to every slave on the face of the earth.”[52] “O America because you build for mankind I build for you.”[53]

LINKING THE WORLD TOGETHER

A link with the rest of humanity is inherent in America’s existence and has been from the very beginning. Like the soul, America is the product of all that came before. Its culture has incorporated and shown great respect for the past achievements of foreign lands. All of Old World culture is gathered up in America, “to accept, fuse, rehabilitate”[54] and become part of America’s soul.

Yet America adds new, unique characteristics of its own. One of these is the American people’s undeniable talent for technological innovation and mass production: “We plan even now to raise … thy great cathedral sacred industry.”[55] The “undying soul” of the Old World  is all “here, install’d amid the kitchen ware!”[56]

But this praise of technology does not contradict the qualities of soul; the material is always imbued with the spiritual: “As fuel to flame, and flame to the heavens, so must wealth, science, materialism — even this democracy of which we make so much — unerringly feed the highest mind, the soul. Infinitude the flight: fathomless the mystery.”[57] So within the walls of America’s vast industrial-technological cathedral “shall all that forwards perfect human life be started, Tried, taught, advanced.”[58] And no material thing can ever be permitted to take more importance than human life: “How dare you place any thing before a man?”[59]

Leadership in industry and technology make America the crucial transportation hub linking Europe and Asia, “the inter-transportation of the world … This earth all spann’d with iron rails, with lines of steamships threading every sea.”[60] (Had Whitman lived a few decades longer, he surely would have added airplane routes too.) This also has a spiritual meaning: America can join together all of the world’s population and embrace every cultural heritage because, like the soul, it evokes such a powerful sense of the interconnection of all people. In America, “the orb is enclosed, The ring is circled, the journey is done.”[61]

It’s the culmination of a process of transcending borders that began in the Old World millennia ago:

Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.[62]

The same process of bringing distant people together is even more obvious in the American populace itself, which does indeed include a vast number of different ethnicities from all over the world: “Here is not merely a nation but a teeming Nation of nations.”[63]

Thou Union holding all, fusing, absorbing, tolerating all …
Thou, also thou, a World,
With all thy wide geographies, manifold, different, distant,
Rounded by thee in one.[64]

Thou America … surroundest all,
Embracing carrying welcoming all, thou too by pathways broad and new,
To the ideal tendest …
absorbing, comprehending all,
All eligible to all.
All, all for immortality,
Love like the light silently wrapping all.”[65]

America gathers in all of the heritage and peoples of Old World “from afar … To give it our own identity, average, limitless, free.”[66] In this little line the pieces of the mythic picture fall together to create a single narrative: People who are truly free realize that they are limitless. And with all limits transcended — with all boundaries dissolved, with all linked to all on the same universal chain — they realize that everyone else is equally limitless and free, regardless of their station in society. The commitment to equality is precisely why Americans place such high value on their average, ordinary fellow Americans.

DIVERSITY AND NATURE

Although America absorbs all it is not a “melting pot,” because its ultimate value is the identity of each individual. So there is “always a knit of identity, [but] always distinction”[67] as well. “The diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite — they unite now.”[68] To be sure, America is far from ideal in allowing for diversity amidst its unity. But it has taken important steps on the road toward valuing the distinct identities of the many groups that compose it.

Whitman begins “Democratic Vistas” with this observation: “As the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom, the same present the greatest lessons also in New World politics and progress.”

He then cites

John Stuart Mill’s profound essay on Liberty in the future, where he demands two main constituents, or sub-strata, for a truly grand nationality — 1st, a large variety of character — and 2d, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions,

and he comments:

seems to be for general humanity much like the influences that make up … the weather — an infinite number of currents and forces, and contributions, and temperatures, and cross purposes, whose ceaseless play of counterpart upon counterpart brings constant restoration and vitality.[69]

The vitality that comes from “an infinite number of currents and forces” is crucial to Whitman’s vision of American life. Much of his poetry is devoted to long, detailed descriptions of an endless variety of American people, places, and things, using vivid language that evokes the sense of energy he sees and feels.

The intimate link between America and nature, which sparked Whitman’s reflection on variety and freedom, is a recurring theme throughout his work, just as it is a recurring theme in American history. Despite obvious trends to the contrary, there has always been an important strain in American life of prizing nature and the natural, from the earliest colonists’ enchantment with the vast “new Eden” to the latest designation of a new national park or wilderness area.

Love of nature leads quite readily to another kind of love that has been a central preoccupation of many Americans, quite publicly in recent decades: love expressed through the body. Whitman was the first major American writer to praise the pleasures of the flesh: “I believe in the flesh and the appetites.”[70] He shocked many by making the point even more explicitly: “And sexual organs and acts! do you concentrate in me, for I am determin’d to tell you with courageous clear voice to prove you illustrious”[71]; “All were lacking if sex were lacking.”[72]

Nature and physical love have always been closely connected with ideas of limitlessness and personal freedom. Whitman writes:

The quality of BEING, in the object’s self, according to its own central idea and purpose … the precious idiosyncrasy and special nativity and intention … and of growing therefrom and thereto — not criticism by other standards, and adjustments thereto — is the lesson of Nature.[73]

The project of America is to emulate nature in this respect, to nurture the same quality of unique growth innate in each individual. In this land people can “hardy, sweet, gigantic grow, here tower,” here create “the new society at last, proportionate to Nature.”[74]

Whitman expands on the lessons America learns from nature as he vividly describes hundreds of places throughout the country, reminding us of the amazing variety of the physical landscape and the importance of treasuring each place in its uniqueness. He sees America’s expansive fields, forests, and mountains fostering a sense of the self as always growing and enlarging. The seemingly limitless American landscape creates an insatiable desire, a powerful sense that the possibilities here are, for everyone, limitless: “It is not enough to have this globe or a certain time, I will have thousands of globes and all time.”[75]

THE PIONEERING SPIRIT

The most authentic way to be an American is to be, like nature, always in process, always restless, always on the move and wanting more:

To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you,
however long but it stretches and waits for you,
To see no being, not God’s or any, but you also go thither.[76]

All patriotic Americans will always be pioneers, “conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways.”[77] They “know the universe itself as a road, as many roads,”[78] and they are always on the road. Even in the worst of times, they will be buoyed by a vision of an infinitely better life beckoning farther on up the road: “From imperfection’s murkiest cloud, Darts always forth one ray of perfect light.”[79]

And in a nation whose collective process is a millennial project, any pursuit can be the road to paradise, offering anyone a new way to experience moments of perfection here and now. In a nation dedicated to the freedom to discover and affirm one’s own unique identity, each must find their own road: “Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself.”[80]

Whitman delivers this call for constant change — a call that runs like a unifying thread through all his words, giving them all an aura of hope — with his typical tone of absolute certainty. In the mythology of hope and change that he creates there is no room for doubt or hesitation because the soul does not invent its ideals and values; it discovers them as objective, eternal realities in the cosmos. Thus Whitman’s work passes the first test for a successful new American mythology: an assurance that there are eternal, universal truths and values, which are not merely human creations and thus provide an objective, unshakeable foundation for human life

His work passes all the other tests, too. He affirms individual freedom as the highest value of all. He makes a strong appeal to patriotism, claiming that the values he praises are uniquely American yet reflect the universal truths the awakened soul discovers. He offers continuity with the mythic past by building on a long list of distinctively American traits and traditions: individualism, democracy, prizing the average person, a rich mix of ethnicities, technology, nature and the great outdoors, pleasures of the flesh, the pioneering spirit, adventure and unlimited horizons, constant movement, constant hope for a better future, endless desire, millennial expectation, and more. And he offers it all with the authority of a truly great figure from the nation’s past.

The American tale Whitman tells also pits the nation’s values against their opposites, creating a moral drama of good versus evil on a global scale. Yet he avoids the pitfalls of the myths of hope and change that have dominated in the past. His insistence that each individual contains all the qualities of humanity — that each is link in a universal chain encompassing both good and evil — makes it impossible to divide the world into the “virtuous” people and the “evildoers.” This vision of unity extends to nations as well as individuals, with all borders becoming connecting bridges. So his America cannot be pitted against perceived enemies.

Whitman’s words, so infused with exuberant hope, banish any fear of fundamental change. He praises change as not merely inevitable, but something to be welcomed, an endlessly exciting opportunity. Finally, his distinctive vision of perfection — traveling the constantly changing road to an ideal future as itself the highest ideal — averts any frustrating clash between future hope and present reality.

In all these ways, Whitman’s work offers the basis for a new mythology of hope and change that can avoid the anxiety and insecurity that has so often marked the dominant myths of hope and change.

Whitman’s praises of America are often dismissed as the fantasies of an unrealistic optimist. It is easy enough to list all the ways in which America has failed, and still fails, to live up to the ideal nation he describes — and a very long list it would be. It is even easier to simply read the passages in which Whitman has already done that job of indictment for us, in words more eloquent and sharply stinging than any we are likely to come up with.

But the point he is making, implicitly, throughout his work is that such litanies of complaint will not make anything better for anyone. Genuine change can come only from the kind of hope that inspired him, that kept him pointing out the road toward the fulfillment of the nation’s highest aspirations:

Then noiseless, with flowing steps, the lord, the sun, the last ideal comes. By the names right, justice, truth, we suggest, but do not describe it. To the world of men it remains a dream, an idea as they call it. But no dream is it to the wise — but the proudest, almost only solid lasting thing of all.[81]

In Whitman’s mythology, it makes no sense to condemn ourselves for failing to reach the end of the road and achieve the last, the highest ideal. Because the road to a better future has no end. The true fulfillment comes simply (though it’s actually no simple matter at all) from traveling the road continually, resisting the temptation to abandon it.

If we give in to that temptation, then America, its true meaning, and all that it can contribute to the world are lost. But “if we are lost, no victor else has destroy’d us, It is by ourselves we go down to eternal night.”[82]

We are all responsible not only for ourselves but for the whole nation, the whole web of which we are each a part: “America is only you and me.” “I dare not shirk any part of myself, Not any part of America good or bad.”[83] The fate of the nation remains up to us.


[1] Democratic Vistas

[2] To Foreign Lands

[3] Song of Myself 51

[4] Thou Mother With Thy Equal Brood; Our Old Feuillage

[5] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 10

[6] Thoughts 1

[7] Song of the Redwood Tree

[8] Song of the Open Road 9

[9] Song of Myself 46

[10] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 8

[11] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 15

[12] Quicksand Years

[13] To Think of Time 7

[14] Song of the Open Road 1

[15] Thoughts 1

[16] I Sing the Body Electric 5

[17] Song of Myself 48

[18] Salut au Monde! 1

[19]A Song of Joys

[20] Song of Myself 20

[21] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 16

[22] Song of Myself 5

[23] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 17

[24] Song of the Redwood Tree

[25] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 3

[26] Democratic Vistas

[27] The Mystic Trumpeter

[28] Song of Myself 5

[29] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 16

[30] Song of the Universal 2

[31] Song of the Exposition

[32] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 17

[33] Democratic Vistas

[34] Democratic Vistas

[35] Democratic Vistas

[36] Democratic Vistas

[37] Democratic Vistas

[38] Democratic Vistas

[39] Democratic Vistas

[40] Democratic Vistas

[41] Song of the Exposition 9

[42] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 6

[43] Democratic Vistas

[44] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 5

[45] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 12

[46] For You, O Democracy

[47] Democratic Vistas

[48] Democratic Vistas

[49] Song of Myself 24

[50] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 14

[51] Democratic Vistas

[52] As I Walk These Broad Majestic Days

[53] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 8

[54] Song of the Exposition 1

[55] Song of the Exposition 5

[56] Song of the Exposition 3

[57] Democratic Vistas

[58] Song of the Exposition 5

[59] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 13

[60] Song of the Exposition 7

[61] A Broadway Pageant

[62] Passage to India 2

[63] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 5

[64] Song of the Exposition 8

[65] Song of the Universal 4

[66] Song of the Exposition 1

[67] Song of Myself 3

[68] The Sleepers 7

[69] Democratic Vistas

[70] Song of Myself 24

[71] Song of Myself 24

[72] A Woman Waits for Me

[73] Democratic Vistas

[74] Song of the Redwood Tree

[75] Song of Myself 25

[76] Song of the Open Road 13

[77] Pioneers! O, Pioneers!

[78] Song of the Open Road 13

[79] Song of the Universal 3

[80] Passage to India 9

[81] Democratic Vistas

[82] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 2

[83] By Blue Ontario’s Shore 17

2 comments

  1. A good article, but marred by an important misprint:
    Whitman did NOT write: I have given aims to every one that ask’d
    He wrote: write: I have given alms to every one that ask’d
    Sigh! — Jim Loewen

    1. Typo is fixed. Thank you for close reading!

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