Once again this year, I have chosen to teach the poems of Walt Whitman to my undergraduate students. My well-thumbed copy of the Norton edition of Leaves of Grass is back in the mix, ready to unravel its secrets to another generation. Old Walt, the Good Gray Poet, just keeps making his presence felt in my classroom, it seems. It is one of a teacher’s fondest privileges to initiate students into the appreciation of some of life’s great delights: American prose masters like Hawthorne, Jewett, Fitzgerald, and Cather; Beethoven’s piano concertos; albums by the Beatles and Bob Dylan; Frank Capra’s movies; and home-made sushi, among other things.
But it is especially a treat to introduce students to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, which is how Whitman introduced himself to the wider world. His reflections on the meaning and purpose of our nation remain some of the most inspiring and infectious words ever penned by an American. As a person, Whitman had long periods of depression, confusion, illness, sexual infatuation, and hero worship. He could be an impressively caring human being, such as during his lengthy service ministering to injured and dying soldiers in the notorious hospitals in Washington, DC during the Civil War; or he could be petty, delusional, and vindictive on a scale larger than life. Similarly, his poems were at times sentimental or brash, selfless or brazen, wildly optimistic or deeply depressing, and almost always so over the top that a reader breaks out in a laughter of sheer wonder: “And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,/ And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.”
To a large extent, Whitman was trying to fulfill Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for a new kind of American poet to come forth and make his stand. Emerson had made this call in a variety of essays, such as “The Poet,” which in 1842 Whitman had heard Emerson deliver at a lecture in New York. For Emerson, there were poets, and then there were poets; but eventually the “poet of poets” would rightly emerge. This artist would achieve sublime expressions on the order of a prophet: “[The Poet] stands among partial man for the complete man.... The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty. He is a sovereign, and stands on the centre.... whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down.”
By the 1850s, Whitman had become almost obsessively interested in fulfilling Emerson’s call for such “primal warblings.” He yearned to express cosmic views about America in a new voice, a new style, and to speak the sublime truth about America, with its grandiose promise and destiny. Indeed, “newness” characterizes Whitman’s accomplishment: never in the history of English poetry had there been poems that sounded like the verse in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman also made audacious claims about the meaning and purposes of his nation: “American poets are to enclose old and new for America is the race of races. Of them a bard is to be commensurate with a people.... His spirit responds to his country’s spirit.... he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes.”
It is fair to say that Whitman is the most revolutionary and most idiosyncratic poet in our national history. His century’s closest companion, Emily Dickinson, certainly gave him a good run for his money, even though their poems are as different as night and day, as were their distinct personalities. But it is just as fair to say that the revolutionary qualities in Whitman’s verse derive from his subject: the most revolutionary and idiosyncratic society yet conceived on planet Earth. “America,” said Whitman in the original preface to Leaves of Grass, “is the greatest poem.” This great land, an Imaginary Community par excellence, with all its different sorts of people, jobs, families, geographies, faiths, joys, and horrors, constituted for Whitman a large and ungainly Poem, and remained the subject of all of his efforts for the duration of his life. The community he envisioned, and all it contained, was somehow destined to meld together poetically, and express to the rest of the world the cadences and beautiful imagery that might engender a new kind of social and cultural vanguard. And somehow, despite all of the community’s differences, this vast nation would be able to maintain a cosmic unity: “the merge,” as Whitman liked to call it.
Such was the magisterial vision, and as some might put it, the grand arrogance, of America as expressed in the poems of Walt Whitman. Introducing students to their first long encounter with Whitman’s work is one of the truly great and joyful experiences I have had as a teacher. He still has an uncanny knack for inspiring young people with his sympathies, his wide-ranging compassion, his proto-feminism, and what we might call today his multicultural sensibility toward minorities and the poor. Nobody before him had shown as much interest toward factory workers, butchers, prostitutes, the mentally deficient, the terminally ill, Indians, or slaves, but Whitman embraced them all. As he puts it in “The Sleepers,” “I pass my hand soothingly to and fro a few inches from them, ... I swear they are all beautiful.” Whitman’s celebration of the multitudes of different American types often takes the form of song, and as a result he not only includes that word in some of his titles (“A Song for Occupations,” “Song of the Broad Axe,” “Song of the Open Road”), but his poems have that elusive sing-songy aspect that has become the poet’s trademark. “I sing the body electric,” and “I hear America singing,” he tells us—and then beckons us to join in the chorus.
Students in my classes usually roll their eyes and sigh when I tell them to read the poems out loud to their roommates, but the magic of Whitman’s verse when spoken in a grand and semi-theatrical voice is impossible to deny. His poems are often more like songs than what we hear on the radio these days, even without a melody. I have had many students thank me specifically for the time we have spent on Whitman, and inform me of their thrill at hearing me read from the poems aloud in class. Some have gone to bookstores on their own, in search of more writings by Whitman or biographical works on his life, and it appears that of all the writers I have taught over the years, the Good Gray Poet has remained a part of some students’ psyche more than any other. One enthusiastic young man earnestly told me a couple of years ago how Whitman’s embrace of the cosmos (and my lectures on the Transcendentalists’ views of the world) had literally “changed” his life. I wish my lectures did have the power to change lives, but in this case I must give all the credit to the poets and essayists of that remarkably fertile moment in American literary history. That time was the 1850s, more grandly known as the “American Renaissance,” and leading the parade was Whitman.
Somehow Whitman’s cosmic vision does have a way of getting under our skin, of infiltrating the very deepest grammar of our views of the world around us. In a sense, this sort of apocalyptic conversion-experience is precisely what “Transcendentalism” is all about. My students are always trying to get me to summarize that word, “Transcendentalism,” in twenty-five words or less. When backed into a corner, I tell them this: Transcendentalism is fundamentally a call for a deeper, spiritual vision of our world and of everything in it. It is for these same reasons that Whitman became such a great influence on the Beats and the Hippie generation, who yearned to break through the “doors of perception” (Aldous Huxley’s famous term, riffing on William Blake) and to view the world afresh. The Doors, named in honor of Huxley’s book, urged their frenzied listeners to “break on through to the other side.”
This longing to break free also explains why Whitman is the reigning presence in what is arguably the greatest and most famous film about American poetry, the luminous Dead Poets Society. The title speaks for itself: we may be living in a society in which the true power and pathos of the Romantic poets has died. In the movie, however, a somewhat counter-cultural band of students runs off to hidden caves at night in order to read aloud from the great bards of the past. Sadly, despite the power of the verse in shaking their lives, the young romantic protagonist, whose father sternly rejects his desire to become an actor and forces him to pursue a medical career, sees no way out and dies a tragic death. Perhaps this death suggests precisely the attraction of Whitman for many students today: he reminds us in his later poems that we need not die to romance, passion, and mystery.
Of course, the greatest of the great Whitman poems, in most critics’ views, is “Song of Myself,” which presents a dramatic picture of the inherent value and sacred splendor of each individual American citizen. Placed first in the original volume, “Song of Myself” was in many ways never surpassed by Whitman as both his most characteristic and his most excellent poem. The title refers to the seemingly omniscient presence of the poet himself throughout all of America, as an observer and healer. But in some strange way, while Whitman is supposedly singing about himself, as the title states, he is actually singing about each of us. More comprehensively, “Song of Myself” is America being given voice and singing of itself. The poem is fundamentally a celebration of a democratic view of each and every American citizen. We are each mysterious, beautiful, regal, and indeed “divine inside and out.”
It is useful to recall that much of the poem’s strength derived from a specific moment in Whitman’s life. At least that is what Richard Bucke claimed in his book Cosmic Consciousness (1901), a title that signals much of his perspective. On a balmy June day in the early 1850s, Whitman experienced some kind of religious or cosmic awakening, out of which a new mood of transcendental insight evidently took hold of him. Something enchanting and mysterious happened to him that day, possibly even as he lay in the grass and sunned himself, and possibly just as the poem describes it. At least this has become the mythic moment, one available to each of us, if we but seek it. An ideal “spot of time” is presented as spiritual, ecstatic revelation, and it is this concept of the poet that becomes one of the most ennobling statements in all of Whitman’s work:
Swiftly arose and spread
around me the peace and knowledge
that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own.
This is step number one in understanding the Transcendentalists, I inform my students: an invitation to see the world anew, to get outside the box of your own preconceived notions about life and society. To wake up and smell the coffee. A concrete moment of revelation.
Armed with this new awareness, the poet sees cosmic reality everywhere. America constantly confronts the poet with its spiritual secrets: “I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, ... I find letters from God dropt in the street.” At times Whitman’s excess rises to an almost comical level: “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world.” Yet who among us can resist such passionate desire for goodness and unity as Whitman throws our way? Generally, my students are smitten by it and forever hooked thereafter. Just as the poem ends with the narrator assuring us that he will be waiting for us on that long and winding road of life, the first reading of Whitman is often long-lasting and unforgettable.
But romantics like Whitman only tell part of the story, as many will protest. And so, in terms of our literary history, “Song of Myself” can usefully be compared with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published in 1922. Together, these are probably the two greatest and most influential poems ever written by Americans, the yin and yang of American song. Each is the landmark poem of their respective centuries. And yet it would be hard to imagine two poems that have such different attitudes, and which seem to serve such different purposes. Eliot’s long and difficult poem includes a series of meditations on the darkness, futility, and horror of modern life. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” as he famously puts it; “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” he states. This image of the pathetic modern sojourner searching desperately for some “fragments” from which to draw meaning, yet seeing mostly only “a handful of dust,” has become one of the centerpieces of the modern imagination. It is an imagination that would become even more enervated as the twentieth century’s horrors continued to unfold. Eliot’s vision was of course deeply influenced by the death and destruction of the Great War, and most of it occurs in the “Unreal City” that arose in America and abroad through massive industrialization, blatant capitalism, racial unrest, and secularization with all its attendant problems. Eliot’s work does not paint a very pretty picture of what it means to be a citizen of the modern urban world.
Eliot, like Whitman, also has a strangely overwhelming ability to capture the minds of young people. Frankly, when I was younger I thought Eliot was the greatest American poet. He was magically able to grind out beautiful verse from a view of the world that was in fact quite bleak. Furthermore, I was convinced that Eliot was onto something important about our world. We had failed, he seemed to be saying; we are all very far from home. As a young English major who cut his teeth on jeremiads like Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, or Breakfast of Champions, there was a long period in my life when I swallowed whole these kinds of stories, with their harsh critical views of human civilization, including most importantly an almost complete embarrassment about the American nation. Then, like some fulsome and lazy snake, I would digest those swallowed texts, which slowly were assimilated into my system. In short, it is precisely how healthy young skeptics are manufactured in our English departments these days.
Those novels are all wonderful, and in their own ways, strangely empowering, but it is no great insight to observe how much their popularity depends upon the Star Wars metaphysics of their mainly angst-ridden, teenaged readers. A deeply engrained and yet somewhat naïve cynicism seems quite remarkable during the adolescent years, but in the end one learns that a balance of extremes is not only valuable but even necessary for psychological well-being. This balance is actually on display in both of these great poems, though it is easily overlooked. We need to notice, for instance, how “Song of Myself” contains many acute criticisms of America and how The Waste Land contains redemptive hope and spiritual promise. These facts keep us from simply labeling these poems as complete opposites—a sign of their literary excellence. And it would be wrong to suggest that students do not turn on to Eliot’s work as they do with Whitman’s. Many students find The Waste Land, after the initial shock of its notorious difficulty, a wonderfully hopeful literary treasure. Still, I cannot recall too many of my students ever telling me that they had run down to the bookstore to pick up a copy of Eliot’s other poems, or a biography on him—or, that their lives had been forever changed by an acquaintance with J. Alfred Prufrock.
Perhaps this is because today’s youth are already well acquainted with fear and loathing about civilization, and yet badly malnourished when it comes to hope and vision for the future. They know firsthand about the “fear in a handful of dust” that is one of Eliot’s central images in his masterpiece. What they desperately need is an alternative symbolic language. In “Song of Myself,” a central metaphor is the image of a child coming to the narrator with an armful of grass. Thus the title of the volume, Leaves of Grass. The narrator responds to the child’s question, “What is the grass?” It is many things, and all things, he seems to tell that child: “the handkerchief of God,” “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” And the grass is also a “flag of my disposition, out of the hopeful green stuff woven.” There is something hopeful about that grass, something potentially life-giving, that can radically alter our dispositions—if only we can perceive it.
The images of the fear in a “handful of dust” and the hopefulness notable in mere “leaves of grass” signify in a nutshell a major difference between Whitman and Eliot, it seems to me. Both dust and grass are elemental, and often together in the very same frame; but the meaning depends very much on the sensibility of the observer. One sees inanimate matter, dirty, and dark—a symbol of death. The other sees a living and growing organism, colored green and multiplying rapidly—a symbol of life. If Eliot holds out to us a frightening handful of dust, reminding us of death and destruction, old Walt is right there beside him, with a large bulging load of new-cut grass, fragrant with life and green as a spring valley. No wonder young people respond so powerfully to his outlook.
What a curious thing it might be to see Whitman and Eliot meet one another in a café somewhere, and to listen in on their interactions, covering life and love, or death and disappointment. Or perhaps they might talk about the crucial changes that each experienced mid-career: Whitman’s devastating Civil War experience in the grisly hospitals of Washington, tending to the needs of dying soldiers, followed by physical and mental exhaustion and illness, led him into a period of writing that is much more restrained in its hopefulness and much more gloomy in its outlook. Conversely, Eliot’s dramatic conversion to Anglican Christianity in the 1920s led him to create some of the most beautiful spiritual verse of the American century, including the marvelous “Four Quartets.” As Whitman became more ambivalent and darkened with age, Eliot opened up to another sort of inner light.
In particular, I would feel privileged to eavesdrop on their conversations about the meaning of America, the nature of humanity, the possibility of communal dreams and hopes. These conversations, if it were magically possible to overhear them when they were both late in life, might be more interesting and affirming than some might suspect (since it is true that Eliot was not a great admirer of the earlier poet). It is easy for me to suppose, for example, that a lot of good ideas and good insight into the nature of our lives and of our nation might flow from these two bookend poets of the American journey. Possibly they would not mind if I were to throw in my own two cents, or if other listeners like me, sitting around the edges of the café, were to do the same. Especially welcome, we might imagine, would be not answers but more and more questions, about the destiny of America, the valuable lessons of our national history, the exact meanings of words and phrases from our national documents, the legacy of some of our cultural personae, and so forth.
One might even go so far as to consider such an evening to be a model for a meaningful, ongoing conversation, one that could be continued on a weekly or even daily basis, something along the lines of what Kenneth Burke called the “unending conversation.” As someone gets up to leave the café, another takes her place. As one person arrives, someone else might have to leave for work or for home and a warm bed. Always at the head of the table, whether literally or figuratively, would be the looming presence of Walt Whitman. Eliot is there also—but he defers to his older master and the peculiarly American tradition that he represents. As a result, soon the place is christened by some of the regulars as “Whitman’s Café.”
At Whitman’s Café, all Americans are always welcomed, and allowed to rest and listen, or if they wish, to raise questions, present opinions, or analyze arguments. Above all, Whitman’s Café would be the place to talk about the meaning and purpose of America. One need not be a “true-blooded” American, whatever that might mean: participants need not hold certain views about this or that. This sort of café would not be either predominantly red or blue, to use the current lingo. Whitman’s Café would be a safe house for good talk about America—a site for passionate, though always cordial, discussion about the things that Americans have stopped talking about in public spaces.
“Good talk about America”—that is a concept that may sound a little quaint here at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Like Mark Twain, however, the rumor of the demise of an ongoing American Conversation has been greatly exaggerated. Whitman’s Café is thus a metaphor of an older and more cordial model of the American public sphere, a model that has fallen on some pretty hard times as of late. My call for the establishment of local versions of Whitman’s Café is premised on the need in our culture for a user-friendly, rigorous discussion, interpretation, and celebration of the promise of America. At the same time, it is a place of intensive questioning and deliberation about the fulfillment of those promises. As one small response to the lethargic state of the American Conversation, I have initiated my own local version of Whitman’s Café. For now, it is a small, organic manifestation of the ideas outlined here, and it serves as a tiny protest against the usurpation of the American public sphere by the huge, nameless forces that have dominated for these many years.
As such, Whitman’s Café is a peculiarly American version of the recently popular emergence of what Christopher Phillips has called “Socrates Café,” an intelligent attempt to recapture the popular work of philosophizing. In his volume Socrates Café (Norton 2001), Phillips urges regular Americans to take back and recover the power of everyday philosophizing. He writes,
[T]he demise of a certain type of philosophy has been to the detriment of our society. It is a type of philosophy that Socrates and other philosophers practiced in Athens.... that utilized a method of philosophical inquiry that “everyman” and “everywoman” could embrace and take for his or her own, and in the process rekindle the childlike—but by no means childish—sense of wonder.
Phillips’s emphasis here on the wonder of such conversations is of radical importance, I believe. For most Americans, that childlike wonder is either already dead or in serious danger of vanishing—at least, when the topic of America comes up. Largely this is the result of our living in what Deborah Tannen has described as an “argument culture.” Most of us learned as children from our elders that the two things not to talk about in mixed company were religion and politics. America is a topic that combines the two; and as such, I suppose one might suggest that it is of all things the least desirable of topics. Regarding the current sad state of the media, much of it dominated by cable television, our public models for such discussions generally amount to pitting the two most oppositional talking heads directly against one another. Far from offering a sane and pleasant conversation about America that one might encounter in Whitman’s Café, cable television presents an ugly, even grotesque, alternative. Left screams at right, and right fires back at left, and as a result, most of us end up tuning out the rancor and simply clicking the remote in search of another Seinfeld rerun, an intriguing new reality show, or a “crucial” sporting event.
The dominance of argument culture within the media has made most Americans weary of trying to dialogue on the treacherous topic of American meaning. Phillips notes in Socrates Café that he is often told by people that they hunger for a more humane and sustained search for truth and meaning. “People are ‘weary’ of the ‘guru approach’ to group discussion”—but also, I would submit, they are weary of the reigning argument culture as well. Instead of finding an alternative space for real and substantive conversation, or of themselves trying to create such a space, most Americans have just given up, and allowed the politicians and the pundits to dominate the cultural production of the meaning and purpose of our nation. Meanwhile, young people who have never even known media BC (Before Cable) routinely despair of even the possibility of a mannered and cordial environment for such talk. And they have abandoned belief in a national purpose.
In trying to create an alternative space, it all starts with the human imagination—an insight that Whitman himself understood. We need to begin thinking about the possibilities of founding and sustaining safe spaces like a Whitman’s Café. These spaces might include any number of positive attributes, but there are at least five major elements. First and foremost, I think, it would be a place filled with lots of laughter and wonder, music and singing. Song and laughter represent for many people today a kind of retro-romanticism, but this is precisely the charm and the charisma of Whitman’s achievement. We need to celebrate our nation’s great achievements and even great promises, as stated in our national scriptures, such as the Declaration and the Bill of Rights, and the keynote speeches of Lincoln, King, and many others. These things are best done through song and joy. And the celebration of Whitman’s Café would jump-start the historical appreciation of America’s best and brightest achievements. Without a more prevalent cultural memory, America as a nation is in serious danger of becoming like one of the patients described in Oliver Sacks’s study, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. There, Sacks recounts tale after bizarre tale of men and women whose injuries result in tragic loss of memory or other brain functions. These cases emphasize how crucial memory of the past is to human identity—and, as I would like to suggest here, how crucial memory is to a national identity as well.
Second, we would need to pair this celebration with a sober and all-encompassing recognition of our failures and our historic abuses of these ideals. This need to recall the horror and traumas of the past is perhaps even more crucial for healing and restoration. In the remarkable recent film “Reign Over Me” (yes, I’m really citing an Adam Sandler vehicle), a man who has lost his wife and children in the wreckage of one of the airliners of 9/11 haunts the nighttime streets of Manhattan, broken and delirious. This fictional tale of the beginnings of redemption through the retelling of the horrific past has been confirmed in many contemporary settings, perhaps most notably in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. Thus would a meaningful conversation of American history require both the joys and the horrors of the past. In the spirit of full disclosure, old Tom Eliot hovers in the corner, always keeping us honest, with his neat collars and his simple tie pins.
Third, Whitman’s Café would need to be fully democratic—a space where all views are welcome and encouraged, and in which no voice can be ridiculed or silenced. Somehow we need to reconceive a public sphere in which love predominates over judgment—a kind of revolutionary discourse, admittedly, that at this late stage in human civilization seems increasingly difficult to imagine, if not completely naïve. Ours is a time when the top-rated shows on cable are so far removed from such civil discourse that our imaginations have become frayed. We need to reinvent the concept of serious conversation and find ways to model it for our youth, who often shrink back from serious engagement because it connotes “argument” in a negative and threatening sense to them.
Fourth, we would need to resurrect the conceptual possibility of America actually having an ultimate end or goal. This idea of an American purpose, or teleology, which is at the very core of our historical existence, and which was taken for granted for most of our history, has suddenly become not merely quaint and outdated for many Americans. In fact, for a growing minority, American purpose and meaning are violent and oppressive ideas that have done great damage in American and world events. The inherent violence of metanarratives is today taken to be a commonplace by many intellectuals and regular citizens. And yet most people dream of becoming part of some story bigger than themselves. Thus, one of the preoccupations of Whitman’s Café would be to work through this conundrum and consider how this important aspect of the American experience can be revivified and brought up to date for the twenty-first century. Without these larger stories, individuals are bereft of common hope, and of any meaning larger than themselves.
Finally, Whitman’s Café would have to be a place of great hope in the human project. It would be a place for sowing the seeds of human hopefulness. Fr. William Lynch once defined hope as a constant decision to move into a new and brighter future, and Whitman’s Café would be founded upon this principle of change. The human imagination is a wonderfully powerful tool for the betterment of humankind, and despite Marxist critiques of faith as an opiate, human hope has been the greatest motivator of political change in the history of the world. One thing we have learned from Whitman is that imagination, when fired by the coals of truth, goodness, and beauty, can warm us and be taken from place to place, warming others. Indeed, the fires of hope are often ignited most forcefully by critique and protest, as the theologian Jürgen Moltmann has reminded us: “[hope] is itself the unquiet heart in man.... Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.” My students often tell me that Whitman’s blazing imagination has been a source of great hope and encouragement to them. Whitman’s spirit accelerates them into the future, as one student once put it. This would be the fundamental objective of our conversations—to propel us into a better future.
I know that if there were such a place as Whitman’s Café, I would want to become a regular there, and so would a lot of people I know. They’d have an elaborate coffee bar, decent beers on tap, with fresh pastries and salty snacks on the side. Students would show up, too—if there is one thing I have learned about them in over twenty years of teaching, it is that they yearn for meaning and some bigger story, and that they desperately need an injection of hope. I also know that there would be naysayers: for many twenty-first-century Americans, it is pretty hard to imagine such a place working for very long. But in the spirit of Walt Whitman, in the spirit of the Great American Poet, who sought to compose the greatest poem about our land and our world at large, let us seek to restore America’s conversation about itself and encourage the ongoing composition of the Great American Poem, still in vitro but still growing.
Can I buy you a drink down at Whitman’s Café?
Hal Bush teaches American literature and culture at Saint Louis University and is the author of two books and numerous articles on topics ranging from American literary figures to the pragmatics of teaching and reading.