Friday, August 26, 2016

How to Be an American Writer, Part 4: Populists and Walt Whitman

The next blog in my series on approaches that U.S. writers take to American society is about a literary stance that is in some ways the diametrical opposite of the expatriate, the subject of my last two posts. I call this type of writer the populist. The populist writes about moments in the American experience that convey a deeper truth. He or she is looking for the inspiration and epiphanies that exist even in seemingly mundane lives or moments. 

The poet Walt Whitman was a populist writer who believed that American life was the greatest possible inspiration for literature. In his preface to his book, Leaves of Grass, Whitman wrote, “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth, have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Whitman adds, “…the genius of the United States is… always most in the common people.” 

Walt Whitman
Whitman took his own advice in choosing subjects for his writing, for instance in “I Hear America Singing”:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the      steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

I like to imagine Walt Whitman coming up with the idea for this poem by taking a walk in the morning around his neighborhood in Brooklyn, hearing two or three people singing as they work. From that day on, I can imagine that Whitman was alert to the poetic possibilities of people singing, and he collected bits and pieces of other moments to create this collage of different American laborer-singers. 

How beautiful that he starts his poem with, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.” We don’t often think of the word “carols” outside of the phrase “Christmas carols,” but it does have a more universal meaning of “song” that Whitman draws on, even as he assigns the sacred connotations of “carol” to work songs, as opposed to religious hymns. Who is singing? The entire continent of America, as though it were a giant folk hero, a Paul Bunyan or John Henry, but with a song instead of a hammer or axe. I like the inverted syntax of “the varied carols I hear,” putting the subject and verb of that clause after the object of the verb, the carols. Beginning and ending the first line with the words “I hear” is a formal rhetorical device that Whitman transforms by using it nonchalantly and making it feel like the most natural, American speech.

Whitman is the essential populist, believing in the goodness and beauty of the common man or woman. He celebrated the dignity of enslaved Africans in his poem “I Sing the Body Electric”:

A man’s body at auction,
(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,)
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.
Gentlemen look on this wonder,
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it…

Whitman’s brand of populism is to describe the workingman or woman as embued with dignity, even divinity, almost larger than life. In the next blog, I’ll talk about another form of American populism, one that celebrates the small moments in life.

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