Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Whitman by Paul Fussell

My pedagogic reaction to the assassinations (of the 60s) was to increase the emphasis in my classes on Americans criticizing America. I think I was trying to suggest to my students the responsibility of the educated, for actively seeking out America’s most loathsome faults and then – an imperative obligation – correcting them. Later, in 1979, I was impressed by this message to youth in The Official Boy Scout Handbook: “Take a two-hour walk where you live. Make a list of things that please you, another of things that should be improved.” Then the critical injunction: “Set out to improve them.” Thus, I rummaged my library for useful naysayers and exposers of the rottenness of America. In Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871) I found his usefully unoptimistic critique of These States, especially telling because so much at odds with his usual, better-known uncritical celebrations:

Society, in these States, is cankered, crude, superstitious, and rotten . . . The element of moral conscience . . . seems to me either entirely lacking or seriously enfeebled or ungrown.

I say we had best look our time and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was here, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present. . . . The spectacle is appalling . . . A lot of churches, sects, etc., the most dismal phantoms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage . . . The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America . . . are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, maladministration.

. . . The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only kill time . . . the best class we show is but a mob of fashionably dressed speculators and vulgarians . . . I say that our New World democracy, however great a success . . . in a certain highly deceptive superficial intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and aesthetic results.

Looking about him, especially in Manhattan, what Whitman sees is a world of “petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms, playing meaningless antics.” Everywhere, “low cunning,” “an abnormal libidinousness, with a range of manners, or rather lack of manners. . ., probably the meaness to be seen in the world.” ( And all this well before the age of television, porno VCRs, blockbusting adolescent films, and the capture of a passive upper middle class by the cynicisms of the rag trade. “Are you still using last year’s work-out wear?)

The solution Whitman proposes is one bound to recommend itself to every university teacher of literature. What is desperately need, Whitman insists, is a new rich, subtle, difficult poetry, which seldomer tells a thing than suggests or necessitates it. In fact,” he says, as he warms to his work, “a new theory of literary composition. . . is the sole course open to these States”:

Books are to be called for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep but, in the highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, the argument, history, metaphysical essay – the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or framework.

And then the climax. Such a new understanding of books and reading would help supply what Americans need most, self-respect earned by individual effort:

That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-trained, intuitive, used to depend on themselves and not on a few coteries of writers.

While summering on the Greek Island of Euboea a few years later, that is, reduced to the simplicities of stone, light and water, I started to write a short book about Whitman’s Song of Myself. For all my enthusiasm over Whitman’s brave plain speaking in Democratic Vistas and my excitement over his joy at notating the precise features of actuality, I didn’t seem to be able to elaborate plausibly his urge toward metaphysical unity and his abdication of the human task of qualitative discrimination. I found that I loved

. . . limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder,
mullein and poke-weed,

But I knew that I wasn’t the type to do unaffected justice to “Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,” and act that seemed exactly my proper business. After weeks of trying I gave up and threw the manuscript out and devoted the rest of the summer to swimming and retsina, keftedes and melons.

In Doing Battle; The Making of a Skeptic

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