Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Walt Whitman: Dreaming of America, On the Road

Jul 25, 2013

Walt Whitman: Dreaming of America, On the Road

Credit: Wiki Commons.

With the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s greatest speech approaching, I started wondering: Who has a dream anymore? Down toward the left end of the political spectrum, where I spend most of my time, there’s plenty of (usually quite accurate) complaining about the ills that plague our world and some talk about specific policies aiming to remedy one or more of those ills. But hardly anyone ever follows Dr. King’s example and publicly shares a vision of what a far better world would look like. It’s just “not done” these days. Perhaps it feels too naïve, too unrealistic, too embarrassing.  

I’ve got a piece up today on another site exploring the decline of political dreaming in progressive twenty-first-century America, which starts with my confession: I do have a dream. I dream of a vigorous nation-wide conversation about alternative mythologies of America, new ways of envisioning what the nation is about and where it should be headed. I’ve written here previously about why I think we need alternatives to the mythologies that dominate our political culture now.

One point I stressed is that new mythologies have the best chance of gaining influence if they are rooted in what’s old, familiar, and respected. So I turned to the mythology of America I found in the words of Dr. King as an example, to get a conversation started.

As I spent this summer thinking and writing about political dreams, I went back and re-read the work that may well be America’s most important contribution to the literature of political (and cosmic) visions: Leaves of Grass. If we want a source for a national mythology that’s old, familiar, and respected, who better to call on than the venerable poet, Walt Whitman?

So I’ve written a new essay about an alternative mythology of America, based on my understanding of Whitman. Here are a couple of selections from that essay, which I hope will intrigue you enough to want to read the whole thing:

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.” 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.

Each individual is the center of an endless web of interconnections, which the awakened soul can feel: “Whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud.” 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.”

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.

Given the awareness of infinite connection -- that each of us contains all others -- each individual must extend the freedom they feel to all others. That’s the essence of democracy.

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.

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.

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.” “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.”

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.” The nation’s highest goal is to keep its millennial project alive forever. The road to paradise is itself the American paradise.

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.

All patriotic Americans will always be pioneers, “conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways.” They “know the universe itself as a road, as many roads,” and they are always on the road.

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.”

Well, these are just a few tidbits from my take on Whitman’s mythology of America. They don’t do justice to the richness and complexity of the legacy he left us. But I hope they will whet your appetite enough to prompt you to read the whole essay.

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