What is our literature of resistance?
Walt Whitman affirms what he sees as our national ethos — a striving for a community that is inclusive, concernful and loving.
By Lewis Fried
This was going to be an essay on Whitman. On specifically Whitman. However, the times call for a different focus — a short meditation on our literature of resistance to a nationalizing bigotry — a topic, of course, that makes a commentary on Whitman’s grandeur urgent and timely. To be sure, Whitman is a loud, persistent voice, but a paradoxical thinker. His warnings against the undoing of democracy by mendacity, greed and bad faith are well known. His changing affections toward minorities — certainly as seen from his journals and newspaper work, veer from a small amazement to uneasiness to grand affirmations of America as a cosmic, utopian project yet to be realized, but still, nevertheless, being realized. So, let me circle around Whitman, and use the spirit of his writing as but a stepping stone.
Is Whitman a usable voice for our own day? In an era in which our own literature is rarely seen as nation-building and unifying, but rather as pluralizing and fractionalizing, Whitman may now appear to some as démodé and déclassé. After all, our official rendition of national letters, found in many university courses, seems eager to divide our literature into categories of gender, “privilege,” race and ethnicity, focusing on these informing characteristics rather than a celebration of a larger totality.
In my former university, courses once based on admitted foundations of “classic” American works are now replaced by studies in various “preferences,” “characteristics” and “resentments.” Intriguingly, as a scion of Quaker stock, of English as well as Dutch ancestry, as a man whose family had nurtured the culture of nation-creating, as one whose early career was as a school-teacher in small villages, as a writer of pieces for small newspapers, and as a printer’s helper finally tumbling into New York, as a poet dismissed from government service because of his frank and liberating verse, to a figure residing in Camden, New Jersey, ill and badly needing a means of transportation, to “Walt Whitman” who was something of an international attraction evidenced by the pilgrimage of writers to his house, Whitman well speaks today for many of the marginalized as well as the beneficiaries of upward mobility.
Call the confluence of movements that brought Trump to power what you will: populism; a backlash by those who believe that they have been left out of an economic upward draft; a yearning for importance and prestige; a boasting of the importance of being undereducated (or uneducated), resentful of “ideas” and “elites”; a desire for the authoritarianism of a “strong” or “great” man, or a delusion that foreigners, minorities and women have almost conspiratorially taken away jobs and opportunities. I prefer to call this an American fascism.
It’s a serviceable term, with an emphasis on authority, force, scapegoating, lying and dishonesty to promote personal power, and an attempt to gut the free exercise of reason and its transmission. Its attraction is multiple. By the power of deception and fantasy, it appeals to an America that never was, inventing a mythical, unified national life, while projecting a future that is a prolongation of the imaginary past. We are no longer strangers in a world we never made but can be, once again, comfortable in a country stolen from us. As with the Tea Party chant, we can “take it back.”
A Trumpista crude resentment embraces almost all hatreds; American life, simplified as melioristic history, is seen as thwarted and detained by un-American “others.” It has been captured by invaders intent on pillage and murder. The cultural result of such a line is both reassuring and devastating. On the one hand, power, speed and “authority” are seen as triumphalist outcomes shoving aside all who resist. One waits, and then, an announcement that history has crystalized, been embodied in a hero, a savior, a messiah erupting from the crust of the everyday. All problems can be solved by a leader: in actuality, by a dictator.
On the other hand, an American fascism also is dedicated to the obliteration of normal life, seeing such natural acts as empathy, and love, as well as universal terms such as humanity and fraternity as an arrested stage of moral and intellectual growth, a blunting movement that can be sharpened, and hurled into “subjunctive” history. Into events as they should be, as they should have been and could be. If only people would understand that the millennium, and the prophetic moment, and the redemptive hour have arrived. In brief: We live in a petit apocalypse; all we have to do is understand the meaning and import of this revelation.
This necessitates victims of convenience: those who by “nature” dispute “our” moment; who do not share a common “blood” or native tongue; people who do not look like us, or share our sensibility. Those, who by “culture” do not have a worldview much like ours. In other words, those who do not belong but incessantly now knock at our gates. For those of us on the outside of this mania, gone is the majesty of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” and Lady Liberty herself. These have been disfigured by jingoism and disgrace.
What is needed in this American fascist algorithm is the target of distinctiveness, and so the apparatus of myth-making and denunciation become mandatory. In the case of Trumpland, this is the stuff of xenophobia, white nationalism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and anti-intellectualism. Feeling superior to someone or something — no matter whom. Such a constellation of hatred is now in our skies. Mine is not a new interpretation. It may be overdramatic, but our newly elected indecency is not to be underestimated.
To whom and what can we turn? Our national heritage of letters is before us. This should not be simplified: We do have a virulent authoritarian tradition, and many of our writers have turned to the excitements of blood-lust. In literature, this sensibility is sometimes murderous and violent, feeding on fear and unconfidence in the democratic ethos. It demands certainty where there is none, authority in place of discussion and miracles that only a man on horseback announces. Such literature despises the value of yet another literature: the rich celebration of process; the amazement at the diversity of human appearance and traditions; a respect for, if not exhilaration at, “unfinished” consequences; an honor accorded to rest and thought seemingly blocking unreflective achievement, and a grasp of larger, and sharper interpretations of experience.
In this sense, the literature of affirmation has a more resonant but less robust lexicon than that of American fascism. Each man resting under his fig tree is less shocking than one hearing a demagogic summons, and following the beat of a drum. (Whitman’s dodgy Drum Taps is, at worst, a celebration of an American Mars.)
Civic literature supplements our legal structures. It maintains the possibilities for decency and community affirming the need to live by rational, lawful, democratic cooperation. This is not to say that such a literature does not portray the clashes of interests and rights, of obligations and freedoms. It is to say that it takes these as commentaries on the difficulties of theories and dogmatic dicta often acting over and against the individual and the variable community. In other words, this literature respects both the tumult of individual and social voices, and the agreements they must reach. No wonder that progressive and modern thinkers found the image of the orchestra with a conductor to be compelling, just as Voltaire found the Bourse to be a paradigm of a workable social whole.
Read Lewis Fried’s essay on Paul Goodman in the spring issue of Latterly. Start a subscription today.
Yet a life of comforting limits is also one that perilously balances the claims of novelty (or modernity) against those of values that we find perdurable, expectable, often banal, and comforting — because they’re familiar. Which is why Whitman’s poetry is at the core of our times. It is obvious that his worldview is a mélange of pantheism, panentheism, reworked Christianity, Quakerism, pansexualism, creeds of the Orient — and yet more. It alternates amongst loves, hesitations, certainties and dubieties. Try to make a non-paradoxical whole out of that. As if to say “au contraire,” Whitman’s moral vision is whole and coherent if by that you mean that conflict and development constitute the working out of a unity. (And critics may well say: Really? Try to make a consistent entity out of that, yes? Well, he does contradict himself and contains multitudes. And revels in this!)
And yet there is another question. How is it possible that such an outsider became, or should become, our national literary voice? (Yes, there was a campaign to do so.) He was both pansexual and homosexual (though he argued he was not; so let’s simply respect that claim and say his sensuality extended to the very idea of nature as that procreative urge that presses all things onward); he was nourished less by a common, Christian faith shared by many Americans than by attractions from faiths domestic and exotic; he was ill at ease with the certainties of any national dogma (save for what he saw as that of a pluralistic America); he identified himself with those he saw in the American landscape — from slaves, to Indians, to women, to children, to heroic figures; he was “mad” to be in contact, it seems, with life itself; he freely celebrated the sensuality of being alive, and sensuality itself. How did this voice become ours? And what does it mean for our own day?
His attraction is obvious. He includes and tries to speak for all, seeing us as a nation that must be held together—not bound together in hate, but, to borrow a phrase, in a radical amazement, that this nation has a base in an elementary love for all that is, and a disgust at all that diminishes this sentiment and unity.
I do not want to suggest that we can reduce Whitman’s work to a single thesis but rather to suggest its singularity — its place in a large tradition of American uniqueness regarding those whose lives were unusual adjustments between what we can call convention, and their way of being. Thoreau and Melville also come to mind; they also vie for the role of our great national writer. Thoreau’s Walden is, in reality, a Greek meditation, an examination of oikos (the house), whose design and building reflect a self — establishing unique, individual relations with society and culture. Nevertheless, Thoreau did not celebrate a commanding center of American politics save for the individual fraught with perennial questions whose answers are, well, trailing off the realm of politics. Politics, in large, should not be validated by intuiting or deciphering verities from unbounded nature. Melville’s work, a bitter dialogue between the confidence men of our days and those Ishmaels waiting to be delivered to a ground under their feet, is finally suspicious of a national mythos unless seen from the vantage point of the solitary. Those who survive, witness The Confidence Man, are those who refuse to trust. His isolatoes discover that their lives are embedded in various and large social contracts which, often, they cannot bear. They go mad.
Yet Whitman’s poetry reminds us that civil law and what he saw as natural laws are both structures that are interpretively expansive; they are traditions of novelty as well as provisional certainties that are transmitted and modified by each age. His language, grasping at foreign and made-up words, strain against convention, embodying a new and more commodious look at experience. His recounting of world myths in Leaves of Grass reminds us that that poem, as well as Democratic Vistas are a large outcome of culture and nature. His writing insists that we are not alone by virtue of our being social creatures who seek recognition in, and communion with, our environment: from earth to people to physical urges and transcendent forces. In other words, we inherit and carry on a way of being starting with origins and ending in cosmos, making us human. As in social. As in diverse. As in empathetic. As in totality. Always the procreant urge of the universe, to paraphrase him.
Rhetorically, Leaves of Grass offers connections and bridges. Images of moving from the I to the you, from one place to another, from one group to the next, bind this national catalogue. Linguistically, his work “unfreezes” language, indicating that excitement as well as apprehension and anxiety mark a human response. Conceptually, it offers us a future to be realized, and a past that is ours: Whitman encouraging us to go further than himself. And, offering to be but the ground under our feet but not insisting that he designate the road we must travel. These sentiments affirm what he sees as our national ethos — a striving for a community that is inclusive, concernful and loving. This is not, and never will be, easy to achieve.
Where does this all-too brief and all-too soft reading leave us? It’s true that words such as “empathy” and “love” and “concernful” have large auras. They’re easy to use and all-too familiar. Nonetheless, they are words that connect an active subject to a person and world outside that self. They indicate that being human is not a condition but an engagement of amplitude and continuity with an ever-enlarging world. In Buddhist fashion, no name or role can be left out because, for Whitman, this would narrow the presence of the transcendent. We would be unable to know the Divine. Or, for some, us. No lie or mendacity is autonomous; it infects the entirety of our lives. No self is unimportant; we are all, to rely on Donne, part of the main.
Reciting Whitman’s orotund lines will not save us from despair and disgust, but their moral largesse can surely help us. They bring us back to dreaming democracy in an age of fascism. May this last be short; may its incarnation be rendered harmless.
Lewis Fried is an independent scholar and professor emeritus of English at Kent State University.