Book Talk

During our excruciating repose on the rack of a cruelly protracted presidential campaign, we have been constantly invited to think about an ideal America, with the candidates, as usual, emphasizing the rosy: universal health care, tax cuts made permanent, not even one child left behind, victory in Iraq.

Readers of CUNY Matters over the years know I am big on Walt Whitman, and now, I think, is the perfect moment to offer a rare glimpse into his private, candid and unversified thoughts on an ideal America. It was written 25 years after Whitman's death in 1892 by his devoted young friend Horace Traubel, who recorded nine volumes' worth of Walt's conversations during his last four years.

This memoir was evoked by the "daily questions" Traubel was asked during World War I about Whitman's "problematical attitude" toward the war (he hated all war). There is, as you might expect, heavy emphasis here on the "crowd," by which Traubel and Whitman meant the public, the common citizen. Whitman's sarcasm about "college decoration" is a swipe at the fancy Ivy League; Walt would have vigorously approved of CUNY's mission to New York City's student crowd.

This article, here slightly abridged, Traubel published in his own monthly magazine, The Conservator, in November 1917; it is included in my 2006 edition, Conserving Walt Whitman's Fame: Selections from Horace Traubel's 'Conservator' 1890-1919, part of the University of Iowa Press Whitman Series.

Would Whitman approve of a snapshot of the United States anno domini 2008? "Noble fruition" or "incommensurable disaster"? You decide. - Gary Schmidgall

Walt Whitman's America


Walt WhitmanWalt Whitman
Walt was never as strong in talking about war as he was in talking about America. He had very high ideas of America. Not of the America that we were but of the America we might be. The America of idealisms and dreams. The America of noble manners and magnificent soul. The welcomer of the oppressed. The asylum of the poor and downtrodden. He loved to dilate upon that America. He was often misunderstood. He was taken by literalists to be a partisan of geographical America. To be a bragger and boaster. To blow about our status. To swell his chest out and lift his head in the air and tell big stories about ourselves. [Thomas] Carlyle and others thought of Walt as a man who thought he was a big man because he lived in a big country.

Well: let's take a face-to-face look at Walt's America. I discussed the thing with him often. I never heard a phrase of bluster or vainglory from his lips.

"Horace," he said to me: "why do you suppose the people who don't want anything to do with me are so inclined to misrepresent my point of view? It's as if they didn't want me to be what they must know I am." What was he? I asked him that.

"Oh!" he went on: "I mean my special interpretation of America, the republic, our experiment in democracy. Certainly I've never written or spoken of it as an achieved thing: never! never!...

"My America is still all in the making: it's a promise, a possible something: it's to come: it's by no means here. Besides, what do I care about the material America? America is to me an idea, a forecast, a prophecy: it may evolve to noble fruition or end as an incommensurable disaster. I don't want to be tied to the little conclusions of a petty nationalism. America will extend itself as an idea, never I hope in conquest. I'd rather anything should happen to us than that we should add one inch of territory to our domain by conquest."

... When Walt spoke of America it was more abstractly than concretely. America was a dear faith to him. A fact, still. But a fact such as a well-fortified aspiration may be. I have even seen him angry, or at least annoyed, by the display of cheap American-ism. It was never his notion that we should lord it over the world. He was concerned to have us set an example. Not, however, in pride but in humility. He thought we'd had a better chance. Therefore we should pay our bill. Paying our bill was helping Europe to become what Europe had made it possible for us to become.

You couldn't interest Walt in the wealth of America. He'd always go back to his original question: But what kind of men are we raising here?

He wanted America to give the crowd the best chance it ever had. To give it the only chance it ever had. You can only grasp his highly spiritualized conception of America by remembering that. And then remember more. Remember that at bottom America was that chance. If some other country having another name gave the crowd that chance first he'd call that country America. And if our geographical America, forgetting its high purpose, should deny the crowd that chance, Walt would cease to think of it as America. The steadfast picture in his attitude towards America was that of a modernized everyday promised land.... It was not to repeat the old class divisions but inaugurate an era of essential democracy.

Walt would see a picture of somebody, he might be of any race and color, and he'd exclaim: "How American he looks!" Or he'd see a picture of something and exclaim:  "How American that looks!"

What did he have in mind? The natural thing. Simplicity. No medals. No office. No college decoration. The man who worries about a crease in his trousers has a crease in his mind. Walt was always for getting down or up to people stripped of all extraneous paraphernalia. Such people were always America to him. Do you begin to see what his word "American" signified?

Walt spoke of loving the "powerful uneducated" person. He wanted America to be the powerful uneducated country. He didn't object to education because it was education but because it wasn't.

If the sun wasn't light he'd object to the sun too. If men weren't brothers he'd object to men too. If America wasn't a democracy he'd object to America too.... [H]e wanted America to be as big as its size. He wanted it to be as big as its promise. As its words. As its spirit.

"It makes me sick to hear our orators and read our writers telling us how miraculously we've grown beyond recognition. We're a vast body without a soul—we've accomplished incontrovertible ends by our mechanical genius, our materialistic concentrations, our mad haste, but, after all, that may tell rather for death than life."

And he'd shake his head over our financial exploits [i.e. capitalism]. "No, no, no: a thousand times no: that's all been done over and over again to the detriment of the race: all of it: what we need is the prosperity of the common man: I can't think of America as repeating the mistakes of Europe, of Asia, of the past.... "

I heard a Whitmanite once defend pan-Americanism [i.e. American imperialism] by quoting a passage from Leaves of Grass in which Walt saw America in his mind's eye extending itself to "the archipelagos of the Pacific." This disputant asked triumphantly: "Who can say now that Whitman was opposed to conquest?" I said: "Whitman wasn't predicting conquest but conviction." When I told Walt the story he nodded to me and said: "Yes: it's obvious enough to anybody who knows the language I talk. ... I'd like to see America, my America, go round the globe, gloriously, not with armies but in sacrificing humanisms: I've no enthusiasm about any other America."...

You see he was always looking towards the transfigured America. The America of his imagination was built upon the masses. Upon the development of the crowd. Upon the general welfare and vista. Not upon the fortunes or the culture of selected persons. Not upon an exception but a rule. Not being made contingent upon what a minority may do but upon what the immense total may learn and assert. Not upon the professional classes but upon the crowd. ... The ignorant informed crowd. The crowd. The major force of his America. The fountainhead of its emancipated life. ...

Walt wanted an America from the people up and from the people down. He wanted the crowd superstructure as well as the crowd foundation. He thought America would give the world such an America. He had some fears that it wouldn't, but he had more confidence that it would. But one thing was above all sure. If our America didn't give the world such an America, some other America would. And his American idea, perhaps by some other name, sometime, somehow, would lead our much harassed world of mistaken animosities out of its shadowy tangle into fraternal acknowledgments and recognitions.

Inside Community Colleges

America as we know it would not exist without community colleges. That is the contention of Gail O. Mellow and Cynthia Heelan in Minding the Dream: The Process and Practice of the American Community College. The book provides an overview of the inclusive, democratic and meritocratic impulses of community colleges and their transparent boundaries between college, work and social life. Mellow is the president of LaGuardia Community College; Heelan is the former president of Colorado Mountain College.

Solar Sailing

The idea that sunlight exerts pressure has been around for more than a century. In their book Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel, authors Gregory L. Matloff, Giovanni Vulpetti and Les Johnson describe how solar sail propulsion can make space exploration more affordable and provide access to destinations beyond the solar system. They review current plans for solar sails and how advanced technology, such as nanotechnology, can enhance solar sail performance. Matloff is assistant professor of physics and 2008 Scholar on Campus at CityTech.

Impossible Dreams

I n his latest book, professor Michio Kaku of City College and The Graduate Center explores the science of the impossible, from death rays to force fields and cloaks of invisibility. Will these technologies become achievable the way TV, lasers and the atom bomb, which seemed beyond the realm of possibility a century ago, became reality? Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel offers an entertaining and informative journey into the future.

Schlesinger Diaries

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who died last year, knew many of the leading public figures of the last half-century. The book Journals 1952 – 2000 takes the reader through his diaries starting with presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, for whom he was a speechwriter. Schlesinger — who was Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at CUNY's Graduate School and University Center from 1966 to 1994, when he became professor emeritus —offers firsthand insights about President John F. Kennedy, whom he served as special advisor, as well as the Vietnam War, Watergate, Ronald Reagan, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the first Gulf War and the current President Bush.