Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Musing on Walt Whitman, Sarah Palin & American Archetypes

Walt Whitman
wrote of America in this excerpt from "Song of the Broad Axe" in Leaves of Grass, the 1871-1872 edition. The Civil War had just ended.

Notice how modern the verse sounds.

After the describing new and independent, self-reliant civilization that was the building of America, after a cadence for the tribulation of civil war and an ode to Europe's bloody history, he began to speak of the future, and the rebuilding of America - and of the resurgence of archetypal American Timber itself:

"The voyage of those who sought a New England and found it—the outset anywhere,
The settlements of the Arkansas, Colorado, Ottawa, Willamette,
The slow progress, the scant fare, the axe, rifle, saddle-bags;
The beauty of all adventurous and daring persons,
The beauty of wood-boys and wood-men, with their clear untrimmed faces,
The beauty of independence, departure, actions that rely on themselves,
The American contempt for statutes and ceremonies, the boundless impatience of restraint....

" What do you think endures?
Do you think the great city endures?

"The great city is that which has the greatest man or woman;
If it be a few ragged huts, it is still the greatest city in the whole world.

"The shapes arise!
Shapes of the using of axes anyhow and the users and all that neighbors them,
Cutters down of wood, and haulers of it to the Penobscot or Kennebec,
Dwellers in cabins among the Californian mountains, or by the little lakes, or on the Columbia,
Dwellers south on the banks of the Gila or Rio Grande - friendly gatherings, the characters and fun,
Dwellers up north in Minnesota and by the Yellowstone river— dwellers on coasts and off coasts,
Seal-fishers, whalers, arctic seamen breaking passages through the ice.

"The shapes arise!
Shapes of factories, arsenals, foundries, markets;
Shapes of the two-threaded tracks of railroads;
Shapes of the sleepers of bridges, vast frameworks, girders, arches;
Shapes of the fleets of barges, tows, lake and canal craft, river craft.

"The shapes arise!
Shapes of doors giving many exits and entrances;
The door passing the dissevered friend, flushed and in haste;
The door that admits good news and bad news;
The door whence the son left home, confident and puffed up;
The door he entered again from a long and scandalous absence, diseased, broken down, without innocence, without means.

"Her shape arises,
She, less guarded than ever, yet more guarded than ever;
The gross and soil'd she moves among do not make her gross and soiled;
She knows the thoughts as she passes—nothing is concealed from her;
She is none the less considerate or friendly therefore;
She is the best beloved, it is without exception, she has no reason to fear, and she does not fear.
Oaths, quarrels, hiccupped songs, smutty expressions, are idle to her as she passes;
She is silent—she is possess'd of herself—they do not offend her;
She receives them as the laws of nature receive them — she is strong,
She too is a law of nature—there is no law stronger than she is.

"The main shapes arise!
Shapes of Democracy, total—result of centuries;
Shapes, ever projecting other shapes;
Shapes of turbulent manly cities;
Shapes of the friends and home-givers of the whole earth,
Shapes bracing the earth, and braced with the whole earth. "

I ran across this when trying to whittle down the bookshelves. Whitman personified the self-possessed naivete of the "can-do" American as the mythic mother, the queen that shares democracy with abandon: the Lady Liberty herself.

Walt Whitman would have loved Sarah Palin! The passionately patriotic "poet of the Civil War" was an expansive feminist of the old school:

"Where women walk in public processions in the streets, the same as the men,
Where they enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men"

He'd have loved her plain speaking, her artless assumption of her true place within our common life, her unabashed recognition of the unique magnificence that is America.

Walt would have understood why Sarah Palin resonates so powerfully with so many Americans: not because she is like us or stronger or braver or wiser (although she is all of those things), but because she reminds us all that we are too - that our American heritage is to be the archetype our own selves: this is who we are.

She's proved it. And if she can do it, we can do it too. We need not cast about for heroes: they are here in our own hearts.

What it means to be American is to be people who look within and find the shape of the leader that is in each of us. And then we go forward into a confident and egalitarian future for us all. That's the direction Sarah points toward, that's the continuing frontier that America will always win.

Yes, I think Walt would be very proud that America is still being shaped today by the likes of Sarah Palin.

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