Adam L for 9/24

September 22nd, 2009

I’m very interested in the anti-capitalist ideas in “A Song for Occupations.” Parallels between this poem and “Song of Myself” are drawn in their similar titles (though not designated by Whitman), first and second person voices, and pervasive egalitarian themes. The poem begins with a call for universal and personal human intimacy, but uses the key word “possess” to establish a dual political theme. The question asked in the first lines will become clearer as the poem unfolds: What is “the best I possess” or “the best you possess”? It becomes inarguably clear by the end of the poem that Whitman is no Material Girl, and I am left with suspicions that he may have been an avid reader of Marx at the time of writing this work.

In the very next line the dual ideas persist: “This is unfinished business with me.” While continuing the celebration of the essential self (“me as I am”), and the “contact of bodies and souls,” as he did in “Song of Myself,” Whitman also hints at the competing worldview value-system that he undermines in the lines that follow: Capitalism, the valuing of money over the essence of humankind, the viewing of people and objects of nature only in terms of enterprise. “Were I to you as the boss employing and paying you, would that satisfy you?” The question implies Whitman’s own dissatisfaction with the effect money has had on the design of human relationships. He describes the inequality of a Capitalist economy as defining the human as either “servant” or “master,” and with “neither” of which does he choose to identify.

“I take no sooner a large price than a small price.”

“I will be even with you, and you shall be even with me.”

He expresses a deep sympathy with the working classes and the underpriveleged, identifying with the “workman” and “workwoman,” calling for the self percieved social equality of the “drunk,” the “thief,” the “diseased.” Whereas Whitman addresses his own soul in “Song of Myself,” here he calls out to the “Souls of men and women,” in an attempt for this poem to be far more political, a rally cry to the proletariat.  (Side note: “or that you was once drunk” What’s this improper grammar about?)

One of the most obviously anti-capitalist lines is on page 91, where Whitman writes, “And send no agent or medium…and offer no representative of value–but offer the value itself.” Clearly the “representative of value” is money. Again, on page 92, one of the most revealingly anti-capitalist passages, which attacks the greed of enterprise and the mechanization of the human body by enterprise:

The light and shade–the curious sense of body and identity–the greed that with perfect complaisance devours all things–the endless pride and outstretching of man–unspeakable joys and sorrows,

The wonder every one sees in every one else he sees….and the wonders that fill each minute of time forever and each acre of surface and space forever,

Have you reckoned them as mainly for a trade or farmwork? or for the profits of a store? or to achieve yourself a position? or to fill a gentleman’s leisure or a lady’s leisure?

These questions are direct, and starkly revealing of the impulses which were, before, underlying a continued conversation started in “Song of Myself.” In short, Whitman summarizes himself on page 93: “The sum of all known value and respect I add up in you.” To Whitman, the value of money, of business, of things one can own, of employees, is incomparable to the value of the essential individual, and the society he lived in clearly made him feel as though pointing this out was important.

One Response to “Adam L for 9/24”

  1. lizmoser said:

    Whitman’s anti-capitalist, even communist leanings is an interesting issue to point out. Whitman is truly a man for the common working man, and everyman’s soul is priceless. In fact, each individual is worth more than America’s precious democratic institutions, more than art and history and civilization. The petty concerns of capitalism are dwarfed by his creative potential.

    But is it then correct to claim that Whitman is marxist? Does his poetry not go beyond these ideals and institutions?

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