Preface to this blog: I got a little off-topic. Also, reference to Bruce Springsteen may seem out of the blue if you haven’t read my previous post on an article I read comparing Walt to the Boss, which can be found here.
One of the things that I find fascinating about Whitman is that, while I’m not very much of a patriot, I can jump on his America-loving train. He writes beautiful sweeping visions of the nation, and he includes me in them (well as a woman that’s somewhat arguable, but I’ll avoid that line of thought this time), and it feels ominous and powerful. Normally I’m all about some “the American dream is dead!” poems/songs/books what have you, and yet somehow Whitman can get me away from that, if only for a short while. However, when I read Whitman’s work, I don’t envision it applying to America now. I apply it to some idyllic America of long ago, one that does not, and will never exist again.
Obviously it’s not just me who has this preference for the depressing view of America, since so many people write about it. It got me thinking though, did society really change that much from Whitman’s time to now that we’re so much keener to bash our country than talk about how great it is? What happened that created such a giant shift? It can’t be that things are so much more corrupt now than back then, or harder or more horrible. In Whitman’s time they were dealing with tenement houses and awful working conditions, racism, bad pay, unemployment, the same things that Bruce Springsteen and others write about. Yet something tells me that if Ginsberg or Springsteen went back in time, their take on America wouldn’t resonate the same way that Whitman’s did, and vice versa.
Basically every idea I formulate as a reason for this shift has an equally valid opposition. I wondered if it was because there still seemed to be so much opportunity left in America during Whitman’s time. There were parts of it that were still unexplored, that hadn’t been carved up into states yet. Maybe the “American dream” is something that people still widely believed in. Then I am reminded of Dr. Rigsby’s course on American Realism, and I’m pretty confident that the people of Whitman’s time were aware that the “American dream” was something only available to those who were lucky, or were already privileged. Even now, while many people recognize that the ideal of the American dream is just that, there are still people who come to this country because of the belief that you can do anything here.
Another thing that I have considered is that perhaps people during Whitman’s time people needed an uplifting view of America, especially when it got to the Civil War. Things were bad for pretty much everyone at that time, and to be included in Whitman’s ideal vision of America was what they needed. Maybe we can only enjoy Springsteen and Ginsberg because we come from a position of privilege. Most of us will never have to go to war, or work in a factory for minimum wage, but we can look at it from a distance and get mad about the injustice of it all. We can criticize the government without being in danger of being imprisoned or persecuted or shunned for it. On the flip side of that though, that doesn’t include the people who aren’t privileged, who Springsteen centers his narratives around, and who still enjoy his music.
So in the end, I have no concrete ideas about why this shift has occurred. Why can I accept Whitman’s view of the America in the past when I know it’s not really true? Why does “Song of Myself” make me just as happy as Ginsberg’s “America” or Springsteen’s “No Surrender?” I don’t know. I put it to the rest of the world to sort these things out for me.