Full-text source: WilsonSelectPlus (download: April 23, 2001)

Whitman, Springsteen, and the American working class

Author: Smith, Greg.
Source: The Midwest Quarterly v. 41 no3 (Spring 2000) p. 302-20
ISSN: 0026-3451


The writer compares Walt Whitman's fairly idealized and antiquated vision of the American working class with Bruce Springsteen's contemporary reflections on the reality of working-class life. He demonstrates that Springsteen, the working-class rock poet supreme, delineates in uncompromising terms the shattered lives and broken countenances that make up the dark side of American existence as experienced by working people for whom the American Dream is a taunting, cruel, and ungraspable abstraction. He contends, however, that Springsteen is not engaged in refuting the vision of working-class America proffered by Whitman over a hundred years ago. He shows that, just as Whitman envisioned the American working class of the future having a better existence than those of his own day, so Springsteen is strongly concerned with improving the lot of contemporary American workers. He suggests, however, that Springsteen would probably point out that Whitman's romanticizing of the lot of the American working class is perhaps not the best way to go about achieving his aspirations for them.



"Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse ...".

–Bruce Springsteen, "The River".

AS THE SHIFT in literary criticism from "traditional/canonical" to the broader arena of "cultural/popular" studies becomes ever more pronounced (thankfully eradicating, in the process, many of the arbitrary and elitist prejudices separating "high" from "low" art), scholars are discovering not only that "literary" and "popular" texts often share the same social and psychological concerns, but also that in dealing with such concerns many of these "popular" texts are equally compelling, sensitive, and exciting. Walt Whitman, with his well-known poetic emphasis on and desire to be considered the bard of the American working people, would seem to lend himself nicely as the starting point for a study of this sort, particularly one connecting Whitman's fairly idealized and antiquated vision of the American working people with contemporary reflections on the reality of working-class life in a popular culture medium which the American working class itself engendered: rock and roll. Although in terms of subject matter rock music has obviously expanded far beyond its working-class origins since the early 1950s, it could be argued that the most vital and authentic American performers in the genre draw heavily on – and in most cases are indeed descendant from – these social roots. Of the numerous rock artists who can stake such a claim, Bruce Springsteen is without question the foremost purveyor of American working-class rock and roll. While he is often mistakenly stereotyped as a sentimental and patriotic blue-collar hero (such as he was not only by Ronald Reagan in a particularly disturbing 1984 campaign speech, but also by conservative journalist George Will in a New York Daily News column with the unforgivably jingoistic title of "A Yankee-Doodle Springsteen"), Springsteen is actually the working-class rock poet supreme, laying out in uncompromising terms and detail the shattered lives and broken countenances that make up the dark side of American existence as it is experienced by working people for whom the American Dream is a taunting, cruel, and ungraspable abstraction. Clearly, the people who populate Springsteen's songs are not the jolly and rugged tradesmen so often found in Whitman's poetry. Nonetheless, Springsteen is not just a cynical contemporary crank bitterly refuting the vision of working class America proffered by an idealistic poet over a hundred years ago. Whitman envisioned the American working class of the future having a better existence than those of his own day, and Springsteen is strongly concerned with improving the lives of contemporary American workers, as both his songwriting and consistent acts of charity demonstrate. Certainly Bruce Springsteen would have no qualms with Whitman's aspirations for the American working class, but he would likely point out that the romanticizing of their lot is perhaps not the best way to go about achieving such aspirations.

To speculate whether or not Whitman would have liked an aspect of popular culture such as rock and roll might appear somewhat farcical, but to assume that he would have respected its ability to reach the vast audiences that he himself desired but failed to reach during his own lifetime does not seem presumptuous. It also does not seem presumptuous to assume that Whitman would have respected its origins as a decidedly working-class form of expression, although it is true that he probably would not have cared for the unpleasant social realities often reflected in this music of the American working class; it should be remembered that Whitman was wont to envision the future "masses generally and to pin his hopes for their proper education upon literature" (Clark, 138). Despite the fact that in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" (1889) Whitman proudly claimed that " w ithout yielding an inch the working-man and working-woman were to be in my pages from first to last," and for all of the heartfelt romanticizing of the American working class throughout his work, Whitman felt that what he referred to as the "democratic average" had not been achieved among the working masses in his time and would have to be a goal for the future, helped along by a guide in the form of the "divine literatus." In other words, Whitman foresaw a future America resting on the shoulders of a profoundly educated, literary, and satisfied working class. According to Ezra Greenspan, however, Whitman's romantic vision of the working class and its future was beginning to be compromised even toward the end of Whitman's life:.

The problem with this otherwise perfectly enchanting vision of a nation of individual workers, each one singing his or her song of contentment, is that, even as an ideal, it belongs to a bygone world of small, independent mechanics, craftsmen, and farmers. That world ... was being bypassed by the age of mass production and modern technology. Rather than singing Whitman's song of self-contentment and self-help, American workingmen in the period following the Civil War would increasingly be given to chanting the slogans of emergent unions, a movement, significantly, with which Whitman had little sympathy. (216).

Given Whitman's love of and hope for peaceful unity among all American people, his lack of support for the developing labor movement is hardly surprising, especially considering the conflict between workers and management that Whitman surely knew would result. That Whitman had a genuine affection for and vested interest in the working people of America should not be disputed, as evidence to the contrary permeates his work. What qualifies this affection and interest on Whitman's part somewhat from a contemporary perspective that is sympathetic with the often unpleasant realities of working-class existence is his tendency to romanticize the actual condition of being a working person. This may be due to the fact that usually in Whitman's poetry, the working people are presented through Whitman's eyes as representatives of the democratic ideal he cherished, so that in effect they are more symbols of his romantic vision of America than they are reflections of real working people. As Greenspan has noted, Whitman's working people seem "a perfectly enchanting vision of a nation of individual workers," and while they are powerful and poignant because they constitute an integral part of a stirring poetic treatise in defense and support of American democratic ideals, as symbols of those ideals, they are also subservient to the resultant vision (216). In other words, the working people in Whitman's writings do not exist in contrast to the vision of democratic unity they symbolize – while we are sure to be presented in Leaves of Grass with hearty, satisfied "joes" who share a meal around a campfire with the poet, we are less likely to encounter disgruntled, weary, and underpaid stiffs.

Perhaps the best example of Whitman's working people occurs in his poem "I Hear America Singing." Although the poem is straightforward enough that it requires little, if any, explication, it is worth reproducing here in its entirety both as a succinct representation of Whitman's romanticized vision and a beginning reference point from which to consider Springsteen's lyrics:.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day – at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

As evocative and picturesque an image of the working class as this may be, it finally does not ring true; to readers familiar with the plight of the contemporary American working class, in fact, the workers in "I Hear America Singing" may seem suspiciously placid, as if they had just stepped into the poem from a Norman Rockwell painting on an adjoining page. Where is the fatigue? Where is the stress? Where are the bosses? Where are the insubstantial wages? In short, where is the reality? Even given that the projection of contemporary labor concerns onto a poem originally penned in 1860 is anachronistic, it seems difficult to believe that the working people of Whitman's time were as carefree and contented as those in "I Hear America Singing." Nonetheless, Whitman believed in the power of his working-class vision, and his failure to adequately portray the reality of the people and conditions it arose from is ultimately less important to his art, it would seem, than his conviction that the reality and the vision might someday be one and the same.

Regardless of whether or not Whitman was overtly romanticizing the workers of his own day, he did have faith that the working class would evince his ideals in the future, and whatever songs Whitman might have imagined issuing forth from America's laborers some decades down the road, it is certain that he would not have envisioned the type of songs written by Bruce Springsteen. One major variable which Whitman failed to foresee in relation to his future vision was that concerning the enormous and far-reaching effect which the industrialization of America would have upon its working class. In the wake of industrialization, with its countless array of factories, mines, and mills, Whitman's vision of an America brimming with happily pastoral working people would amount less to the American Dream than to a pipe dream. Somewhat ironically, it is the familiar notion of the American Dream (so much like Whitman's future vision) with its promises of prosperity, equality, and mobility for all, which haunts the working people who populate Springsteen's music. In Springsteen's songs, the stark realism of contemporary American working-class life is presented as a powerful reminder that the idealism surrounding this notion of the American dream is often just that--an inspirational concept of the way things should be, but by no means an accurate reflection of the way they are. Indeed, Springsteen's songs are frequently centered around the ironic discrepancy between what the American Dream offers in theory and what actual working people often get in reality. As such, the Cadillac which greets the working man "when his day is done" in "Cadillac Ranch" from The River (1980) is not only a luxury car the speaker longs to own, but a luxury car, he hints to his friend, that he knows he and his family will probably "own" only in death as their hearse:

There she sits, buddy, just a-gleaming in the sun
There to greet a working man when his day is done
I'm gonna pack my pa and I'm gonna pack my aunt,
Gonna take em down to the Cadillac Ranch
Eldorado fins, buddy, whitewalls and skirts;
Rides just like a little bit of heaven here on Earth
Well, buddy, when I die, throw my body in the back,
And drive me to the junkyard in my Cadillac
Cadillac, Cadillac, long and dark, shiny and black ...

Although not Springsteen's most sophisticated lyrical accomplishment dealing with the discrepancy between the American Dream as ideal and the reality of working class America, the rollicking "Cadillac Ranch" nonetheless serves as a fine encapsulation of this theme, which Springsteen develops elsewhere in his songwriting with greater complexity, political impact, and a poignancy drawn from his own personal background.

Born and raised in Freehold, New Jersey, a small and poverty-stricken industrial town not far northeast of Whitman's own final resting place in Camden, Springsteen witnessed firsthand the unpleasant reality of contemporary working-class America, from the dead-end factory jobs and shutdowns, to the disproportionate governmental sapping of the working class for soldiers to conduct the Vietnam conflict. Although his first two recordings – the Dylanesque pair Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973) and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (1974) – deal peripherally with such issues, it was with his landmark third album Born to Run in 1975 that Springsteen began his exclusive thematic focus on American working people. Prominent English music critic Simon Frith offers perhaps the best synopsis of how this focus informs and enriches Springsteen's music:

The point of his autobiographical anecdotes is not to reveal himself but to root his music in material conditions. Like artists in other media (fiction, film) Springsteen is concerned to give emotions (the essential data of rock and roll) a narrative setting, to situate them in time and place, to relate them to the situations they explain or confuse. He's not interested in abstract emotions, in vague sensation or even in moralizing. He is, to put it simply, a story-teller, and in straining to make his stories credible he uses classic techniques. Reality is registered by conventions first formulated by the nineteenth-century naturalists--a refusal to sentimentalize social conditions, a compulsion to sentimentalize human nature.
Springsteen's songs (like Zola's fictions) are almost exclusively concerned with the working class, with the effects of poverty and uncertainty, the consequences of weakness and crime; they trawl through the murky reality of the American Dream; they contrast utopian impulses with people's lack of opportunity to do much more than get by.... Springsteen's protagonists, victims and criminals, defeated and enraged, are
treated tenderly, their hopes honoured, their failure determined by circumstance.

That Springsteen does not (as Frith points out) moralize in his songwriting is a testament to the quality of his work--as do those writers considered by academics to be the great American naturalists (Crane, Norris, Dreiser, et al), Springsteen deals repeatedly with themes that reflect complex social and political realities. Like the naturalists, Springsteen presents in his songs the unpleasant circumstances which often complicate the lives of working class people, and he does so in a way that grants integrity to these people without passing judgment on them. Because the characters who populate his songs are not of the impossibly romantic "noble savage" stereotype often found in much working-class rock and country music (a stereotype quite reminiscent of Whitman's workers in some ways), and because he invests his characters with a basic humanity that this more familiar stereotype necessarily eschews, Springsteen is able to connect the lives of these characters to the lives of listeners for whom such a class-conscious stereotype would otherwise prove a boundary. "You can't tell people how to think," Springsteen has said, commenting on the ineffectualness of smarmy moralizing, but "you can show them something by saying 'Put these shoes on, walk in these shoes. People then recognize themselves in characters whose lives on the surface seem to have no relation to theirs" (Gunderson, 16d). For the past twenty years, from 1975's Born to Run to 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen has done this more successfully and consistently than any other artist in rock (or very possibly any artist at all, for that matter), in the process revealing an American working class that Whitman had not considered or foreseen.

The opening lines of the Born to Run title track can be seen as the thematic umbrella under which the majority of Springsteen's subsequent work rests:

In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American Dream,
And at night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.

This is nothing less than a summation of the circumstances facing working people in all of Springsteen's music; taunted by promises of an American Dream which is out of reach but which they still must chase by way of day jobs out of economic and sometimes psychological necessity, these people are left to fantasize at night in cars and on roads that go nowhere. As such, the idea of getting out is important to Springsteen's character; in the ironically titled "The Promised Land" from Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), the speaker utters a less grandiose version of the above couplet: "Working all day in my daddy's garage / Driving all night, chasing some mirage." It is often the idea, "mirage" though it may be, that they will somehow be able to escape their dead-end jobs that allows Springsteen's characters, sadly and paradoxically, to continue working at them. Even characters in Springsteen's songs who act on the impulse to get out don't really make it, as can be seen from the beautiful "Thunder Road" (Born to Run) and its equally striking companion piece, the title track from The River. In the first lyric, a disillusioned but still hopeful male speaker is attempting to persuade his friend Mary to start a romance with him, the most attractive part of his offer being the promise to take her out of town in search of brighter horizons: "Well, now, I'm no hero, that's understood / All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood." Although the speaker's monologue never reveals Mary's response to his offer, "Thunder Road" ends on a seemingly optimistic note:

There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn, you hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they're gone on the wind
So, Mary, climb in; it's a town of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win.

Five years later, however, we encounter this same speaker in "The River," now involved in a failed marriage with Mary, laid-off from his union job, presumably still living in the same town he and Mary grew up in. The concluding verse of "The River" is a stark contrast to its counterpart from "Thunder Road":

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy
All those things that seemed so important, well mister, they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don't remember, and Mary acts like she don't care
But I remember us riding in my brother's car, her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I'd lie awake and pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take
Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river, though I know the river is dry,
That sends me down to the river tonight?

In these two songs, the runaway American Dream and the suicide machines from "Born to Run" become literally manifested. The car which the speaker presents as his own in "Thunder Road" and promises to take Mary away in turns out to be his brother's, a "suicide machine" in the sense that it leads him not to romantic salvation with Mary somewhere else but instead to a bad marriage and a worthless job – and these two things together constitute the antithesis of the American Dream, the "lie" which leaves the speaker hinting, the final verse of "The River," at suicide.

Just as Whitman had to deal with the impact of the Civil War on his America, Springsteen has had to deal with the impact of Vietnam on his. The most notable instance of this concern in Springsteen's repertoire is probably the title track from his now infamous 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. An out-of-work veteran whose name, significantly, is never revealed to the listener, the speaker in "Born in the U.S.A." traces with powerful brevity his life experience as a working class conscript, cramming the whole desolate narrative into four verses that indict his country for failing to help him when he returns home after being forcibly sent to serve its own questionable interests in Vietnam:.

Born down in a dead man's town,
the first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that's been beat too much,
till you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the U.S.A.,
I was born in the U.S.A.

Got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land, to go and
kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A.,
I was born in the U.S.A.

Come back home to the refinery,
hiring man says, "So, if it was up to me ..."
Went down to see my V.A. man, he says,
"Son, don't you understand, now?"
I had a brother at Khe-Sahn,
fighting off the Viet Cong;
they're still there, but he's all gone

He had a woman he loved in Saigon,
I've got a picture of him in her arms, now
Down in the shadows of the penitentiary,
out by the gas fires of the refinery,
I'm ten years burning down the road,
nowhere to run, ain't got no-where to go
Born in the U.S.A.,
I'm a long-gone daddy in the U.S.A.

The most popular Vietnam protest song ever written, it is interesting to note that "Born in the U.S.A.," recorded roughly ten years after the end of the war, was widely misinterpreted as patriotic rock and roll sloganeering. Hearing only the repeated line "Born in the U.S.A." and not, as renowned rock critic Greil Marcus points out, the "furious irony" the refrain carries within the context of the song's entire lyrical structure (270), audiences and politicians caught up in the rampant neo-conservatism of the Reagan era were quick to herald Springsteen as the archetypal working class stiff who had make it big, and he became an unwitting poster child for the very notion of the American Dream he had been trying to dispel. In a November, 1984 article in Artforum, two months after incumbent presidential candidate Ronald Reagan had shamelessly appropriated Springsteen's publicly misinterpreted image during a campaign speech in New Jersey, Marcus made a plea for "Born in the U.S.A." to be recognized for what it was:

The song is about the refusal of the country to treat Vietnam veterans as something more than nonunion workers in an enterprise conducted off the books. It is about the debt the country owes to those who suffered the violation of the principles on which the country was founded, and by which it has justified itself ever since. (Ranters, 270).

Politicians on the right and rock critics on the left may have been battling it out over what his song's message was (and if one had actually read the lyrics, it is hard to see how there could be much doubt), but Springsteen had three years earlier given a benefit concert in Los Angeles to support the Vietnam Veterans of America, an organization which was on the verge of going under because the Reagan administration refused to either fund or officially recognize it. The full proceeds from this show enabled the organization to survive and garner lobbying status, prompting Bobby Muller, head of the V.V.A., to claim that " w ithout Bruce Springsteen, there would be no Vietnam veterans movement" (Marsh, 66-75). Springsteen himself failed his draft physical (a fortunate happenstance that he implores audiences not to applaud about when he mentions it during live performances), but he witnessed nonetheless the effects of the Vietnam draft on blue-collar Freehold: "The drummer I had then, Bart Haynes, and this fellow Walter, they both died in Vietnam when we were in our teens ... I can still see them in their uniforms. Those are very powerful images. The factories. It still finds its way into my work" (Schoemer, 68).

While Springsteen often deals with the experiences of working-class American men in his songs, he does not deal with men on an exclusive basis, and his exceptionally honest and sensitive depictions of working-class women have drawn praise from critics as diverse as political scientist Ray Pratt and Emily Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith. Unlike Whitman, who is known for romanticizing American working women primarily as mothers from whom the next generation of robust American working men will issue forth, Springsteen depicts women who face problems that are equally difficult and unsettling as those faced by their male counterparts in other songs. "Spare Parts," from 1987's Tunnel of Love, is perhaps the best example of this facet of Springsteen's work:

Bobby said he'd pull out, Bobby stayed in;
Janey had a baby, it wasn't any sin
They were set to marry on a summer day, but Bobby got scared and he ran away
Jane moved in with her ma on Shawnee Lake;
she sighed, "Ma, some- times my whole life feels like one big mistake."
She settled in a back room, time passed on; later that winter a son came along

Spare parts and broken hearts
keep the world turning around

Now Janey walked that baby across the floor night after night
But she was a young girl and she missed the party lights
Meanwhile, in south Texas, in a dirty oil patch
Bobby heard about a son being born and swore he wasn't ever going back

Spare parts and broken hearts
keep the world turning around.

Janey heard about a woman over in Calverton who
Put her baby in the river, let the river roll on
She looked at her boy in the crib where he lay,
Got down on her knees, cried till she prayed
Mist was on the water, low run the tide
Janey held her son down at the riverside
Waist-deep in the water, how bright the sun shone
She lifted him in her arms and carried him home

As he lay sleeping in her bed, Janey took a look around at everything,
Went to a drawer in her bureau and got out her old engagement ring
Took out her wedding dress, tied that ring up in its sash,
Went straight down to the pawn shop, man,
and walked out with some good cold cash

Spare parts and broken hearts
keep the world turning around.

Here we have a refreshing depiction of a woman in a contemporary song, particularly one written by a male rock star. Deserted by her worthless boyfriend during pregnancy, Janey makes the difficult but inspiring choice to fend for herself and her son, which she begins to do, symbolically enough, by hocking her engagement ring. Prior to making this decision Janey contemplates drowning her son in the river, an "easy" way out not unlike that which Bobby has chosen. Instead, however, she chooses to trade her broken romantic dreams in for "some good cold cash," an entity both more practical and reliable. Martha Neel Smith elaborates:

Springsteen's woman rises above the romance surrounding the anguish of a woman victimized by male irresponsibility and broken promises, and thus rises above a plot that ends with a rescuing knight in his shining limousine or the woman in utter ruin. Janey sells the symbols of romantic promises so she can deal competently with the material facts of life. Departing from the standard for popular culture storytelling and sounding much more like a woman writer and revisionist mythmaker, Springsteen writes beyond the ending of patriarchal resolution. (844).

As with the couple from "Thunder Road" and "The River," Janey learns that following the glittering promise of romance is akin to following the glossy promise of the American Dream, and that, like the deceptively open and enticing stretches of road which beckon Springsteen's characters in other songs, these two promises lead nowhere. In a society when grandiose romantic notions of love and success are frequently interrelated and showcased as models after which to strive, Janey learns that just surviving is the most difficult and honorable thing she can do. An avid vocal and monetary supporter of organizations for both single mothers and battered women, Springsteen realizes that Janey is not simply a dramatic fiction, but a working symbol for the all-too-real plight of numerous American women.

In Springsteen's songs, however, even the "just surviving" evidenced by Janey is categorically stripped of any romantic associations. His characters survive not in order to be held aloft as awe-inspiring examples of gritty pioneer spirit who have managed to eek out existences against all odds, but simply because, if they're not willing to court suicide (as does the speaker from "The River") or murder (an option rejected by Janey in "Spare Parts" but acted on by the Charlie Stark-weather-like speaker in 1982's harrowing "Nebraska") they have to. The notion of America as "the land of opportunity" is a familiar enough rhetorical pat on the back in our country, and while it is certainly true to a degree, it is not absolutely true. Springsteen knows this, and while he doesn't denounce notions of America as "the land of opportunity" as entirely false, he does hold that a general and rhetorical application of such notions to the public at large is dangerous, as he pointed out in 1984:

People want to forget. There was Vietnam, there was Watergate, there was Iran--we were beaten, we were hustled, and then we were humiliated.... People got a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what's happening, I think, is that that need--which is a good thing--is getting manipulated and exploited. And you see the Reagan reelection ads on TV – you know: "It's morning in America." And you say, "Well, it's not morning in Pittsburgh. It's not morning above 125th Street in New York. It's midnight, and, like, there's a bad moon rising." (Pratt, 191).

In other words, Springsteen recognizes that unquestioning public adherence to the "truth" of chord-striking patriotic phrases like "the land of opportunity" and "the American Dream" serves as a convenient way for America at large to deny the problems of its working class. By 1995, Springsteen had become so concerned with getting his message to the contrary out that he released the Steinbeck-influenced album The Ghost of Tom Joad, an acoustic recording for which he toured with just a guitar and a harmonica. Upon taking the stage for each of this tour's shows, Springsteen sternly counciled the audience not to make any noise while the songs were being performed so that they would hear and understand his lyrics (Schoemer, 66). The Joad album, performed nearly in its entirety each night of the tour, deals more closely and complexly with the American working-class themes Springsteen has cultivated since Born to Run. The album's title track provides a chilling summation of these themes in the wake of the Bush administration:

Man walking 'long the railroad tracks
Going someplace and there's no going back
Highway patrol choppers coming up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretching around the corner
Welcome to the "new world order"
Families sleeping in their cars in the Southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest

The highway is alive tonight,
but nobody's kidding nobody about where it goes
I'm sitting down here in the campfire light
searching for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag,
The preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waiting for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box 'neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and a gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock,
Bathing in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight,
but where it's headed everybody knows
I'm sitting down here in the campfire light
waiting on the ghost of Tom Joad

Now Tom said,
"Mom, wherever there's a cop beating a guy,
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries,
Where there's a fight against the blood and hatred in the air,
Look for me, Mom, I'll be there.
Wherever there's somebody fighting for a place to stand,
Or a decent job or a helping hand
Wherever somebody's struggling to be free,
Look in their eyes, Mom, you'll see me."

Well, the highway is alive tonight,
but nobody's kidding nobody about where it goes
I'm sitting down here in the campfire light
with the ghost of old Tom Joad.

With this, the promising image of the living American highway is blatantly undercut and emptied out by the knowledge that "nobody's kidding nobody about where it goes" anymore, as the protagonist in "Thunder Road" had done once long ago. Springsteen effectively evokes the Tom Joad character from Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath here for a couple of reasons: first, Tom Joad is a widely recognized working-class archetype from American liternature; and second, the working-class dilemmas faced by Tom Joad and his family within the Depression-era context of Steinbeck's novel haunt contemporary working-class America not only as a ghost from our fiction, but a ghost from our actual past. Just as there were homeless people and families searching unsuccessfully for work in Depression-era America, so there are now as well. Our country has come a long way in a lot of areas, Springsteen seems to be saying in this lyric, but some things have not progressed much at all. The unemployed Ohio steel worker of "Youngstown," also from Joad, echoes this sentiment more directly, contrasting his mill's production output with management's glib explanation for shutting it down: "Seven hundred tons of metal a day, now sir you tell me the world's changed / Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name." Similar cynical proclamations issue forth from characters throughout The Ghost of Tom Joad, from the Spanish migrant worker brothers of "Sinaloa Cowboys" who turn to dealing methamphetamine because they "could spend a year in the orchard / Or make half as much in one ten-hour shift," to the small-town New Mexico stripper of "Dry Lightning," who chillingly declares that "nobody can give nobody what they really need, anyway." In "My Best was Never Good Enough," the album's final song, Springsteen takes bitter jab at Forrest Gump, the latest "land of opportunity" and "American Dream" blockbuster propaganda film to waltz out of Hollywood under the guise of a "triumph of the (American) human spirit" tour de force: "'Now life's like a box of chocolates, you never know what your going to get / Stupid is as stupid does and all the rest of that shit...." This continuous romanticizing of both the American Dream and the opportunities available to American working people, Springsteen suggests strongly in Tom Joad, is part of a cycle by which our past continues to haunt us.

To lay the blame for these romanticized conceptions at the feet of Walt Whitman would be ridiculous, of course, and that is certainly not my intent. Whitman's American working people may be nothing more than a product of his profound optimism; writing at a time when the future of young America stretched ahead in many ways like the open roads he cherished, Whitman's romanticizing of them is not only understandable, but even touching, inspirational, and good-natured. Nonetheless, contemporary America is a place where such romantic views of our working people seem both anachronistic and dangerous – indeed, the fact that ultra-conservative presidential candidate Pat Buchanan drew large numbers of working-class Americans away from their traditional Democratic party alliance during the 1996 primaries by accusing both the Clinton administration and the moderate Republicans of having similar romanticized views speaks volumes. Bruce Springsteen has been using his own artistic medium for over twenty years in an attempt to debunk the romantic myths surrounding the American working people, and to whatever extent rock and roll is a political force, he has at least succeeded in putting his message out. According to Pratt, the.

real importance of the Springsteen phenomenom ... lies less in itself and more in the continued moral bankruptcy of a political system against which a rock star had to serve the function of tribune of the poor and dispossessed, the strung out, the beaten down, losers in an American dream gone out of control.... The Springsteen phenomenon is only one part of a developing story of an evolving popular consciousness seeking to find a role for itself through a collective discourse made up of elements of national popular culture. In Springsteen's case, there has been an acute sensitivity to the lives of ordinary people, together with populism and class identification, and a critique of the promise of a political economy that spins out lies and engenders dreams that can never be fulfilled. (192-93).

Although he is not a "poet" in the same academic or intellectual sense that most literary critics would agree Whitman is, Springsteen is nonetheless an important contemporary American artist. He is important not because he plays a modern-day foil to Whitman's romanticized conceptions concerning American laborers, but because he, like Whitman, cares enough about the future of his country's working people to bring them to public attention via popular art. It is said that Whitman envisioned the future American people carrying his poetry around in their pockets. In 2000 America, though, we would probably be more likely to find the front seats of cars littered with Springsteen cassettes than with copies of Leaves of Grass. But if those people listening to Springsteen aren't "paying attention to the words," then they're doing a disservice to more than his artistic integrity.

Added material.


Clark, Leadie M. Walt Whitman's Concept of the American Common Man. New York:
Philisophical Library, 1955.

Frith, Simon. "The Real Thing--Bruce Springsteen." Music for Pleasure: Essays in the Sociology of Pop. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Greenspan, Ezra. Walt Whitman and the American Reader. New York: Cambridge, 1990.

Gunderson, Edna. "In 'Joad, Springsteen Answers Ghost of His Past." USA Today, Dec. 1, 1995, 16d.

Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock Music. New York: Plume, 1990.

Marcus, Greil. "Four More Years." Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music 1977-92. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Marsh, Dave. Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s. New York: Pantheon, 1987.

Miller, James E. Walt Whitman. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Pratt, Ray. "Springsteen: From the Emptiness of Flight to the Burden of Belonging." Rhythm and Resistance: Explorations in the Political Uses of Popular Music. New York: Praeger, 1990.

Scheurer, Timothy E. Born in the U.S.A.: The Myth of America in Popular Music from Colonial Times to the Present. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Schoemer, Karen. "Heart of Darkness." Newsweek. Apr. 1, 1996, 66-68.

Smith, Martha Nell. "Sexual Mobilities in Bruce Springsteen: Performance as Commentary." The South Atlantic Quarterly, Fall, 1991, 833-54.




Database: WilsonSelectPlus
Copyright: Database Producer Copyright © the H.W. Wilson Company. All rights reserved.
Ownership: Check the catalogs in your library.
Libraries that Own Item: 556
Connect to the catalog at Ariadne
Full Text: View HTML Full Text (WilsonSelectPlus)
Author(s): Smith, Greg.
Title: Whitman, Springsteen, and the American working class.
Source: The Midwest Quarterly v. 41 no3 (Spring 2000) p. 302-20 Journal Code: Midwest Q
Additional Info: United States
Standard No: ISSN: 0026-3451
Details: bibl.
Language: English
Review: Peer-reviewed journal
Abstract: The writer compares Walt Whitman's fairly idealized and antiquated vision of the American working class with Bruce Springsteen's contemporary reflections on the reality of working-class life. He demonstrates that Springsteen, the working-class rock poet supreme, delineates in uncompromising terms the shattered lives and broken countenances that make up the dark side of American existence as experienced by working people for whom the American Dream is a taunting, cruel, and ungraspable abstraction. He contends, however, that Springsteen is not engaged in refuting the vision of working-class America proffered by Whitman over a hundred years ago. He shows that, just as Whitman envisioned the American working class of the future having a better existence than those of his own day, so Springsteen is strongly concerned with improving the lot of contemporary American workers. He suggests, however, that Springsteen would probably point out that Whitman's romanticizing of the lot of the American working class is perhaps not the best way to go about achieving his aspirations for them.

Descriptor: Labor – United States. Rock music. Music – Social aspects. Music and literature.
Named Person: Springsteen, Bruce. Whitman, Walt, 1819-1892.
Record Type: article
Article Type: feature article
Accession No: BHUM00011243