Because tonight’s discussion ended with attention to Whitman’s emphasis on assimilation in 1867 Leaves (especially in “Pensive on Her Dead Gazing”), it occurred to me that he was probably aware–again, in a way that makes him seem like an alien dropped from a planet of highly advanced thinking into plain ol’ 19th-century America–of how much the war pushed people to assimilate and generalize.  As the country moved from pre- to post-Civil War, not only did our confederacy and notion of relatively distinct states dissolve and (theoretically) become “absorbed” by a more centralized Union, the value of an individual soldier became more difficult to recognize with the mass numbers of volatile deaths.  Especially in “Pensive on Her Dead Gazing,” Whitman seems acutely aware of and almost defeated by the realization that individual humans, the “I”s of the world, are becoming (necessarily? unavoidably?) undervalued.

I recall what Virginia and then Dr. Scanlon were discussing in class, that the Mother in this poem can be either an umbrella-figure mother that represents the shared maternal source (Mother Earth/Nature, perhaps), or it could be every single mother undergoing common but distinct agony for losing a son to the war.  Just as a refresher, or for the benefit of anyone not in our class tonight, here are a couple instances in which Whitman laments assimilation:

“Absorb them well, O my earth, she cried — I charge you, lose not my sons! lose not an atom;

And you streams, absorb them well, taking their dear blood;”

“My dead absorb — my young men’s beautiful bodies absorb — and their precious, precious, precious blood;”.

We see that, in his angst, the speaker almost becomes subservient to the earth and pleads her to preserve her sons as much as possible, though now all she may be able to do is mix their blood inextricably into her streams.  Blood that, with each echo of its adjective “precious,” becomes more difficult to hold to the very glory the adjective connotes.  Because, as we’ve said, his 1867 tone is so much more resigned to death as a finalizing state than his 1855 tone is, it’s hard to know to what degree he’s really agonizing that America is unsalvageably slipping into an identity so collective it blurs the lines of individual beauties, or to what degree this poetry is his assertive attempt to stop that collective blurring from going any further.  His own syntax is consistently participating in the trend of assimilation (repeating “I”s and “And you”s, to name a couple), and I can’t help but wonder whether he has, since 1855, realized the formal reflection of social disgraces in his poetry, and is, in 1867, being deliberate with his intra-assimilating verse to stress the desensitizing effect the value of “I”, etc. has on the reader and to encourage the reader not to forget the unique loss of separate soldier’s family.  Of course, every time I dare begin to wonder if Whitman was naive about something, I inevitably run into some piece of information that shows he was so much more conscious of his actions and the world than I was ever attentive enough to see.

Thus far, this post has been more or less a reiteration of ideas tossed around in class this evening, so I’ll finally get to what I meant to add earlier: today, when we deal with racism, for instance, it seems that some people’s very immediate reactions are to behave in a color-blind way, a way that denies anyone is different based on their race.  The next basic step in being an informed person, I think, is to realize that denying racial and cultural distinctions can only get you so far, and at some point you must confront the fact that we are diverse individuals and that that should not impede us from cohabitation; in fact, it should enhance our livelihood.  All that seems basic to me in 2009, but in mid-19thC America, where they had only just fought a gory war to make depressingly little social progress, I think it’s downright unbelievably beautiful that Whitman can see assimilation as a bad thing.  That is, if you live in 1860s America, a world even more engrained in hierarchies than now (particularly of race but of many other kinds), and you oppose slavery, assimilation must seem like a huge step forward.  Getting people to want to disregard racial backgrounds would have been nearly impossible, but it’s as if Whitman has already considered that and moved past it to the next level of tolerance: accepting and embracing diversity.

And this doesn’t have to be solely a race thing: obviously in “Pensive” Whitman celebrates not an entire race but the individual life.  I should probably be taking the time to tip my hat to other Romanticists who expressed the value of solipsism, but I don’t think I will right now.  Maybe I’m still reveling in things that do seem to elevate Whitman above other Romanticists, like how his formal poetics show his claims just as effectively as his words do.  Or maybe it’s just that tonight is reserved for Whitman celebration, and I’ll be in awe of some other writer on a non-Tuesday.