I Sing Democracy
by H.D. (as Sylvania Penn)

Copyright © 1997 by Perdita Schaffner; used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation, agents. This review was first published in Life and Letters Today 17.9 (Autumn 1937), p.154-59.
I Sing Democracy
(Review of Whitman by Edgar Lee Masters)

Whitman was of English stock, Quaker, and Low Country Dutch, typical racial blend of New York State and its neighbour, Pennsylvania. He sang, as we all know, "the body electric," his own and that, by identification and projection of personality, of his country, a composite of nations, America. His "tan-faced prairie boy," however, of the hinterland of the far west, is no more "American" actually, nor in fact as much so, as the deeply rooted, autochthonous stock from which, actually, he sprang, and which the author of this book is at great pains to point out is not typically "American." An almost unsurmountable difficulty presents itself. Any intelligent critic of this or any purposely "American" work, must or should immediately endeavour to define, almost from the French eighteenth-century point of view, the term "American." To begin, we are confronted with that curious, persistent myth, the "tan-faced prairie boy" of storybook legend and of Hollywood producers. This "prairie boy" is as dear to me as to anyone, and I agree his vertú should be glorified. But not at the expense of simple facts, of truth, that raw and naked divinity of New England antecedents, whose devotees had a way of cropping up all along that sea-coast. Yes, it is a grim and tyrannous divinity and has picked, with discrimination, victims or martyrs, beginning with Emerson, going on through neighbouring New England states, down through Dutch New York and the so-called Dutch of Pennsylvania, on to Virginia, where we meet its highest cerebral apostate or apostle, Edgar Allan Poe. These are native roots; if you will, they are transplanted from the continent of Europe, but there they are, there they stand, a sort of thin line of intellectual heroes, breakwater, to be beaten upon alike by European and by western and mid-western critical and destructive forces. They have been founded, for some time now, on the rock of higher English and French criticism, and it would take a good deal more than a posse of rough-riders or prairie boys from this or the other side of Spoon River, to dislodge them. Mr. Masters, however, sallies forth against the whole lot. No, not the whole. One, he spares with condescension; Emerson for some reason is to remain "American" because of some outstanding quality of spiritual sincerity. The rest, later growth, he claims are due to perish, geological peaks or even, you might think, plague spots; anyhow they are left high and dry in sterility, yet not quite extinct.

They should be, or soon will be, according to the prophet of Spoon River.

Mr. Frost and Mr. Robinson are anathematized by name, the rest by inference. The whole "eastern school" is in like predicament. These it specimens (and God pity them--they are that), instead of accruing, at long last, the laurels, due the dead obeying orders, Spartans at Thermopylae, are to be cast out, body and soul, from the land of their fathers, the living matrix "America," as geological deformities, sterile peaks, left high and dry by the living, retreating tidal wave of Spoon River.

Our Walt is not to blame for this, poor darling. He took one look at the west--this exalter of the farmer, the mechanic, the tan-faced generally--and slouched back home, lazy loafer who "invited his own soul." His job in New Orleans was not typically to his liking; even the wide, comfortable bars of that city of Latin pleasure did not hold him. Slow-going city of levees, of vivid and exotic cargo from the south, the far south, city of famous high-born belles and most beautiful creoles (waltz and crinoline, fragrance of native wax-white oleanders, orange-blossom, islands of magnolia), did not hold him. No lotus-temptation this. Simply Walt was lazier than New Orleans. Something flashing, gem-like, quick and agile, that darted in and out, hummingbird--no, he didn't like it. West indeed! Walt took a steam-boat back up the Mississippi, cut across, by canal, somewhere to the lakes, and this trip, the banks of this mighty river, the out-jutting rocks where Indians had fought but lately, tortured one another and been in turn tortured by the white man, held little worthy of his notice. At least, with the exception of a few personal letters and observations, he says practically nothing of this truly impressive waterway, except for the times and places of various boats, and all of those nosing homeward. Great, wide-winged, sea-soaked Albatross, having got to the south-west, with all the vast panorama of the mid-west and the far west to tempt him, back he floats, typically, the whole way on river and lake boats, and lands, by way of the Hudson, on a New Jersey mud-flat. He chose this unimpressive town for the simple reason, as he states it, that it was on a wide tidal river, the Delaware, opposite Philadelphia, sixty miles from the sea, where he could hear the gulls.

So Rip Van Winkle comes home with premature, impressive, whitebearded head and shaggy, fine hair. His skin was young, we are told, and contrastingly delicate, without wrinkles. . . .Here, this lazy loafer, this Dutchman, this Quaker, this Long Islander, this Camden New Jersey home-product, autochthonous, if anyone ever was, an "American," gave us those immortal "leaves," not shining laurel, it is true, but fragrant, simply "of grass." Of far-west prairies he might sing, but his leaves are from his own home-meadows, those sea-pastures he speaks of, his grandfather's vast acres of Long Island, fragrant, living, with reed-stem or hollow blade, or succulent and rich, to be plucked and bitten into, or simply to be savoured as that word "salt hay" he uses. Salt hay--there is the whole story. Here is the clue. Here is that throb and pulse, of necessity alas, lacking in the tempo of Spoon River. Passa Thalassa Thalassa ti.

Ever the sea is the sea.

Having dug himself into his sand or his mud banks, Walt was cosmically free to face anything; the west which his body had rejected became now the love of his spirit. Truly he has extolled the unbeaten tracks, the vast meadows of the Dakotas, the Nebraskas, Wisconsin, as an early Wagner, the gods of his Ring, undisturbed by conventional musical notation. The vast surge beat through him. But for all the pseudo exhaltation of the body and his claim of originality (he didn't want piano tunes), he derives blatantly from his own early adventure-books, Scott and Cooper. His are literary derivatives; his frame was that of an archaic Triton; for all his open disregard of so-called convention, he was in a tradition, a step onward, westward if you will, in the ladder of cosmic (his word) development. He is not alone either. Abraham Lincoln stands beside him.

Here now is our true westerner, to measure in breadth and stature with this other. A wide-winged eagle this, and truly democratic and truly "American." Of that, there can be no question. Lincoln took his strength from the inland, mighty river, symbol that drastically divided yet joined his country, the Nile of this western continent, and Lincoln was Egyptian, Red Indian, of impressive stature, beaked Hawk, Eagle, desert Vulture. Lincoln was spiritually of the land, the deserts of the far west, and he would have kept one (as an Egyptian, dependent on the flow and flux of his river), the whole land. North and south were watered by the father-of-waters, Mississippi, east and west took bounty of its tributaries. Egypt had its upper and lower kingdoms, frequently at variance. So, too, America. North and south must be one, no one must secede from the bounty of the rivers. Democracy? Lincoln, the westerner, carried his dream through, as a pioneer hacks through field and forest, regardless of anything but a goal; he acted a dream. Walt Whitman merely lived one.

Perched on his solid rock, within sound of the immortal sea, our Albatross is Greek really. He shrieks across America. His note may be high-pitched at times and raucous as a pea-hen, but back of it is the authentic "surge and thunder of the Odyssey." Abraham Lincoln, desert hawk, American eagle, spreading wide wings from mid-America, over north and south, becomes, alas, instrument of a grim Aesculean fate; he asks an answer from his oracle, which he follows. Aï-aï, alas. Autochthonous race conscience is still crying for its true-born children, its hearths, its gods, that fine cult of Louisiana, Carolina, the whole that Europe includes in the term, "the sixties." In a space of years of almost identical duration as our so-called "great" war, a civilization was wiped out. Descendants of old France, mixed noble and creole Spanish, buccaneers of Elizabethan tradition, slave-traders but technically in the right, regarding their claim to individual freedom of each individual state, were beaten, flower of 1860 romantic chivalry, off the map. Sherman s march to the sea, black war-cloud of pillage and plunder, could be fitly celebrated only in Aesculean or Euripidean threnody. Over it, however, hovered the "American," the characteristic, pure backwoods type, bleak and solitary vulture, Hero if you will, truly Promethian bird of ill-omen, of fate. Lincoln clawed back his e pluribus unum, the defeated secessionists, to find the prey lifeless, inert, of no more value. Carolina, Georgia, Virginia are the Trojan chorus of slaves, of authentic classic tragedy.

So far, so good.

But Walt?

No. He was not only, truly, a westerner. (Long Island, New York, Mr. Masters tells us, was really "the west.") He was a cosmic spirit, in that, ridiculously and truly "American," but dog-gone tired. He had this in common with the New England transcendentalists, he turned inward for his inspiration. For all of his seeming extroversion, he lived in his own dreams. These dreams were, it is true, the antithesis of his contemporaries'. The so-called New England mind is focused, Walt spelt diffusion. Both, however, drew from the same source, the sea, on the one hand, its mighty billows, the "surge and thunder," and on the other, the sparse, geometric precision of those white and rosepink shells, cast up by that same tide. New England and its derivatives or counterparts along that vast coast were "narrow" but "narrow" as an Ionic column is narrow or a beech-tree or a birch-tree, stark outlined against a snowy heaven. Yes, there it is all snow. Walt flung his exotic so-called sex profusion out toward the hinterland; Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and farther down the coast, Edgar Allan Poe, were content to delineate pearl and shell of their inner spiritual findings.

Robert Frost is "American," Emily Dickinson is "American." Sea-shell is "American," if cast on that shore, if found imprinted in that sand, no matter from what coast it has been born by the change and chances of tide or of tropic gulf-stream. An Irish immigrant from Kansas City of one generation or a Polish or Swedish miner or navvy from Milwaukee or from Saint Louis is surely less "American" than the rooted early settlers of the Atlantic sea-coast.

Marianne Moore, with again a clear lens-like Dutch perfection of technique, is "American." There is the great mountainous, uncharted matrix, truly, but the gem, that is formed or forms painfully by the inner law of its being is surely as truly, if not even more authentically, child of the original sub-strata. Take it, that there is the gem, or the gem-school, Emerson, Poe, Frost, Marianne Moore, and the vast enclosing matrix, personified by Walt and if you will, his followers. But why these quarrels over mere geographic or geometric boundaries? The north and south of Walt's time, all but exterminated their authentic children. Must invidious intellectual barriers be set up in our day, dividing east and west, as formerly, to their bitter self-destruction, separated north and south? Must a new Spoon River vulture rise to wail our doom? No. Even Spoon River finds its way eventually to the sea, and heaven forbid that I should belittle Mr. Masters' scholarly and stimulating contribution to the history of thought and to the English language. In particular, his historical resumé of the country's vast, disheartening struggle, to use a term applied to Europe during the "great" war, its suicide.

America had its "great" war. Mr. Masters outlines the history of that war and its aftermath so graphically, so concisely, and so humanly, that he has given me a pied-à-terre, a little ledge of the crescent of the Atlantic shore, to squawk from. A distant and febrile squawk from one resident, for a quarter of a century, away from that shelf of sand and shingle. But some of us stepped, as Walt stepped, back, in order to see forward. We view with devotion the course of that civilization whose e pluribus unum, in Walt's day, wrecked its finest culture, destroyed its most fragrant heritage.

Myrrh, aloes, cinnamon and spices. . .it is all kept somewhere in an ivory casket. On that alabaster or that ivory box is written,

Helen, thy beauty is to me
As those Nicæan barks of yore. . .
and so on. Garnering strength for a fresh bud of exotic beauty, Poe wrote himself to death, you might or might not say. At any rate, he died at the height of his powers, at the age of forty, and it was at about that age, or soon after, that Walt began his writing. Whitman, broken in health from pernicious virus, gangrene contracted from one of the many youths of both north and south he tended, began his authentic utterance. Vast Albatross no, we did not, would not shoot the Albatross.

But let Spoon River try to understand, to assimilate another sort of valour. Let Spoon River recognize the courage, the isolation, the insulation of the gem-soul that draws inward, true to its own law of being, to perfection, drawing too heavily on its physical strength to preserve its incandescent vertú. There is courage of outward definition, of the prairie boy school of thought. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, et cetera. And Walt's is the glory of the sun, the externalized thing, as Poe's is of the Moon, the internalized. Frost, speaking generally, is of these gem-souls, as is Marianne Moore. True, and here we sympathize with Mr. Masters, there is something almost sinister in the way the sapphire rejects the rough body of the rock, utilizes water, dew, whatever it is it uses, draws on the finest atoms and then by way of answering back, when we accuse it of selfish pandering to dead cults, to "mere" technique or what-not, humiliates us by that non- argumentative silence, that most impertinent of answers--no answer. It simply goes on shining.

From time to time, along that east sea-coast of America and not far inland, there springs up one of these strange incandescent forces or crystal centres for the focus of prismatic thought. Poets, lighthouses, outposts of some inner psychic civilization, an emerald, a white crystal, a jacinth ("thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face"). Inner valour, isolation, insulation is required for this burning up, this cerebral flaming in a vacuum. Small lights they may be, but steady. They throw their rays far. Agate lamp, maybe; ivory tower, it may be. But lightbearers, in their cycle, perfect. It is valorous to create. Walt Whitman created a continent. Abraham Lincoln, a war.

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I Sing Democracy by H.D., Rev. December 27, 2001 (http://www.imagists.org/hd/revw.html) Please send comments and suggestions to hh@imagists.org