Another National Anthem: Walt Whitman and the Journey of American Optimism

 Watching them, one almost wishes the moment would never end. And over all this, Dorothy’s small, brave voice fills the darkened theater. She is saying something about home. She is saying something everyone knows.

–Joe Hill, “20th Century Ghost”

 

The New World is one of ghosts and gods, of secularism and sacred texts. These texts — from the Declaration of Independence to Huckleberry Finn, John Winthrop’s “A City on A Hill” to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington, The Book of Mormon to Dianetics, and from Porgy and Bess to The (other) Book of Mormon  — are vivisected and dissected. Historians and Presidents, culture critics and the common man draw from them, often to nefarious ends, but rarely with nefarious intent. For to seek to understand these texts is to seek communion with their authors, these men and women who, for an enduring moment, discovered what it means to live in the New World — what it means to be an American. But in these authors, encased in their tombs of marble, remain silent. They have no new words to offer us, and so we must rely on imagination.

Let us imagine, then, one of the most famous of these American gods, Walt Whitman. Let us picture his ghost walking through America near the end of the first decade of the 21st century. A New Yorker and traveler both, imagine his journey begins at the construction site for the new World Trade Center. He rides south on the Amtrak, pausing in Washington, D.C. to visit the Lincoln Memorial, and then, the living memorial to Lincoln inside the Oval Office. (Whitman’s Ghost doesn’t speak to the already-embattled President; he is smart enough to know that President Obama has better things to do, and besides, it was Bill Clinton who was the real fan of his work.) Other cities dot his journey — Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia — before moving west, through the Rust Belt, through the steel towns of Pittsburgh and Cleveland, through woods and suburbs destroyed first by foreclosure, and then by crystal meth. 

In time, Whitman comes to the city that has come to symbolize all of America’s current troubles, a city once known as the beating heart of America’s industrial might, whose products crossed the globe and praised by poets in song. A city now burned down and hollowed out, whose last remaining manufacturers — the men who made those products — are close to becoming ghosts like Whitman. One is set to file for bankruptcy the following Monday, another is already in Chapter 11 (Klein). The streets are silent. Everyone is at the game.

It is a game Whitman knows, though he prefers baseball, and although that sport is in season this June of 2009, everyone in Detroit is at the Joe Louis Arena, watching the Detroit Red Wings play in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. And so Whitman goes to “the Joe,” arriving just in time to hear a familiar piano melody begin, over and over, echoing out of the arena’s PA system. The fans begin to sing:

Just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world — 

 They sing a song of defiance, expressing a love for “who they are and where they came from,” shouting into an uncertain future together, as one (Klein). The announcer playing this song, which has gone from a symbol of overblown rock pomposity (that guitar solo!) to symbol of resilience and moving forward, a collective nation on a midnight train going anywhere (that guitar solo), drops down the volume on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Detroit howls once more.

Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit.

Through his tears, Walt Whitman realizes that South Detroit is actually Canada. 

It might seem a little silly, the idea of Walt Whitman’s Ghost moved to tears by an endearingly pompous rock anthem from an endearingly pompous arena rock band from 1981. However, one need only look at the list of body parts which end Whitman’s own “I Sing The Body Electric” to realize that Whitman was no stranger to the endearingly pompous. (Seriously. Take a look at that list sometime. It’s like the never-ending piano melody of early modern poetry.) Time and time again, Whitman returns to the same ideas that Steve Perry, Jonathan Cain, and Neal Schon would later use when writing “Don’t Stop Believin’.” In section 48 of “Song of Myself,” he writes “And you or pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the earth…/And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero/And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d universe” (Myself, Whitman). This idea — that the United States is one of boundless optimism, where anyone can make a success of themselves — sounds much like these lines from “Don’t Stop Believin’:” “Some may win/Some may lose/And some were born to sing to the blues/But the movie never ends, it just goes on and on and on and on” (Journey). 

Whitman, too, is a master of the swift character sketch — in “I Sing The Body Electric,” consider “the swimmer naked in the swimming-bath, seen as he swims through the transparent green-shine…” or “the group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner kettles, and their wives waiting” (Electric, Whitman). Whitman uses these sketches to describe America, describe life in the New World, in all its shades, from the slave to the laborer, from the New Yorker to the New Orleanian. Today, one can read Leaves of Grass and see the faces of those people — people you may know, or people who only exist in some mythical idea of America — just as vividly as one pictures “a singer in a smoky room/a smell of wine and cheap perfume/for a smile they can share the night” (Journey). 

Near the end of his life, having grown in esteem after the Civil War, Whitman wrote a “Postscript” to his literary career for Lippincot’s Magazine. “The living face and voice and emotional pulse only at last hold humanity together…” he wrote. “One of my dearest objects in my poetic expression has been to combine these Forty-Four United States into One Identity, fused, equal, and independent. My attempt has been mainly of suggestion, atmosphere, reminder, the native and common spirit of all, and perennial heroism” (Postscript, Whitman 1344).

It is these attempts of suggestion, atmosphere, and perennial heroism that echo in Walt Whitman’s ears alongside Steve Perry’s voice as he leaves the Joe Louis Arena and take flight. He soars over the Great Lakes and the Sun Belt, over the Rockies and the shores of San Diego. He flies, and as he flies, he hears a nation singing that song. It is covered by acapella groups and bluegrass ones, by hair metalers and indie rock girls. It is sung by drunken lawyers in kareoke bars and teenagers at high school dances, by sports teams and glee clubs of every stripe and every varying level of talent. It is a song that has defied the learn’d astronomers of rock criticism, existing in a perfect silence among the best of popular song.

 It is a song of optimism in the face of calamity — a song of the New World, a song that speaks to the best of Walt Whitman, and the best of all Americans. Some may win. Some may lose. And yes, some are born to sing the blues. But whether you’re a small town girl or a city boy, we are all — as Americans — blessed with a common spirit of perennial heroism, and the songs, the poems, that celebrate us celebrate our unfailing ability to roll the dice just one more time, and to never stop believin’ in not just ourselves, but each other. The idea of Walt Whitman crying at “Don’t Stop Believin’” is perhaps a silly one — but not only would he have cried at that moment in July 2009, he would have sung along.

 

Cited Works

Hill, Joe. “20th Century Ghost.” 20th Century Ghosts. New York: Harper Collins, 2007. Print.

Journey. “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Escape. Columbia, 1981. MP3.

Klein, Jeff Z. “At The Joe, Detroiters Sing ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.” New York Times: Slap Shot. New York Times, 1 June 2009. Web. 7 June 2009. 

Whitman, Walt. “I Sing The Body Electric.”

Whitman, Walt. “The Old Man Himself: A Postscript.” Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.”

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