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INTRODUCTION
WHITMAN’S AMERICA

The men of old declared that the lands of adventure lay in the West, for they were bold to follow the course of the sun; and to this day the bold do not look back to seek romance behind them in the East.

Whether this be the whole truth or no, such is the notion that comes upon the wind when, journeying westward in mid-Atlantic, you begin to know the faces on ship-board, and to understand what it is that is in their eyes. Strange eyes and foreign faces have these voyagers—dwellers upon Mediterranean shores, peasants from the borders of the Baltic, or dumb inhabitants of the vast eastern plains, huddled now together in the ship. But in them is a hope which triumphs over the misery of the present as it has survived the misery of the past, and to-day that hope has a name, and is America. For America is indeed the hope of the forlorn and disinherited in every land to whom a hope remains. From the ends of the earth they set out, and separated from one another by every barrier of race and language, meet here upon the ocean, having nothing in common but this hope, this dream which will yet weld them together into a new people. For the comfortable dreamer there is Italy and the[Pg xx] Past, but for many millions of the common people of Europe and of Italy herself—and the common people too have their dream—America, the land of the Future, is the Kingdom of Romance.

Nor to these only, but, as I think, to every traveller not unresponsive to the genius of the land. For it is the genius of youth—youth with its awkward power, its incompleteness, its promise. And the home of this genius must be the land not only of progress and material achievement, but also of those visions which haunt the heart of youth. America is more than the golden-appled earthly paradise of the poor, it is a land of spiritual promise. And more perhaps than that of any nation the American flag is to-day the symbol of a Cause, and of a Cause which claims all hearts because ultimately it is that of all Peoples.

And America has another claim to be regarded as truly romantic. Hers is the charm of novelty. It is not the glamour of the old but of the new, and the perennially new. Some four centuries have passed since the days of Columbus, centuries which have dimmed the lustre of many another adventurous voyage into dull antiquity, but America is still the New World, and the exhilarating air of discovery still breathes as fresh in the West as on the first morning.

With that discovery there dawned a new historic day whose sun is not yet set. We instinctively put back the beginning of our own era to the time of Elizabeth, that Virgin Queen in whose colony of Virginia the American people was first born, to grow up into maturity under its statesmen.

[Pg xxi]

And if we see but vaguely in the greyest hours of our dawn the figure of the Discoverer, while beyond him all seem strange as the men of yesterday—if we behold our own sun rising on the broad Elizabethan hours—how fitting it is that the New World should be peopled by those who still retain most of the temper of that generous morning! The American of to-day with his thirst for knowledge, his versatility, his quick sense of the practicable, his delight in the doing of things, his directness and frankness of purpose, his comradeship and hospitality, his lack of self-consciousness—with all the na?ve inconsistencies, the amiable braggings, the mouthings of phrases, and the love of praise which belong to such unconsciousness of self—with his glowing optimism, his belief in human nature, his faith and devotion to his ideals—the American of to-day is in all these things the Elizabethan of our story. America is the supreme creation of Elizabethan genius—its New World, to which even that world which we call “Shakespeare” must give place.[1]

The Romance of America is not only new, it is like a tale that is being told for the first time into our own ears. And like some consummate story whose chapters, appearing month by month, hold us continually in expectant suspense, its plot is still evolving and its characters revealing themselves, so that as yet we can only guess at its dénouement.

I call it a Romance, for it is indeed a tale of wonder; but unlike the old romances its[Pg xxii] bold realism is not always beautiful. The style of its telling is often loud, its words blunt, its rhythm strange and full of changes. But it has a large Elizabethan movement which cannot be denied. Denounce and deprecate as we will, all that is young in us responds to it. The story carries us along, at times by violence and in our own despite, but so a story should. It may be the end will justify and explain passages that to-day are but obscure: no story is complete until the end, and America has not yet been told. It is still morning there: and the heart of it is still the heart of youth.

The unprejudiced and candid visitor will be provoked to criticism by much that he sees in the United States; but even his criticism will be prompted by the possibilities of the country. It is this sense of its possibilities which captures the imagination, and fills the mind with the desire to do—to correct, it may be—but in any case to do.

The incentive to action is felt by everyone, American or immigrant, and dominates all. Here for the first time one seems to be, as it were, in a live country, among a live people whose work is actually under its hand and must occupy it for years to come. In England things are different; the country does not so audibly challenge the labourer to till and tame it. It does not say so plainly to every man—I want you: here is range and scope for all your manhood. Only the seer can read that word written pathetically across all this English countryside whose smooth air of completion conceals so[Pg xxiii] blank a poverty. In America the very stones cry out, and all who run must read. And thus the whole American atmosphere is that of action.

The Chinese, that most practical of peoples, have an old saying that the purpose of the true worship of heaven is to spiritualise the earth. It is a reminder that materialism and mysticism should go hand in hand.

Now the American is often, and not unjustly, accused of sheer materialism. But by temper he is really an idealist. The very Constitution of the United States, not to mention the famous Declaration, is no less transcendental than the Essays of Emerson, nor less weighty with deep purpose than the speeches of Lincoln. All these are characteristic utterances of the American genius; they have been attested by events, and sealed in the blood of a million citizen soldiers.

And how, one may ask, could the citizens of a State which more than any other manifestly depends for its life upon communion in an ideal be other than idealists? Gathered from every section of the human race, this people has become a nation through its consciousness of a Cause; its members being possessed not of a common blood, tradition or literature, but of a purpose and idea sacred to all. If then the national life depends upon the living idealism of the people, the actual unquestionable vigour of this national life may be taken as evidence of the strength of that idealism. But, on the other hand, the nation’s present pre-occupation with its merely material success conceals the gravest of all its perils, because it threatens the very principle of the national life.

[Pg xxiv]

Thus held together by its future, and not as seem most others, by their past, the American nation has been slow in coming to self-consciousness, slow therefore in producing an original or national art. Hitherto it has been occupied with its own Becoming; and to-day, to virile Americans, America remains the most engrossing of occupations, the noblest of all practicable dreams.

The spirit of the Renaissance has here attempted a task far graver than in Medician Florence or Elizabethan London: to create, namely, not so much a new art as a new race. It has here to achieve its incarnation not in line and colour, not in marble nor in imperishable verse, but in the flesh and blood of a nation gathered from every family of Man. And for that, it is forever assimilating into itself scions of every European people, and transforming them out of Europeans into Americans.

Vast as such a process is, the assimilation of all their surging aspirations and ideals into one has been hardly less vast. It is little wonder then that America has been slow in coming to self-consciousness. What is wonderful is her organic power of assimilation. And now there begin to be evidences in American thought of a spiritual synthesis, the widest known. As yet they are but vague suggestions. But they seem to indicate that when an American philosophy takes the field it will be pragmatical in the best sense; too earnestly concerned with conduct and with life to be careful of symmetry or tradition; directed towards the future, not the past. It will be a philosophy of possibilities founded upon the study of an adolescent race.

[Pg xxv]

It seemed natural to preface this study of Whitman with a sketch of the American genius. Doubtless that genius has other aspects than those here presented, and to some of these, later pages will bear witness; but the impression I have attempted to reproduce is at least taken from life. It is, moreover, not unlike that of Whitman himself as presented in his first Preface, and is even more suggestive of the America of his youth than that of his old age.

Every thinker owes much to his time and race, and Whitman more than most. He always averred that the story of his life was bound up with that of his country, and took significance from it. To be understood, the man must be seen as an American. As a Modern, we might add, for the story of his land is so brief.

Dead now some thirteen years, and barely an old man when he died, his personal memory seemed to embrace nearly the whole romance. His grandfather was acquainted with old Tom Paine, whose Common Sense had popularised the Republican idea in the very hour of American Independence: he himself had talked with the soldiers of Washington, and as a lad[2] he had met Aaron Burr who killed the glorious Hamilton, sponsor for that Constitution which when Whitman died was but a century old.

In the seven decades of his life the American population had multiplied near seven-fold, and had been compacted together into an imperial nation. It seemed almost as though he could remember the thirteen poor and jealous States,[Pg xxvi] with their conflicting interests and traditions, their widely differing climates, industries and inhabitants, separated from one another by vast distances—and how they yielded themselves reluctantly under the hand of Fate to grow together in union into the greatest of civilised peoples; while central in the story of his life was that Titanic conflict whose solemn bass accompaniment toned and deepened loose phrases and popular enthusiasms into a national hymn.

Himself something of a poet—how much we need not attempt to estimate—he did continual homage to that greater Poet, whose works were at once his education and his library—the genius of America. None other, ancient or medi?val, discoursed to his ear or penned in immortal characters for him to read, rhythms so large and pregnant. It was the prayer and purpose of his life that he might contribute his verse to that great poem; and his life is like a verse which it is impossible to separate from its context. That he understood, and even in a sense re-discovered America, can scarcely be denied by serious students of his work. I believe that the genius of America will in time discover some essential elements of herself in him, and will understand herself the better for his pages.

Belonging thus to America as a nation, the earlier scenes of Walt Whitman’s story are fitly laid in and about metropolitan New York. It was not till middle life and after the completion and publication of what may be regarded as the first version of his Leaves of Grass—the[Pg xxvii] edition that is to say of 1860—that he removed for a while to the Federal capital where, throughout the War, the interest of America was centred. Afterwards he withdrew to Camden, into a sort of hermitage, midway between New York and Washington.

Though his heart belonged to the West, the Far West never knew him. Both north and south, he wandered near as widely as the limits of his States. He knew the Mississippi, the Great Lakes, and the Rocky Mountains; but all that vast and wonderful country which reaches west from Colorado towards Balboa’s sea was untrodden by his feet. A circle broadly struck from the actual centre of population, and taking in Denver, New Orleans, Boston and Quebec, includes the whole field of his wanderings within a radius of a thousand miles. He was not a traveller according to our modern use of the word; he had never lost sight for many hours of the shores of America; even Cuba and Hawaii were beyond his range.

But he had studied nearly all the phases of life included in the Republic. His birth and breeding in the “middle States” gave him a metropolitan quality which neither New England nor the South could have contributed. Of peasant stock, himself an artizan and always and properly a man of the people, he was of the average stuff of the American nation; and his everyday life—apart from the central and exceptional fact of his individuality—was that of millions of unremembered citizens. Whitman was not only an American type, he was also a type of America.

[Pg xxviii]

The typical American is not city born. Rapidly as that sinister fate is overtaking the Englishman, the native American is still of rural birth.[3] And, as we have said, Whitman was of the average; he was born in Long Island of farming folk.

But he was a modern, and the modern movement throughout the world is citywards. Everywhere the Industrial Revolution is destroying the economy of our ancestors and creating another; diverting all the scattered energy which springs out of the countryside into the great reservoirs of city life, there to be employed upon new tasks.

Modern life is the life of the town, and for many years it was Whitman’s life. But again every town depends for its vitality and wealth upon the countryside. The city is a mere centre, factory and exchange. It cannot live upon itself. It handles everything but produces none of all that raw material from which everything that it handles is made. Especially is this true of the human stuff of civilisation. Men are only shaped and employed in cities—they are not produced there. The city uses and consumes the humanity that is made in the fields. And Whitman, who was drawn into the outskirts of the metropolis as a child, and as a young man entered into its heart, was born among wide prospects and shared the sane life of things that root in the earth. He was the better fitted to bear and to correlate all the fierce stimuli of metropolitan life.


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