Walt Whitman's "America" Today

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Walt Whitman is the old grandfather of the young American canon of poetry. His perverse, sensual, and meandering style made him controversial in his own time, but Leaves of Grass has become a seminal work of American literature. But more than that, Whitman is considered by many to be the greatest American poet for the reason that he truly loved America at a time when the country was ripe with political turmoil and moral and existential angst. But Whitman believed in the idea of America, its possibility in its vastness, its culmination of free bodies and free minds on the land.

But how does Whitman's hopefulness look today? Would he recognize the country he so vehemently believed in?

America (1888-89)
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair'd in the adamant of Time.

Walt Whitman-1891



Notes and Junk

Whenever the discussion of "the canon" resurfaces in literary circles or in the graduate seminar, it is usually marked by dissenting opinions and a sort of internal conflict in the student of literature, who grew up loving the canon for its accessibility and density of works that at least gave them the air of intellectual superiority, but now consciously rejects its pious exclusivity, colonial sympathies, and old-white-male-ness that the groups seems to hold hands around. Anyone who has gone to grad school as a profession of their love of "literature" and then found themselves reading Terry Eagleton instead, knows what I'm talking about.

This discussion almost inevitably morphs into a discussion of relevance. Is it relevant? The canon only exists now subversively, and to justify our shameful love of racists, conservatives, and colonial sympathizers, cloaked in liberal humanism we claim relevance in the smallest of things, never flat out saying what we mean: Their words made me feel good. But there are some in the canon we find easy to accept. People who would never harm a fly.
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