It’s December again, and the sky outside my window is still dark at 5:20 this morning. In my American Literature class this semester, we are finishing up the semester with Walt Whitman, that wild poet of the 19th Century, without whom 20th Century American poetry would not exist, and whatever else we learn from Whitman, we learn to love the particulars of his world and ours.
The pure contralto sings in the organ loft;
The carpenter dresses his plank—the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp;
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner;
The pilot seizes the king-pin—he heaves down with a strong arm;
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat—lance and harpoon are ready;
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches;
The deacons are ordain’d with cross’d hands at the altar;
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel;
The farmer stops by the bars, as he walks on a First-day loafe, and looks at the oats and rye;
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum, a confirm’d case, (He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bed-room;)
The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case, He turns his quid of tobacco, while his eyes blurr with the manuscript;
The malform’d limbs are tied to the surgeon’s table, What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
The quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand—the drunkard nods by the bar-room stove;
The machinist rolls up his sleeves—the policeman travels his beat—the gate-keeper marks who pass;
The young fellow drives the express-wagon—(I love him, though I do not know him;) The half-breed straps on his light boots to complete in the race;
Whitman’s work illuminates the common-place, the particular people who inhabited his time. I can think of no better thing to think about than this at this troubled time in our history. We are, as a country, reeling from the deaths of young men at the hands of heavily-armed police, we are sending drones to the Middle East to kill people whose faces we will never see. Our politicians seem caught up in petty arguments and seem unable to come together to make the decisions the country desperately needs them to make.
However, in Whitman’s middle age, the country he loved was engulfed in the Civil War, which wrought destruction and brutality on a nation barely out of its infancy. Whitman’s poems of the war show individual soldiers, not faceless combatants. By naming the particular, by showing, as he does, the curl of a hair on the back of someone’s hand, he shows us humanity.
And so, when my daughter posted a photo of a pair of white patent leather party shoes that her four-year old daughter found in a second hand shop, I stopped to remember a pair that my daughter had had at about the same age. It is too easy to bemoan the materialism of our culture, especially at this time of year, but often delight comes from just such things as a pair of white patent leather shoes. My granddaughter will wear these little shoes and feel like dancing, just as her mother did at the same age. As we get older, we learn that material things alone do not make us happy, but even as adults, certain things bring us joy. The yearly flowering of my Christmas cactus, the touch of my children’s hands, a particularly good cup of coffee: it is the particulars that create our world. We do not live generic lives, we are not, thank goodness, delighted by the same things, we do not sing the same tunes. Whitman writes, “I hear America singing.” He would have loved the white patent leather shoes.