Lance Morrow Sings of America

  • Share
  • Read Later
The air is still and golden. The summer trees are fat with their foliage. On Fourth of July weekend, I am rereading David Reynolds' splendid book "Walt Whitman's America" (1995). It gives me, among other things, a sense of reassuring continuity. We need the past — good, bad, mythic, squalid — as a counterweight. It is sometimes hilarious to see what a mess — embroiled, quotidian, contemporary — the American past actually was.

Here is a thought that Whitman — the great American affirmationist, author of the line "The United States themselves are the greatest poem" — offered in 1857:

    "There is something radically wrong in modern society: while wealth and luxury are on the increase, happiness and contentment are on the decrease."

One of the newspapers Whitman read regularly, the New York Atlas, reported: "Horrible murders, stabbings, and shootings, are now looked for, in the morning papers, with as much regularity as we look for our breakfast." Whitman called New York "crime-haunted and dangerous." He said, "the revolver rules, the revolver is triumphant."

A sensationalist press was in lurid bloom. The Know-Nothing party flourished on nativist paranoias and disgust with immigrants. In a prose tract called "The Eighteenth Presidency!", Whitman referred to politicians as "pimps," "excrement," and "serpentine men." Slavery had the sanction of law.

And so — I am backing very slowly here into the last refuge of a scoundrel, just give me a moment — the controversies of our day seem, if not innocuous by comparison, then at least pretty much the same old American thing. The dilemmas remain. The Supreme Court in recent days has handed down decisions on gays in the Boy Scouts, Miranda rights, prayer at high school football games, and — disgracefully — on partial birth abortion. Whitman's day had the Dred Scott decision, which denied American citizenship to blacks. The Supreme Court, never truly the last word on anything, has much to answer for.

Of course in Whitman's 1850s the United States was a ship on the rocks, breaking apart. The Civil War, the first modern war, with its industrial carnage, was imminent. Whitman cherished a magnificent illusion that he could save the union with a poem — an act of imaginative cohesion that would resolve the great American paradox of individual dignity in democratic mass. His "I" was an immense ego joined to an even larger "we," so that he wrote in Leaves of Grass, "[I am] one of the great nation, the nation of many nations," and in the embrace of his rhetoric (bombast that would go gossamer, radiant with the genius of his ardor, his generosity), he became endlessly specific about each trade, and put in motion, Homerically, each deckhand, stevedore, scholar, prostitute, drunkard, slave, "Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff," policeman, suicide, trapper, blacksmith, ploughboy, carpenter, contralto, spinning-girl, machinist, squaw, paving-man, flatboatman, fare-collector... on and on, the vast catalog of individualities making up the sum.

Walt Whitman is one of the favorite writers of Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary magazine, who has written a new book called "My Love Affair With America." Podhoretz' subtitle is: "The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative." I admire Podhoretz immensely for the clarity, decency, and, shall we say, ruthlessness of his thought, but "cheerful" is not the first word he brings to my mind. A few years ago at a dinner in a highly WASP old club in New York, I watched Podhoretz sink his teeth (figuratively speaking) into a supercilious liberal's calf in the way a very focused dog goes after the mailman. He did not let go for three hours or so. I forget what they were fighting about.

In "My Love Affair With America," however, the tone is nostalgic, occasionally tender and only intermittently combative. It's a lovely book, and sometimes funny. Podhoretz, growing up poor in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, spoke with such a fierce Brooklyn accent that after he told a teacher "I goink op de stez" ("I'm going up the stairs"), he was placed in a remedial English class that left him speaking English of accentless, place-neutral gentility. He credits this development with much of his later success (Columbia University, Oxford, his long career among the New York intellectuals). The family back in Brooklyn would demand, from time to time, "So what is he, a joinalist?"

Podhoretz has been a brilliant controversialist, speaking from the left and, for the last 30-odd years, from the right. He has defended America against attacks from both left and right. He has always sought, by means of his writing and editing, to do what Whitman dreamed of doing with his poem — sort out the mess, make it coherent, whole.