continuing to celebrate Walt Whitman – (and Whitman’s prescience)
from Allen’s 1980 essay, “On Walt Whitman, Composed on the Tongue, or, Taking A Walk Through Leaves of Grass” (originally published in Walt Whitman – The Measure of His Song (1981) and included in the essay-collection, Deliberate Prose (2000))
“There was a man, Walt Whitman, who lived in the nineteenth century in America, who began to define his own person, who began to tell his own secrets, who outlined his own body, and made an outline of his own mind, so other people could see it. He was the sort of prophet of American democracy in the sense that he got to be known as the good gray poet when he got to be an old, old man because he was so honest and so truthful and at the same time was so enormous-voiced and bombastic that he sounded his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”, writing in New York City probably then, thinking of the skyline and roofs of Manhattan as it might have been in 1883 or so. He began announcing himself, and announcing person with a big capital P. Person, self, or one’s own nature, one’s own original nature, what you really think when you’re alone in bed, after everybody’s gone home from the party or when you’re looking in the mirror, shaving, or you’re not shaving and you’re looking in the mirror, looking at your long, white aged beard, or if you’re sitting on the toilet, or thinking to yourself “What happened to life?” “What happened to your Mommy?’ or if you’re just walking down the street, looking at people full of longing…”
“So he goes on, (in Leaves of Grass) “To the States”, announcing: “To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist much, obey little / Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,/Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of the earth, ever/afterwards resumes its liberty.”
Well, that’s a warning to America, much needed later on, when, as Eisenhower, President a hundred years later, once warned, “Watch out for the military-industrial complex which demands unquestioning obedience and slavery to military aggression”. Fear, nuclear apocalypse, unquestioning obedience like “Don’t ask, maybe they know better than you do. So this is a warning from Whitman about the difficulties of democracy…..”
The entirety of Allen’s essay is worth revisiting.