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Walt Whitman and Our Multicultural America

ISSUE:  Autumn 1999

“This is a meal equally set.”

—Walt Whitman

Multiculturalism is a spongy term that has occasioned more debate than precise definition. The title of Nathan Glazer’s recent book argues that We Are All Multiculturalists Now, but how does this announcement usefully distinguish between those who would add, “And, Furthermore, We Have Always Been So” from those who find themselves uncomfortable with much that now marches under multiculturalism’s very wide banner? As with most litmus test issues, the discussion too often turns into a crude version of “which side are you on?”, with those supporting affirmative action or a curriculum driven by demographics counted on the side of the angels while those foolhardy enough to raise questions, much less sound notes of dissent, are cast as the scenario’s villains. The result often looks more akin to a face-off orchestrated by the World Wrestling Association than it does an examination of what mainstream multiculturalism means, and how it might differ from the identity politics often practiced in the groves of academe.

Walt Whitman’s deepest wish was that America would embrace him as its great seer and most authentically American poet. In large measure that did not happen, at least not in the ways that the Russian people embraced Pushkin, their national poet. Instead, Whitman became “required reading,” a fate that I suspect would have attracted Whitman as much as it surely would have repulsed him. Why so? First, because the Whitmanian persona did not believe that general readers should “work hard” to get at the meaning of poems (“Come with me,” his bardic voice confidently proclaims, “and I will show you the secret of all poems.”), and second, because Whitman ruminated about the curious national arithmetic of e pluribus unum (“Out of many one”) in ways that gave concrete expression—and vivid imagery—to the abstractions at the very heart of our democracy. In Whitman’s best lines, he casts himself as the spokesperson for women as well as men, blacks as well as whites, the well-heeled and the downtrodden. Taken together, the kaleidoscopic parts of America add up to . . .well, America.

Looking over my last paragraph I realize full well that I have stated the obvious—at the same time that I’m aware of the central truth in George Orwell’s remark that “it is first duty of intelligent men to restate the obvious.” Whatever else America maybe, one could argue that it remains something of a work in progress, a country still struggling to close the gap between high (abstract) ideals and less than idealist practice. Thus was it ever, at least since the days when St. John De Crevecouer defined the American as

He . . . who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced. . . . He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.

Letters from an American Farmer (1782)

For Crevecouer, the New World would be everything that the Old one wasn’t: democratic in spirit and possibility, freed from the warfare of competing nations and the ill will of differing religious perspectives, and perhaps most of all, dedicated to the new identity that, he believed, could only happen when one jettisoned the past and “melted” into an altogether American identity. As it turned out, however, historical baggage could not be thrown off as easily, much less as completely, as Crevecouer imagined. True enough, the idea of America as melting pot continues to have its defenders, even as such people admit that groups Crevecouer hadn’t included in his arithmetic (Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, the “unmeltable” ethnics Michael Novak called to our attention) seriously undermine the case for shedding an old skin on behalf of a new one.

Still, at a time when “pluribus” is the buzz word of the day, it is worth remembering the place of “unum” in the always complicated formula of American identity. What we share as Americans is the legacy of freedom announced in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To insist that “All men are created equal” has consequences that have propelled us toward the tragedy of Civil War, the civil rights movement of the early 1960’s, and our current multicultural passions. Here, Horace Kallen’s suggestion that melting pot homogeny be replaced by “cultural pluralism” is worth reconsidering as a way to distinguish between those versions of multiculturalism worthy of support from those deserving of censure. Kallen put his faith in the hyphen, and the way it could yoke the two sides of an individual consciousness. The result, he felt, made America a more interesting—and richer—place.

On this score, I believe that Kallen was right—not only about what makes many immigrant communities tick, but also about what various ethnic groups add to America’s ever-widening cultural stock. That much said, however, let me be more specific about the multiculturalism I support. What I have in mind is much more than the usual litanies about trying to imagine an America without the blues or jazz, without blue jeans and Irving Berlin, without, in short, a whole panoply of contributions from those who either sought out our shores or arrived in chains and against their will. Rather, what I think has not been addressed nearly enough is how a wide range of American citizens live in the dailiness of their daily life, for it is in the rights and opportunities guaranteed to average citizens that democracy meets its most important test. Put baldly, no group should feel the need to offer up oversized success stories as a way of deflecting discrimination. The words of our founding documents ought to be quite enough. That they, alas, are not, and that in the current jockeying for cultural advantage we hear far too much about what separates rather than what we share is the burden of the moment. For if multiculturalism devolves into a battle cry of the disenfranchised, we will have replaced an openness to excellence wherever it might manifest itself with the much narrower (and contentious) notions of identity politics.

Let a few illustrative examples suffice. Ralph Ellison saw himself as a writer who happened to be black rather than as a black who happened to be a writer. For this decision he suffered mightily at the hands of black critics who continually pressed him to join the Black Arts movement of the late 1960’s. Indeed, “demonized” is hardly too strong a word to describe the condition in which it is now possible for an undergraduate to major in African-American Studies and never encounter Ellison’s name much less turn the pages of Invisible Man (1952), a novel that takes an honorable place among the best writing American literature has produced. “How can this be?” one might reasonably ask. Because the struggle of Ellison’s protagonist to achieve “visibility,” an authentically human identity goes against the grain of those who imagine that creative writers should address the ongoing struggle of the group. The result, in short, is a case of literary politics at their most political. That Ellison saw himself in a modernist tradition which included T.S. Eliot and James Joyce was enough to seal his fate as a black writer currying white favor, and for this cultural defection he deserved the punishment that Afrocentrists such as Mulefi Asante were happy to dole out.

By contrast, Sandra Cisneros hit the literary jackpot with House on Mango Street (1991), a novel about growing up in the barrio. Given a world in which high school students are more likely to read about—and “study”—everything from shopping malls to the backs of cereal boxes, Cisneros’s novel is a decided improvement, however limited its artistic achievement. College classrooms are, however, another matter; and when one observes that House on Mango Street (rather than Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) turns up on required reading lists, there is legitimate cause for alarm. Which novel more fully demonstrates the power of language and imaginative vision—and even more than these technical matters, which novel best embodies the “liberation” our best literature has always inspired? The answer is obvious—that is, for anybody with eyes to read and ears to hear—and no amount of special pleading can change this. Joyce’s fiction teaches fledgling writers important lessons about how to shape their individual experiences and conditions. The same thing might be said about the work of Mark Twain (here, Ellison is downright eloquent about such debts) or William Faulker, the subject of Toni Morrison’s M.A. thesis.

Unfortunately, the radical multiculturalists have largely won in the battle over what constitutes essential books. Such people justify widening the literary canon on the grounds that certain voices have been silenced by an establishment that cares far too much about high standards. Thus, Sandra Cisneros does for Hispanics what poet Joy Harjo does for Native Americans. In such a game, nothing trumps inclusion, because that, more than anything else, is what radical multiculturalism is about. Should a retrograde type such as myself raise issues of aesthetic merit, I am told (often impatiently) that the normal benchmarks simply do not apply to writers of the multicultural sort. And when I mention Ellison, their eyeballs roll upward because he is the counter-example they would prefer to “silence.” No matter that such attitudes strike me as patronizing (ethnic writers of all sorts have been able to write distinguished fiction, thank you very much), or, worse, as downright racist because such arguments assume (wrongly) that special—and lowered—standards come with the territory of the formerly disenfranchised.

Whitman’s poetry celebrated a muscular America large enough to include multitudes at the same time it insisted that each constituency lovingly catalogued was a seamless part of the larger, often mystically imagined Union. In this sense, poetry not only allowed Walter Whitman, a fictionist of small distinction, to transmogrify himself into Walt Whitman, the swaggering persona of “Song of Myself,” but it also allowed him to so balance the strident claims on both sides of the slavery issue that he could write the following notebook entry in 1847:

I am the poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves . . .
I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters
and I will stand between the masters and the slaves,
entering into both so that both shall understand me alike.

David Reynolds argues, in Walt Whitman’s America (1995), that these lines are the first indicators of the voice and vision which, a mere eight years later, would forever change our definition of American poetry. Whatever else might be said about the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), one thing was clear: here was poetry simultaneously meant for the wide screen and aimed at the individual body. Granted, one could add a good many other “firsts” to the list. Whitman was the first American poet to capture successfully the rhythms of urban life and of the people who made their way across its mean streets, just as he was the first American poet to replace starchy postures with an open-throated acceptance of quotidian life as it really was. Who, after all, did Whitman exclude from his catalogues? He was the self-proclaimed poet of the near-at-hand and the far away, “the foolish as much as the wise.” Possibly, certified public accountants, I tell my students in one of those half-jokes designed to make business majors squirm, but what I really have in mind is Whitman’s sense that his poetic inventory struck at deeper truths than bean-counting and social protest.

Even more important, Whitman’s poetry provides a case study in multiculturalism at its best, for his poetic antennae could detect value from a wide variety of sources. When added up, the result was an America worth singing about. Was Whitman, perhaps, far too optimistic? Perhaps. His Romantic temperament was responsible for the visions of multicultural unity one feels in a poem such as “Passage to India,” just as much of this idealism later soured during the excesses of the Gilded Age. Whitman, in short, was a complicated poet and I do not mean to write him down in a single word. For example, it is hardly surprising that queer theorists emphasize his homosexuality because making such cases is what these people largely do—for William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf and a great many others in between. In a vain attempt to make the “queering of everything” go away, I am happy to concede that every writer is homosexual, and then to ask if we might spend our time reading the poetry that Emily Dickinson in fact produced. That, of course, is difficult, and much more demanding than establishing her credentials as a practicing lesbian. As with Shakespeare, the hard evidence about sexual preference is just not there (only those committed to finding what they search for will argue otherwise), but the work, thank God, is.

Granted, hard multiculturalists often don’t give a fig about literary discussions that focus on literature. What they want, above all else, to push the stock of writers who “do” what it is to be authentically Black, Hispanic, or Native American, rather than focus on what Faulkner once called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Out of such tensions comes the larger vision of an America that needs all the first-rate voices it can find. That said, however, mainstream multiculturalists understand full well that the search for artists of real distinction is likely to be frustrating. Writers such as Ralph Ellison or Toni Morrison are always rare commodities; but they will only emerge when the talent, training, and a measure of cultural good luck are in conjunction.

Put bluntly, multiculturalists need to know the difference (as Hamlet once put it) between a hawk and a handsaw—and, furthermore, they must be courageous enough to make the necessary distinctions. Multiculturalism of this sort establishes the playing field and high bars that serious writers can respect. By contrast, the inclination toward lavish overpraise, however well-meant, works in the opposite direction, one that sends precisely the wrong message to writers at the beginning of their careers. No artist worth his or her salt wants to end up as a “flavor of the month,” only to be replaced when the winds of fashion blow elsewhere. Rather, they want to be seen as American writers in something of the way that Whitman hoped to be regarded as the American poet. But for this to happen, there must be a richer sense of how the alternative rhythms of the particular and the universal actually work.

I see much that is promising among mainstream multiculturalism, and much more that is deserving of support. Granted, no contemporary writer strikes me as matching Whitman’s accomplishment, just as I think that no 20th-century fictionist is the equal of Hawthorne or Melville. But in our culturally contentious times, I take a measure of solace in the undisputed fact that there are American writers by the hundreds at the hard, demanding work of giving multicultural America the aesthetic treatment it deserves. And as for those radical multiculturalists longer on political agendas than a healthy regard for what literature can, and cannot do, their victories may well turn out to be shakier than they think.


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