Whitman, Poet X, and Our Essential Questions

In class, we have begun discussing what growing up in America is like today. Our class has so far read through two-thirds of Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poet X. We have also read, as a point of comparison, selections from Walt Whitman’s poems, including “One’s Self I Sing,” “I Hear America Singing,” and “Salut au Monde!” The first two poems are Whitman looking inward at America and emphasizing the particulars of the individuals within America. His catalogs of individuals serve the purpose of defining the larger group. Whatever America is, Whitman is arguing, it encompasses and celebrates each of the singular individuals he presents.  In comparison, “Salut au Monde!” is Whitman looking outward at the rest of the world. Again, Whitman is cataloging the world, and in so doing he is defining a global sense of humanity. At the same time, his posture toward that world is important: he ends by holding up a welcoming hand and declaring in French, “Hello World!”  There is some parallel here between Whitman’s outward facing raised hand of “hello” to the world and the raised torch of the Statue of Liberty (gifted after Whitman’s poem to the U.S. by the French), which is also outward facing toward the world. These two modes of perspective (looking in at ourselves or looking out at the world) can each play a part in defining what America is.

architecture art clouds landmark
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Our class discussion of Poet X has yielded a growing list of details based on the text that you have decided seem either general to growing up in America today or particular to specific upbringings that may vary depending on the household or community:

General

  • Male sexual attention
  • Moral rules of courtship
  • Insufficient authority over one’s own life
  • Censorship
  • Having your first “crush”
  • Expectations of men as being the “protector”
  • Care for someone means fighting for that person if need be.
  • Rebelling against the moral rules we are taught

Particular

  • Individual authority over spiritual questions
  • Draconian parents
  • Emotionally absent parents
  • Parental advocacy for religion
  • Having your first “crush” be negatively associated with drug addiction or bad behavior
  • Relationships supported and framed through music
  • Favored musical genres
  • Whether someone has a sufficient “care network”
  • Whether authority figures are “hard liners” or permit more “fuzzy” lines
  • How large a community is, with “community” here perhaps entailing small groupings within a large city
  • What form of punishment is accepted

There were also two details that the class thought hovered somehow between “General” and “Particular” and that the class was divided on categorizing:

  • Receiving the sexual attention of much older men
  • Caring for someone means personally and physically fighting for that person now, rather than contacting an authority figure instead.

The listed items above generally relate to the following topics:

  • Sexual attention
  • Religion
  • Parents
  • Censorship
  • Negative associations
  • Music
  • Care networks
  • Hard lines vs. “fuzzy” lines
  • Community size
  • Punishment
  • Heritage
  • Individual vs community

In addition, I pointed out that we will be discussing the following additional topics specifically over the course of the semester:

  • Home
  • Family
  • Language
  • Aliens
  • Fences
  • Crossing
  • Americans
  • Beliefs
  • The majority/Congress
  • The courts
priest using microphone
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In class, after some individual free writing, I tasked six groups of you to think about all of the above and propose one “essential” question that you think we should keep returning to for the rest of the semester. The questions you came up with were the following:

  • How do our surroundings (community, family, friends, ect.–or the lack thereof) affect who we are?
  • To what extent should punishment control who you are?
  • What factors can counterbalance the negative effects of a difficult or absent relationship with a parent?
  • How does race, ethnicity, language, and religion play into or change the definition of “American”?
  • How can America support maintaining cultural identity?
  • What should we value more, the beliefs of a person’s culture or the person’s individual beliefs?
white and grey voting day sign
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After a vote in which each of you who were present anonymously voted for two questions, your combined votes selected the three essential questions below that we will be focusing on for the rest of the semester. These three questions are all quite interesting. I am pleased and impressed with what the class has picked. I will post these at the top of our class calendar. Remember, class online discussion posts focusing on these questions will start next week. Here is the online discussion post assignment sheet.

Course Essential Questions

  • Essential Question #1: How do our surroundings (community, family, friends, ect.–or the lack thereof) affect who we are?
  • Essential Question #2: How does race, ethnicity, language, and religion play into or change the definition of “American”?
  • Essential Question #3: What should we value more, the beliefs of a person’s culture or the person’s individual beliefs?

ENGL 2220: Recap

As the course description states, our class will explore “the challenges, problems, and opportunities of a pluralistic American society.” A pluralist society is one that contains a  diversity of perspectives, such as a population containing a wide range of different family heritages or different religious beliefs, rather than a society where most people share the same family background and belief system. According to the CIA, for instance, the Greek population is 91.6% Greek, with 99% of the population speaking Greek, and 81-90% following the Greek Orthodox religion. In comparison, the composition of the U.S., as a country populated mostly by the descendants of immigrants, is much more complex:

us ancestry

We can get a sense of the continuing impact of immigration by comparing the above map to the following two showing the population densities in 1890 for German immigrants and for African Americans:

Germans

1890-map-distribution of germans

African Americans

statab1890

The 1890s may seem remote to us, but the population distribution for both of these groups is not much different today than it was in the 1890s. The effects of who are ancestors were and where they came to America to live continue to have an impact now on who we are and where we live.

At the same time, however, the U.S. is a relatively young country, especially when compared to countries like Greece, and it is continuing to change. The Pew Research Center has outline some major demographic changes reshaping the U.S. here, with a few notable changes being as follows:

  • The share of the U.S. population that is white is aging and dwindling and is projected to no longer comprise the majority of the population around 2055.
  • Asia, not Latin America or Europe, is now the biggest source of new immigrants.
  • More women are raising children alone or acting as the primary provider for their children
  • The middle class is shrinking while the two poles, lower and upper income households, are expanding
  • The number of individuals who profess affiliation with a form of Christianity is declining, and more people than ever before (22.8%) are claiming to be unaffiliated with any particular religion. Those who are unaffiliated now exceed Mainline Protestants (14.7%) and Catholics (20.8%), and they almost equal the number of Evangelical Protestants in America (25.4%).

These diverse and changing demographics and perspectives potentially present challenges and opportunities America must address in order to remain one nation. How can such a country stand united when it is comprised of so many divergent parts?

Walt Whitman’s poetry suggests one answer. Prior to writing poetry, he worked for newspapers for which he engaged in the heated cultural controversies of the 1840s, including the supposed threat that an increasing Catholic presence presented. The following are all quotes from Whitman’s early writing for newspapers. Note the heated and divisive tone and the incorporation of the pronoun “we” as a way to claim authority for his voice:

  • Whitman carried out a heated campaign against Bishop Hughes, “this cunning, flexible, serpent tongued priest, who has had the insolence to appear in the public forum” and to advocate for Catholic schools (“Sectarianism” 43).
  • Bishop Hughes, Whitman claims in one especially overblown attack, “uses his pontifical robes to cover the blackest, most traitorous heart in the broad limits of the American republic” (“The Aurora” 60).
  • Whitman attacked others in the media: “several of the most presumptuous and ignorant newspapers in the city have taken up the cudgels in defence of the Hughes party—those who desire to overturn our admirable system of public instruction. We have nothing to say to these ninnies” (“The Schools” 54).
  • Again regarding Bishop Hughes, “We feel called upon to condemn [him] in the
    strongest terms” because the bishop’s efforts risk “the people’s true interest”(“Sectarianism” 43, emphasis added).
  • “The Aurora, we imagine, . . . needs no certificate of it character for courage. . . . We have nerve enough to face the fire of battle, and stand by our cølors, and peal out the rallying cry to the last, in support of any cause which we sincerely believe to be holy and patriotic. . . . [W]e neither fear this cunning, selfish Hughes, nor any of his wretched gang” (“The Aurora” 59, emphasis added).

These quotes exhibit a Whitman who was quite heated in his engagement with divisive social issues over which he attempted to present himself as speaking for more than himself. Unfortunately for his newspaper career, he was frequently fired for his outspoken views, including for his distaste for slavery. Eventually, he left the newspaper business to work in the family business as a carpenter. In 1855, he released the first version of his famous Leaves of Grass containing a revolutionary poetry that startled and disrupted the accepted sense of the form of poetry and its subject matter. The beginning featured a picture of himself wearing working-class clothes:

walt 1855

This was not what a sophisticate and cultured poet was at that time supposed to look like, and his poetry celebrated the everyday working-class individual, who he routinely connected to America, rather than focusing on nobles, the rich, and the elite. “One’s Self I Sing” (available here) and and “I Hear America Singing” (available here) are good examples. Notice that in “One’s Self I Sing,” he makes an important claim: “One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person, / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” Rather than using the “we” of his newspaper days, he is focusing on the “I” and the self, but in doing so he is claiming that for America, the celebration of the individual self is what can join the myriad selves together. This shift is coupled with a generosity of tone and spirit not equalized in his earlier writing. For Whitman, faced with the challenge of how to represent a pluralist America as one nation, the solution was not to construct one shared perspective but instead to celebrate the multitude of individual selves, because the self contains the multitude.

As we begin working through reading Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poet X, I want to keep the above in mind. What challenges does Poet X suggest are presented by growing up today in America? What opportunities are presented? Does Whitman’s poetry offer any suggestions for today for navigating the cultural controversies of our contemporary period?

If you are interested in reading more of Whitman’s journalism, you can find the articles referenced above here:

Whitman, Walt. “Sectarianism and Our Public Schools.” The Journalism, edited by Herbert Bergman, Douglas A. Noverr, and Edward J. Recchia, vol. 1, Peter Lang, 1998, pp. 42–43.

—. “The Aurora and the School Question.” The Journalism, edited by Herbert Bergman, Douglas A. Noverr, and Edward J. Recchia, vol. 1, Peter Lang, 1998, pp. 59–60.

—. “The Schools, March 15, 1842.” The Journalism, edited by Herbert Bergman, Douglas A. Noverr, and Edward J. Recchia, vol. 1., Peter Lang, 1998, p. 54.