from Preface to Leaves of Grass
“Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost. This is what you shall do: Love the earth and the sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open aire every season of every year or your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent line of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in ever motion and joint of your body…The poet shall not spend his time in uneeded work.”
from “Preface to Leaves of Grass”
As I am preparing for a final exam in a class on Hawthorne and Melville, I have turned over and over one of the courses most basic postulates, albeit one not once discussed. It is supposed that Hawthorne and Melville were searching for an American literary shiloh or messiah; yet I am hard pressed to find such literary self-awareness or historical quest in any of their works that we read. Both writers seem more concerned with American political ideals rather than the state of American poetry or literary independence. Perhaps what the careful writer of my syllabus intended me to conclude is that in the process of examaning America as a political project, both Hawthorne and Melville became, in their own ways, the American literary messiah, proclaiming the year of literary freedom from oppressive contintental association.
Yet both artists, in their individual ways, failed to express the hollow freedom of the American poetic being as Whitman so succintly charges in “Preface.” This does not mean that either was not indeed a great writer; they each deserve perhaps a more valued seat in the canon that Whitman himself. But what I mean is that Whitman created a poetry of experience which existed without contingency, in either form or language. The ideals which his poetic charge entails embodies, rather than critiques, the liberal, democratic emptiness of the American project. It is then somewhat ironic, I believe, that he states “Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most needs poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest.”