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Thursday, September 29, 2011

From Walt Whitman to Jerry Dennis

Being a reader means continually shifting gears and moving from one writer’s mind to another. As I look forward to a discussion on Leaves of Grass later today, I find myself comparing Whitman's celebratory voice to the more measured voice of Michigan nature writer Jerry Dennis. I find myself thinking about optimism and about love of land, home and country.

Despite the horrors of the Civil War, Whitman seemed to share in the general optimism of the dawning industrial age in America. New railroads and factories, busy and bustling, across the country, put immigrants from all over the world to work and fed this optimism. Whitman and those of his time did not at all envision the noisy, busy factories as a poisonous blight: they were progress toward better lives for all. The optimists did not foresee the factories empty and silent, as owners moved operations overseas to cheaper labor markets, and they did not imagine railroad lines abandoned, the country being flown over rather than crossed by land. Whitman and those of his time saw, perhaps we can say, a "rising tide lifting all boats," the natural evolution of social equality to complement America's democratic ideal. They would be astonished to return today and see rich and poor growing ever farther from each other, rich growing richer as poor grow poorer.

The optimism of Whitman's time, I think, also explains the poet's feelings toward war. Surely the country was battered and exhausted by the Civil War, by the unthinkable numbers of lives lost, by the devastation of the countryside, but in the North, at least, I can imagine that many thought surely war was over in this country once the South surrendered. They did not anticipate terrorism. Neither did they anticipate conventional warfare waged against civilians, cities as targets never seen up close by those launching or dropping bombs.

Did optimism seem more realistic in those days than it does now?

Thinking of Whitman's optimism in light of what Jerry Dennis and others these days have to say about the entire Great Lakes region (an area Whitman does not bring into sharp focus in Leaves of Grass, as if he did not spend much time exploring our part of the country), I keep thinking of how Dennis writes in his introduction that he doesn't know whether this new book, The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes, is "a love song or a lament." What is the future of our beautiful fresh waters? There is some anxiety in all of us over this question. And yet, the first page of Dennis's prose, ambivalent though it is, has echoes in it of Whitman's poetry, to my ear. Listen:
This land, surrounded and surmounted by waters; this underappreciated and overexploited provincial backwater deep in the belly of North America; this quilt-work landscape of woodlots and cornfields, of cut-over forests and vestigial prairies, of industrial parks and subdivisions and bunched-up cities on the shore, of bedrock and dunes and glacial hills and limestone scarps and so many ecologically sensitive rivers, lakes, swamps, bogs, fens, marshes, sloughs....

All this and more, the richness of existence spilling forth in lists of bare nouns and nouns modified by adjectives. It's a love song, Jerry. Love is not without its anxieties. Besides, “love alters not when it alteration finds.” This is our home. How can we not go on loving it?


Dawn said...

Interesting question - whether optimism was easier after the civil war than it is now. Perhaps it was, as people then were not instantly bombarded with the entire world's bad news as it happens. Today there is nothing horrific in the world that we can't know immediately and over and over. On the other hand I'd like to think that if we just try a little harder we too can be optimistic about our future.

P. J. Grath said...

Whatever moment in history we choose, optimism will be largely a matter of temperament and circumstance. I want to be optimistic for young people not yet out in the world. They should have their chance! But I agree with your observation about constant news and find I am much more hopeful and functional if I don't follow every scrap of news on a daily basis. When television was in its infancy, the evening news was only 15 minutes!