After briefly discussing Whitman’s view of America last Tuesday and then reading Fuller’s essay on American literature, I became even more interested in the way Whitman presents himself to his nation as well as how he feels the nation presents itself to him and to the American people. Whitman urges, even requires us to take a step back and examine the “big picture”; he desires us to consider America as one expansive but unified plane that delights in its differences and diversities rather than allows them to act as a divider. This is achieved, he seems to suggest, when each person takes an active role in educating his or herself. He says, as Professor Earnhart read last week, “Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle” (1016). Whitman is saying, Wake up, America! This is the reason we are here. Take advantage of your ability to be different, to be free!
Despite this command and call, Whitman also seems to realize that America still has a long way to go before its people are completely unified. This is what Margaret Fuller was getting at in her essay, particularly when she discusses America’s relationship with England and its tendency to borrow from England’s practices and culture even when those practices are incongruous with the United States Constitution. Whitman, perhaps inspired by Fuller’s article, speaks directly to this problem throughout his work. He seems to agree that America is a separate and individual nation and that it needs to start acting like one by, at a minimum, learning to embrace its entire people. It is for this reason that education becomes so important. By striving to achieve an education, each individual becomes more cognizant of the thread which binds all human beings. He or she also begins to realize that learning not only expands knowledge, but often encourages acceptance and dissolves prejudice. When one can learn to understand that all people are equal, he or she will begin to see in their surroundings the ways in which people are connected. In “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman writes, “What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face? / Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?” (312) as well as claims throughout the poem, “I, too…” in order to better illuminate the benefits of accepting that people can be connected through experience or even through the very act of living.
Adrienne Riche, in her commencement address titled “Claiming an Education,” says, “you cannot afford to think of yourselves as being here to receive an education; you will do much better to think of yourselves a being here to claim one” (Riche 19). Though Riche was speaking to a women’s college nearly a century later (in 1977), Whitman would have undoubtedly agreed that being active in seeking an education is the only way to truly learn. He continues in “Democratic Vistas” to stress that active learning will produce “a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers” (1017). It is through education and learning to accept and even embrace differences that make America what it is intended to be, a nation that is truly by the people and for the people.
Riche, Adrienne. “Claiming an Education” Women: Images and Realities. Eds. Amy Kesselman, Lily D. McNair, Nancy Schniedewind. New York: McGraw Hill, 1995. 19-21.