Whitman’s Dual Realities of Invention and Poetic Vision
In the late nineteenth century, modernization was an undeniable force growing beyond man’s capacity to control it. Walt Whitman knew this, and wrote about it in many of his poems, including “As I Walk These Broad Majestic Days.” This poem, published in 1881, addresses the issue of the proliferation of invention, which was a major engine driving modern life (pun intended). Whitman’s narrator defends artistic vision in the face of a growing popular interest in scientific advancements, arguing that the abstract concepts of freedom and spirituality in poetry are just as real and important as concrete inventions.
To understand the circumstances of Whitman’s poem, one must first understand the times in which he wrote. Reading John Kasson’s Civilizing the Machine can accomplish just that. Kasson describes the late nineteenth century as “An era of unprecedented production” (183). To illustrate this, he cites statistics concerning the number of patents produced—an emphasis on invention as a sign of the times that Whitman expresses in “As I Walk” almost a century before Kasson. The sheer acceleration of U.S. patents filed boggles the mind: “The record of 23,000 patents issued during the decade of the 1850s (which quadrupled the amount of the previous ten years) was approximated if not excelled during every single year from 1882 on” (Kasson 183-84). With a little math, one can see the significance of these numbers. Imagine the number of inventions recorded by the U.S. government in the 1840s, when industrialization had already been running strong for decades, and multiply that amount by four for the 1850s. Within a mere 32 years after that, the rate of invention increased to the point that a single year’s quantity of new inventions equaled that of the whole 1850s decade. For the decade from 1882-1892, one can multiply four by 100, since each year from 1882 on was like the whole 1850s decade. The years from 1882-1892, then, saw 400 times as many new patents as the years from 1840-1850. And according to Kasson, the inventors of the era became heroes (184).
With that established, one can understand the society of which Walt Whitman’s narrator writes. Due to the prevalence and adoration of technology and technologists in his day, he feels forced to defend literary heroes against scientific ones. He does this subtly, though, and without particularly demeaning men of science. In fact, a quick read might even lead one to believe that the narrator celebrates technological advance: “I see the ships (they will last a few years,)/ The vast factories with their foremen and workmen,/ And hear the indorsement of all, and do not object to it” (10-12). In these lines, the narrator names many of the major symbols of industry: ships, factories, factory owners, and industrial workers. Ship technology had improved, with steam engine ships making transatlantic trips in a fraction of the time. The escalation of factory labor had changed Western life forever, luring farm-dwellers to cities for a chance to partake in sure and steady daily labor, and creating two whole new classes of people that Marx described as the “bourgeoisie” factory owners and the “proletariat” factory laborers. And to all of this, Whitman’s narrator does not object.
He expresses the same sentiment in the next stanza, writing that “Science, ships, politics, cities, factories, are not nothing” (14). Here one can see the repetition of the mention of ships and factories, along with the addition of the broad topics of science, politics, and cities. He therefore acknowledges the mass migration to cities, the enjoyment of the benefits of scientific invention and modernization, and the participation of the masses in politics. They are “not nothing,” meaning that the trend of modernization is not imaginary. It is completely real, and the narrator, as he stated previously, does not object to it. Nevertheless, he does not celebrate it, either.
The phrases “do not object to it” and “not nothing” are both double-negatives. This demonstrates a kind of ambivalence on the narrator’s part. He does not decry the trend toward an escalation in scientific inventions, but his habit of referring to it with double negatives indicates that he does not feel emphatic fondness for technology, either. According to Cecilia Tichi’s Shifting Gears, ambivalence toward modernization is a common theme in modern literature. The writing of Edith Wharton stands out as a prime example. Wharton uses images of machinery to denote both positive and negative traits in characters. In one of her books, she compares a disliked character’s diner to a factory—hardly the kind of place where people would like to eat. In another book, however, she compares a liked character, whose personality remains the same when moving to a new city, to a phone with a cord that can stretch into other rooms (Tichi 29). Whitman’s narrator exhibits a similar kind of ambivalence; he can see the advantages and the usefulness of mechanical progress, but does not exalt it above all things.
Instead of offering full-fledged support to the trend of science and invention, he poses the question, “What else is so real as mine?” (18). By using the possessive word “mine,” the narrator makes clear that he identifies himself with something other than invention. Science is not his, but the following are: “Libertad and the divine average, freedom to every slave on the face of the earth,/ The rapt promises and luminé of seers, the spiritual world, these centuries-lasting songs,/ And our visions, the visions of poets, the most solid announcements of any” (19-21). He aligns himself, therefore, with humanitarian causes such as freedom and abolition of slavery. He vouches for spirituality, which he shows is permanent by calling it “centuries-lasting.” Most importantly, he identifies himself with poetry, declaring it “the most solid announcement of any.” Whitman’s narrator sets the visually apparent realm of machinery off to the side and shines a light on lofty ideals. He focuses on the progress of the mind, not the progress of technology.
The life-improvement people can physically see is important, but it is less crucial than the improvement of one’s mind through poetry’s study of freedom and spirituality. Moreover, the narrator believes that the proliferation of practical inventions can make life easier, but cannot make a person’s life whole. Not even 23,000 inventions per decade or 23,000 inventions per year. The need for humanitarianism borne through literature is just as real to the narrator as humanity’s perceived need for invention.
Kasson, John. Civilizing the Machine. New York: Penguin, 1976. 183-84.Tichi, Cecelia. Shifting Gears. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. 29.
Whitman, Walt. “As I Walk These Broad Majestic Days.” Complete Poetry and Selected Prose and Letters. Ed. Emory Holloway. London: The Nonesuch Press, 1938. 437.
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