The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Walt Whitman—& Who Should Own America

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is an honor to print here an important American essay, originally written and published in 1938: “Walt Whitman, Agitator,” by Eli Siegel. While there is in it a sense of that year, it is also immensely immediate, of our own very moment. It explains what Americans are looking for, tumultuous for, clamoring for right now.

The essay is important literarily. As literary criticism it is great. And the writing in it is beautiful: the prose has the scholarship, grace, vividness, and throbbing comprehension that are Eli Siegel’s. This essay is great too in its understanding of history, and economics.

Mr. Siegel wrote “Walt Whitman, Agitator” before Aesthetic Realism formally existed. But the philosophy he would begin to teach three years later was developing in his thought. The central principle of Aesthetic Realism can be felt in the 1938 essay: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” That is the basis of what he says here about America, and how America and the world should be owned.

America Now, & Whitman

Eli Siegel saw what no other economist or historian, left or right, saw: that an economy needs to be aesthetic, the oneness of opposites. It needs to be the oneness of one and many—justice to each individual person and to all people at once; it needs to bring out the particular expression of every single person—with that expression friendly to what all people deserve. And economics, he explained, needs to be the oneness of the biggest opposites in human life—self and world, or selves and earth: the earth of America, with its wealth, has to belong to every person, every American self. This oneness of opposites, he shows in the 1938 essay, is what Walt Whitman stands for. And seven decades later, it is what America must be, if our economy is to work efficiently and bring pride rather than agony to millions of people.

There is perhaps more conscious displeasure in America now than ever before at the way our nation’s economy is run: at the nature of jobs, with their insecurity, low compensation, grueling hours; at the debt and constant financial worry people have been forced into; at the way the wealth of this land is had by a very few, and not had by so very, very many. And there is more conscious anger than ever at politicians, because they seem to advocate this economic way that Americans loathe so much. A phrase often used, and used with disgust, is “politics as usual”—as in “Americans want something different from politics as usual.” What do they, we, want? It is what Mr. Siegel shows Whitman was going for—agitating for.

I think Mr. Siegel uses the word agitator with both humor and deep seriousness. He gives a definition as he says that Whitman’s writing “is agitational; that is, it stirs one to a high kind of activity.” He describes Whitman as feeling America with powerful, wide authenticity. And what people today want, however unclearly, is to get to what America truly is. I’ll say more about what that means in a little while.

In Every Person, & History

To understand history—including American history—we need to understand what Aesthetic Realism shows is the central fight going on within every person. It’s the fight between respect for the world and contempt,“the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” This battle between respect for things and people and having contempt for them has been the large fight throughout history too. And contempt, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, is the source of every cruelty, personal and national. Racism in all its hideousness is contempt: it’s an outgrowth of the filthy yet ordinary feeling, “If I can look down on a person different from me, I’m Somebody.”

Another horrible form of contempt is profit economics. The profit motive is the looking upon one’s fellow humans, not as individuals real as oneself, but in terms of: how much money can they generate for me through the labor of their minds and bodies?—how much can I squeeze out of them; how little can I give them? In the 1970s, in a series of lectures, Eli Siegel explained that this contemptuous economic way had finally failed, and would never succeed again.

In recent years there has been a surging in America of something Mr. Siegel refers to in the essay on Whitman: the “collective” feeling. That feeling is present, for instance, as people are ready to see themselves as of “the 99 percent” which “the one percent” has rooked. But what Americans are looking for is not some fake, wiping-out-one’s-personality version of collectivity. Again: Americans are looking for aesthetics, and nothing less—the oneness of complete individuality and inter-enhancement. This is something which has not existed with fullness anywhere before. And, Mr. Siegel shows: Walt Whitman stands for it.

This Is America

I said earlier that what people now want is to get to what America truly is. A country, like a person, can sometimes be unfaithful to what it is. But what America has deeply asked of herself is the aesthetics I just described. Here are some swift examples:

1) The U.S. Constitution begins with the phrase “We the People of the United States.” There is grandeur in that phrase, and terrific practicality. There is in it the feeling of each individual person joining proudly with many others. And the United States, the Constitution indicates in those very first words, is ours, the People’s.

2) The same opening sentence has the following: “to promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” The Constitution’s framers, we can presume, meant the liberty of each individual and the welfare of all people to go together; indeed, be inseparable.

3) And take the person Whitman loved so much: Abraham Lincoln. In his Gettysburg Address Lincoln has the famous phrase “of the people, by the people, for the people.” What Americans today want is that America be truly “of the people, by the people, for the people,” belong to each and all of us.

So here is the essay of 1938. No one loved and understood America better than Eli Siegel himself. That love and comprehension are in the tremendous beauty of his sentences.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Walt Whitman, Agitator

By Eli Siegel

All of America finds a welcome in Whitman. In him, the past feeling of this continent culminates.

He was born in West Hills, Huntington, Long Island in 1819; but when he died in 1892, his mind had felt mightily and accurately the forests of Michigan, the deserts of the Southwest, the swamps of Louisiana, the rich and warlike fields of Virginia, and the bustling streets of Manhattan. Wherever people were in America, there Whitman’s mind was; and as people arrived at hitherto uninhabited places, Whitman’s mind followed them.

Whitman’s mentality had the first requisite of the poet: it was busy. It scurried everywhere. It watched the soapsuds of the washer-woman; and the curling wood of the carpenter’s plane; and the sharp, steady eye of the omnibus-driver; and the accurately swift fingers of the tailor; and the oblique eye of the strumpet; and the well-arranged face of the politician. He saw the wondering looks of the immigrant; and the agonized faces of wounded soldiers; and the placid face of the woman long married. Perhaps Whitman was the greatest busybody who ever lived. He just knew that he’d never know himself if he didn’t know other people. And he knew that only by knowing himself could he enjoy himself.

Whitman was impelled to loaf a good deal. He had to think things out. The product of his loafing, his poems, has, I have observed, a brisk sale in drugstores, and other less popular places where books are sold. Indeed, it may be said that Whitman is now the best-selling poet of his own time. He outsells Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, and all the rest. He has at last caught on. Publishers find editions of him profitable. What remains is to use him, to find out what he was after, latently and explicitly.

A Large Conception of Democracy

First of all, it may be said, rather calmly, that Whitman was an agitator. He had the revolutionary idea that America could not be separated from the people living in America.

His ancestral past led him, partly, to this way of mind. There were town meetings in early Huntington, on Long Island—where Whitman was born—that went pretty far in asking that the people concerned rule their own concerns; in other words, were insistent on a large, and not narrow, conception of democracy. And the early Quakers, so strongly represented in the ancestry of Whitman, also felt that the earth was not a thing to be possessed and ruled by an assertive owning group.

Whitman’s heritage had, certainly, its communal, revolutionary side; but as one of the large, keen, real poets of the world, he could not see his Mannahatta as just a preserve of the New York Stock Exchange; or the plains of South Dakota as merely a matter of deeds and mortgages; or the Alleghanies near Pittsburgh as nothing but the profit-producing property of the United States Steel Corporation. He saw Niagara as more important than a water-power utility; cows and milkmen as more important than the landlords or banks getting control of what was between them.

At this moment, Long Island is dotted with the imposing and conspicuously comfortable residences of those who have converted the rivers, valleys, and mountains of America into dividend-coupons for themselves; but you can see plainly from the “Song of Myself,” and other poems of Whitman, that, as an American democrat and poet, Whitman was all for the miner, machinist, porter, ditch-digger, who have changed for man’s purposes all east and west of, and in between, the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains.

A Oneness of the Individual & the Many

Whitman was a collectivist, despite all the professors’ gabble about his “uncompromising individualism.” He knew that his self, and its fate, depended on other selves and their fates. He saw America as an organization of selves, each acting on each. The first of the three lines with which the “Song of Myself” begins is isolated and pointed to and expatiated on; the next two are somewhat neglected:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Whitman is here saying, clearly, that not only his possessions and services belong to others, but that he, himself, does.

I like the lines quoted not only for their rapt conjunction of individualism and collectivism, but for what a Swarthmore professor might call their aesthetic qualities. First, I’m all for an implicit humor, with an aromatic tang of bravado, in the first line. (Whitman has lots of humor; a good deal of what has been called his offensive bumptiousness is just proud humor.) Then, there is a definite, delicate, well-timed music to the lines—mark, among other things, the use and incidence of that rich letter m. Or just watch the use of heavy and light syllables; and see how sound jibes with meaning.

The Feeling That Came before Him

When Whitman was agitational, that is, stirring, he wasn’t apart in the field of American literature. Whitman was not the lonely, haughty, aggressive phenomenon in American letters that various professorial creatures have described him as being. You cannot separate Whitman from the feeling of America that came before him. There is in Whitman a determined and fighting belief in the rights of every human mind—a belief had by the Roger Williams of 1637. There is the homely acceptance of the importance of every human being that we find in the diary of the Quaker John Woolman (Woolman was one of the earliest opponents, in America, of Negro slavery). Something of Jonathan Edwards’ reasoned, profound, and exuberant attitude towards the things of earth is to be seen in Whitman. There is a calm, practical side to Whitman that has a likeness to the lovable, tolerant practicality observable in the life of that quiet, steady advocate of man and liberty Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Paine and Philip Freneau likewise are, in that territory where literature and politics combine, precursors of the serenely busy Whitman. I don’t wish to be overdoing the business of finding similarities: the point is that Whitman is the most multitudinous or varied mind in American literature; and that he was driven to make a glowing amalgam of that which appeared separately elsewhere.

Whitman is even like his contemporaries, whom, by the way, he respected. There is the Whittier of “Snow-Bound” in some of the neat, domestic passages of Leaves of Grass. That direct and deep love for American plants, birds, and topography that one sees in the strongest lines of Bryant, one sees carried on in Whitman. Emerson’s splintery mysticism is made calmer and more inclusive in the rapter passages of the younger man. And the calm admiration that Longfellow gives to his Village Blacksmith and to the poor folk in “Evangeline” and the ordinary folk of other poems of his, is sharpened and widened by Whitman. Further, Poe and Whitman meet, unexpectedly, somewhere in their attitude towards death; and there is some similarity in the way they use repetition.

By now, Whitman is seen as an artist, in the sense that Michelangelo was, or Bach was, or even Praxiteles. He is hardly any longer seen as some western, bearish creature, who “stumbled” on his poetry. There is logic to his poetry; there is thought; there is delicacy.

In “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” we have orchestration, an interlacing of subterranean feelings, all done precisely. Very often in Whitman there is a clarity that is pleasantly breathtaking, like that of a sudden sight in a clear winter day in open country.

His Prose Too

Whitman’s poetry, properly, fully apprehended, is agitational; that is, it stirs one to a high kind of activity. And his prose is agitational, too. He wrote editorials against slavery, political fakery, smug neglect of the economic ills that in his time had already seized on his young and loved America. And he could see the great uprisings and changes of the past in strict economic terms. It is stirringly interesting in these days—when the commercial press of the country is busy hushing up America’s insurrectionary past, and is busy affirming that the present attack on the private control of American industry is of “foreign origin”—to see Whitman (who is more of an American surely than the editor of the New York Herald Tribune, or Congressman Hamilton Fish, or Mr. Walter Lippmann) boldly and clearly saying that the American Revolution was a “great strike,” as was the French Revolution (see page 330 of his Collected Prose, Philadelphia, 1897).

Patriotic & International

Whitman could be patriotic and yet have an international feeling. His Americanism was thorough, but it took in the whole world. For he could write lovingly of Abraham Lincoln, and of Brooklyn Ferry, and of the blue Ontario shore, and of the sea around Paumanok, and of Dakota’s plains, and of the grandeur and power and wonder of these United States and the people in them; but it was Whitman who also wrote “Salut au Monde!” and “Passage to India.” In poems like these, the great Long Islander welcomes the world and all the races and nations in it. The Wallachian and Irishman; the Negro and Armenian; the Pole and the Russian; the German and Spaniard—are all hailed with a true international love. For Whitman saw the world in America and America in the world.

Whitman is agitational because he can take one away from the diseased narrowness of our time. He combines the rural and urban—he has use for the crowded streets of Manhattan and also for the hot summer meadows of Long Island, with the buzzing insects and faintly swaying grass of these meadows. He had use for the homely, vulgar, small household object—say a dishrag or a clothespin—and for the faraway stars or the middle of the Atlantic. He saw use in both the rapturous and the humdrum.

One’s Self & Other Selves

He promulgated in poetic fashion the foundations of democratic action. For, at the foundation of democratic procedure is the belief that one’s self is made stronger by other selves; that in true collectiveness, the individual gains. Somewhere, beneath all of Whitman’s dithyrambs and profound hosannas and swingy free verse, is the justification of the homely adage of the people “One for all, and all for one.” Whitman adds profound music and new corridors of meaning to this classic expression of all “teamwork.”

We do not know, even now, the great meaning of “One for all, and all for one.” The future of the world depends on how well we find out this meaning, and how we put that meaning into action. Properly read, Whitman can make us see this meaning in terms of economics or politics. Properly read, the writer of Leaves of Grass can agitate us into great action. That is why I say, “Walt Whitman, Agitator.”

Reprinted from Sing Democracy, Summer 1938