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.