He Heard America Singing

Walt Whitman is often identified with Transcendentalism, a literary, political, and philosophical movement of the 1900’s that included such people as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and Margaret Fuller among its number. However, Whitman was actually more of a humanist or perhaps a populist.  The range of his vision was wide and it included everything, and one gets a sense that he wanted to celebrate everything, that he wanted to put his arms around and embrace the entire universe. Santayana once called Whitman’s vision of America, “the charm of uniformity in multiplicity.”

I have a hunch that Whitman didn’t have much use for labels. He was just transcendental by nature. It was as basic to him as breathing.

In Walt Whitman A Life, Justin Kaplan reports that Whitman once shared his view of religion with Sara Tyndale, an abolitionist and Fourierist from Philadelphia. He related to her a conversation he had with a certain pastor who expressed his hope that Whitman would stick with his Dutch Reformed faith:

I not only assured him of my retaining faith in that sect, but that I had perfect faith in all sects, and was not inclined to reject one single one – but believed each to be as far advanced as it could be, considering what had preceded it.”

Whitman’s true religion was his poetry – he called Leaves of Grass the “new American Bible” – and his object of worship was our country, America, in its most idealized aspect, as a nation of people living together in equality and forever working for greater freedom, even while he was not blind to the harsh realities of injustice and intolerance. I don’t know what Whitman thought of the Statue of Liberty, he died not many years after it was completed, but I imagine he might have looked upon Lady Liberty as the personification of perfection, not unlike Prajna-paramita, the mother of all buddhas.

In Whitman’s  I Hear America Singing,  the songs being sung are those of the working man, perhaps the noblest of all Americans. As we celebrate the founding of our nation this July 4th weekend, you might enjoy reading this poem once again, or for the first time . . .

I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or
at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows,
robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.


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