Walt Whitman and Manifest Destiny

Walt Whitman, the poet who gave final imaginative expression to the theme of manifest destiny, was a native and lifelong resident of the Atlantic seaboard.1 He was drawn into contact with the Western intellectual tradition not through first hand experience--for he had not even traveled beyond the Mississippi when he wrote his principal poems--but through his burning conviction that the society and the literature of the United States must be adapted to the North American continent. This obsession led him to declare with Benton (and of course also with Emerson) that America must turn away from the feudal past of Europe to build a new order founded upon nature:

I swear there is no greatness or power that does not emulate those of
the earth!
I swear there can be no theory of any account, unless it corroborate
the theory of the earth! 2

He wrote in the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 that the poet of America "incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes":

Mississippi with annual freshets and changing chutes, Missouri and Columbia and Ohio and Saint Lawrence with the falls and beautiful masculine Hudson, do not embouchure where they spend themselves more than they embouchure into him. . . When the long Atlantic coast stretches longer and the Pacific coast stretches longer he easel stretches with them north or south. He spans between them also from east to west and reflects what is between them.3

As this statement implies Whitman originally set out to sing the whole continent, East and West, North and South; and inter-


mittently throughout his life he returned to the impartial cerebration- of all the regions. But the Atlantic seaboard after all represented- the past, the shadow of Europe, cities, sophistication, a derivative and conventional life and literature. Beyond, occupying the overwhelming geographical mass of the continent, lay the West, a realm where nature loomed larger than civilization and where feudalism had never been established. There, evidently would grow up the truly American society of the future. By 1860 Whitman had become aware that his original assumptions logically- implied the Western orientation inherent in the cult of manifest-destiny. "These States tend inland, and toward the Western sea," he wrote, "and I will also." 4 He made up his mind that his future audience would be found in the West: "I depend on being realized, long hence, where the broad fat prairies spread, and thence to Oregon and California inclusive."5 It was in inland America that he discovered the insouciance, the self-possession the physical health which he loved.6 He declared that his Leaves were made for the trans-Mississippi region, for the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific slope, and dwelt with ecstasy upon 'a free original life there simple diet, and clean and sweet blood, litheness, majestic faces, clear eyes, and perfect physique there ...." Above all, he foresaw "immense spiritual results, future years, inland, spread there each side of the Anahuacs." 7

At the same time, Whitman had become interested in the conception of a fated course of empire leading Americans to the shores of the Pacific and bringing them into contact with Asia. In "Enfans d'Adam" he gives the ancient idea a vivid restatement:

Inquiring, tireless, seeking that yet unfound,
I, a child, very old, over waves, toward the house of maternity, the
land of migrations, look afar
Look off over the shores of my Western sea--having arrived at last
where I am--the circle almost circled;
For coming westward from Hindustan, from the vales of Kashmere,
From Asia--from the north--from the God, the sage, and the hero;
From the south-from the flowery peninsulas, and the spice islands,
Now I face the old home again-looking over to it, joyous, as after
long travel, growth, and sleep;
But where is what I started for, so long ago?
And why is it yet unfound? 8


The plaintive question at the end of this passage does not belong to the jubilant Western tradition and indeed represents but a passing moment of melancholy in Whitman himself. Three poems in the collection Drum-Taps, published in 1865, return to the course of empire with an optimism more appropriate to Whitman's philosophy as a whole and to the illustrations of manifest destiny. "Pioneers! O Pioneers," his most celebrated although not his best poem about the westward movement, depicts the march of the pioneer army in phrases that often suggest Gilpin's description of the Great Migration to Oregon. The peoples of the Old World are weakening; the youthful and sinewy pioneers take up the cosmic burden. Having conquered the wilderness and scaled the mighty mountains, they come out upon the Pacific coast. Their advent inaugurates a new era in the history of mankind: "We debouch upon a newer, mightier world ...." 9

"Years of the Unperform'd'' ( the title may echo Gilpin's phrase, "the untransacted destiny of the American people")10 launches the westward-moving pioneer out upon the waters of the Pacific and equips him with the weapons of a developing technology:

Never was average mane his soul, more energetic, more like a God; Lo, how he urges and urges, leaving the masses no rest; His daring) is on land and sea everywhere-he colonizes the Pacific, the archipelagoes; With the steam- ship, the electric telegraph, the newspaper, the wholesale engines of war with these, and the world-spreading factories, he interlinks all geography, all lands. . . 11

And the idea of an American empire in the Pacific is carried even farther in "A Broadway Pageant," celebrating the arrival of the first Japanese embassy in NewYork in 1860:

I chant the world on my Western Sea; I chant the new empire, grander than any before-As in a vision it comes to me; I chant America, the Mistress--I chant a greater supremacy; I chant, projected, a thousand blooming cities yet, in time, on those groups of sea-islands; I chant commerce opening, the sleep of ages having done its work- races, reborn, refresh'd...."


For the long circuit of the globe is drawing to its close: the children of Adam have strayed westward through the centuries, but with the arrival of the American pioneers in the Pacific a glorious millennium begins.12

Elaborate as these ideas are, Whitman was not yet done with the theme of the course of empire. He returned to it in 1871 in "Passage to India," which he said was an expression of "what, from the first, . . . more or less lurks in my writings, underneath every page, every line, every where.''13 Again he depicts the myriad progeny of Adam and Eve moving westward around the globe, "wandering yearning, curious . . . with questionings, baffled, formless, feverish--with never-happy hearts.... "14 God's purpose, hidden from men through countless ages, is revealed at last when the Suez Canal, the Atlantic submarine cable, and especially the Pacific railway connect the nations of the earth with a single network:

The people [are] to become brothers and sisters,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given ill marriage,
The oceans to be cross'd, the distant brought near
The lands to be welded together.l5

But the new era begun with the closing of the cycle of history meant even more than the mingling of peoples: it was to restore man's lost harmony with nature. The secret of impassive earth was to be uttered at last. The "strong, light works of engineers" encircling the globe were to lead man into a full understanding of nature and a permanently satisfying communion with her:

All these hearts, as of fretted children, shall be sooth'd,
All affection shall be fully responded to-the secret shall be told
All these separations and gaps shall be taken up, and hook'd and link'd together;
The whole earth -- this cold, impassive, voiceless Earth, shall be completely justified;...
Nature and Man shall be disjoin'd and diffused no more,
The true Son of God shall absolutely fuse them.l6

This is a mysticism difficult for the twentieth century to follow, but it moves in a straight line from Benton's first intimation that the course of empire would lead the American people west-


ward to fabulous Asia. In view of the less attractive inferences that other thinkers have drawn from the notion of an American empire in the Pacific, one is grateful for the intrepid idealism that so triumphantly enabled Whitman to see in the march of the pioneer army a prelude to peace and the brotherhood of nations.

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