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Essay of the Month: Walt Whitman & The 21st Century


Whitman #5, 8" X 8", acrylic pn paper, 2010, Mark W. McGinnis


Walt Whitman & the 21st Century

The 1850’s of Walt Whitman’s most creative years and the early years of the 21st century hold some common qualities: the business world was corrupt and in control; conflicts in government led to a standstill; violent entertainment was rampant; pornography commonplace; and the country was on an irreversible course to disaster. The disaster of Whitman’s day was the Civil War – the disaster to come in our day is Climate Change.

Whitman wanted to create a literature that could change and reverse the march to chaos and the decline of culture. The 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass was his unabashed, bold, audacious, brilliant attempt to create that literature. His poetry broke the rules of structure and content. He cried out for an American culture that was vibrant, alive, altruistic, individualistic, and passionate. His efforts were met with acceptance by an intellectual elite, shock by a conservative few, and indifference by the masses that he wished to influence.

When the war came in the 1860’s, in spite of the incredible horrors of the war which he experienced to the maximum as a volunteer nurse in army hospitals, he felt the war could be cleansing agent for the culture. He believed the blood of the hundreds of thousands of young men could wash the corruption from the American land. At the end of the war the assassination of Lincoln, who he idolized, was to Whitman the ultimate sacrifice in this effort.

As the corruption of the post-war years set in with the Johnson and Grant administrations, Whitman realized his dreams of completely renewed America was not to be realized. But his belief in the evolution of human culture sustained him and he believed that the future would bring American potential to fruition and future poets would sing this new culture into being.

In the 21st century we are experiencing the problems of the mid 19th century amplified by technology and a population of unthinkable size. While the American culture is denying the magnitude of what is approaching, it seems that chaos and widespread suffering on an unprecedented level will be needed to create the drastically different level of consciousness to change nearly every aspect of our way of life.

This drastically different way of living may include the following as part of this change: population – a one child policy will be needed globally; government – while a global government may be impossible, a major consolidation of governments will take place as control of resources will be necessary for survival; economically – the stratification of wealth will no longer be an option. A leveling of resources among surviving people will be reshaped according to subsistence needs and quality of life and that quality will no longer be based on wealth but on basic physical and mental comfort. The cult of the individual will end and natural selection will create a society that is consciously symbiotic with all life forms on the planet.

While this speculation may seem optimistic and utopian it is projected for a global population of a billion or less people – one seventh of what we now have. One could also speculate a hellish, barbaric future, or one that has no human population at all. Certainly all are possible, but I do have some faith in the adaptable capacity of human beings. I believe we can make a “leap” of consciousness over a period of centuries that can bring a positive future. This reflects the same kind of hope that Whitman had in human evolution after the Civil War.

To return to Whitman, will great creative artists play a part in this transformation? Yes, I believe they will, but no more than Whitman played a role in the transformations of his time. Artists will be part of any culture that has human beings in it – they always have and always will. And they will look to future – to what could be – what “should” be – and as with Whitman, their voice will be heard quietly or sometimes not at all, especially at the time they are sounding them. But in retrospect, cultures look back on their great voices and learn from them, as we do with Whitman today. The greatest change today is the question, “Will there be anyone to look back?” This was always the future – eventually our species will come to end – the question now, as always, is, “When?”

2011 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

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