Nov. 6 2003 04:10 PM

Hanging with Mr. Whitman: Erstwhile American has a lot to answer for

I've got a bit of a thing for Walt Whitman; as American poets go, he seems to be the cream of the crop. Funnily enough, I don't normally pick guys who have a penchant for flamboyant hats and frock coats, who write erotic poetry about other men, or who were born in 1819, but I've made an exception for this one.

My love affair with Walt began about a year ago in a dusty classroom of my London university, where it became suddenly clear to me that transcendentalism could be more than just a long and impressive word designed to imbue essays with a certain panache. In fact, transcendentalism-and Whitman in particular-renewed my interest in a class that had hitherto been filled with giant whales, scarlet letters and tribes of Mohicans: all very nice in themselves, but not a patch upon Song Of Myself.

So to recap, I'm carrying a torch for a dead, gay poet with a long white beard. Not exactly the kind of boy you'd bring home to Mummy and Daddy. It turns out, however, that Walt's deadness, hirsuteness and homosexuality are now the least of my problems; the main stumbling block in our relationship is that I have recently started to question his aggressively gung-ho American politics.

Being English, of course, I probably should have seen it coming. Walt's gig in the 19th century, after all, was to confirm that America was unquestionably superior to the Old World from which his Puritan forefathers had cut themselves loose. To hell with the tiny island that was England, said Mr. Whitman; the New World under the regime of transcendentalism would be “not merely a nation, but a teeming nation of nations” in which every living and breathing American could be as important and necessary and wonderful as he believed himself to be.

However, I can't help thinking-especially in this current climate of renewed patriotism-that Walt Whitman's borderline xenophobia seems to have touched a few too many modern-day Americans, a great deal of whom are blissfully unaware that they are pandering to this mildly amusing stereotype of the overconfident Yank. With a dash of hubris and a smattering of superciliousness, Whitman's most famous poem begins with the memorable line “I celebrate myself.” Now, while I agree that America is indeed a fabulous country-you can't get Diet Vanilla Coke or drive-thru ATMs in England, that's for sure-the whole idea of congratulating oneself for being born here is a little too syrupy for me. Perhaps it's my stiff upper lip getting in the way, but in order to celebrate myself, I would have to be a) Richard Simmons, b) on the Oprah show or c) incredibly drunk. To do it completely unreservedly, I would have to be all three.

As America's Everyman and a human embodiment of the country itself, Walt goes on to profess that “what I assume, you shall assume.” Well, bingo-there's a statement that could well apply to 21st century America. Any resident worth his Stars and Stripes beer mat will tell you which country rules the world. And he'll be right. America sets the precedent in so many cases, and we all follow suit-and that, dear reader, is why you will find a Starbucks in South Korea and a McDonalds in Croatia.

What America assumes, we shall all assume. And while that's not always such a bad thing, I can't help thinking sometimes that if this country weren't so busy celebrating itself, it might be a little more mindful of the other fish in the pond. The news of the terrorist bombing in Bali, for example, was on the front pages for approximately 24 hours before it was gently pushed further and further back to make way for stories that happened in places with names the average reader would recognize. Was it less important because it didn't happen here? Was it relegated to the back pages because the death count of 190 included only seven Americans? If al Qaeda was indeed targeting the Australians because of their public support of George W. Bush, the least America could do is show a little respect for her allies down under, who are now missing 89 of their own.

But we must get back to Whitman. The penultimate stanza of Song Of Myself includes a line that is both accurate and incendiary: “I am large, I contain multitudes,” he writes. Now, Walt was not a particularly portly man, and thus the largesse of which he speaks is purely metaphorical, for as the self-appointed embodiment of the country, Walt Whitman is America.

What is important, therefore, is the duality imbued within the word “contain.” Owing to its gargantuan size, America will always contain a multitude of people with differing accents, lifestyles and aspirations. Yet to “contain” something can also mean to restrict or confine it, and consequently we might infer that America's aforementioned multitudes are actually trapped within the margins of their own country and-aside from wanting to drop bombs on the rest of the world-aren't able to see past themselves into it.

Truth be told, it hardly matters whether Whitman was aware of the ambiguity permeating the word “contain.” It hardly matters that Bush probably doesn't have Song of Myself on his night table for light evening reading. What matters is the startling aptness of the quote in light of the current situation. And though I hate to say it, the words of Walt Whitman-venerable poet, American hero and man who looks good in a frock shirt-only confirm the unfortunate stereotype we British have of the confident yet blinkered American who can't actually see what he's doing because he's so damn busy talking about it. Loudly. On his cell phone. With his sunglasses on... indoors.


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