Huey Long, known as "the Kingfish," dominated the state of Louisiana from 1928 until his assassination in 1935, at the age of 42. Simultaneously governor and a United States senator, the canny Kingfish uttered a prophecy that haunts me in this late summer of 2005, 70 years after his violent end: "Of course we will have fascism in America but we will call it democracy!"
I reflected on Huey Long (always mediated for me by his portrait as Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren's novel, All the King's Men) recently, when I listened to President George W Bush addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was thus benefited by Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV channel, which is the voice of Bushian crusading democracy, very much of the Kingfish's variety. Even as Bush extolled his Iraq adventure, his regime daily fuses more tightly together elements of oligarchy, plutocracy, and theocracy.
At the age of 75, I wonder if the Democratic party ever again will hold the presidency or control the Congress in my lifetime. I am not sanguine, because our rulers have demonstrated their prowess in Florida (twice) and in Ohio at shaping voting procedures, and they control the Supreme Court. The economist-journalist Paul Krugman recently observed that the Republicans dare not allow themselves to lose either Congress or the White House, because subsequent investigations could disclose dark matters indeed. Krugman did not specify, but among the profiteers of our Iraq crusade are big oil (House of Bush/House of Saud), Halliburton (the vice-president), Bechtel (a nest of mighty Republicans) and so forth.
All of this is extraordinarily blatant, yet the American people seem benumbed, unable to read, think, or remember, and thus fit subjects for a president who shares their limitations. A grumpy old Democrat, I observe to my friends that our emperor is himself the best argument for intelligent design, the current theocratic substitute for what used to be called creationism. Sigmund Freud might be chagrined to discover that he is forgotten, while the satan of America is now Charles Darwin. President Bush, who says that Jesus is his "favourite philosopher", recently decreed in regard to intelligent design and evolution: "Both sides ought to be properly taught."
I am a teacher by profession, about to begin my 51st year at Yale, where frequently my subject is American writers. Without any particular competence in politics, I assert no special insight in regard to the American malaise. But I am a student of what I have learned to call the American Religion, which has little in common with European Christianity. There is now a parody of the American Jesus, a kind of Republican CEO who disapproves of taxes, and who has widened the needle's eye so that camels and the wealthy pass readily into the Kingdom of Heaven. We have also an American holy spirit, the comforter of our burgeoning poor, who don't bother to vote. The American trinity pragmatically is completed by an imperial warrior God, trampling with shock and awe.
These days I reread the writers who best define America: Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, Mark Twain, Faulkner, among others. Searching them, I seek to find what could suffice to explain what seems our national self-destructiveness. DH Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), wrote what seems to me still the most illuminating criticism of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. Of the two, Melville provoked no ambivalence in Lawrence. But Whitman transformed Lawrence's poetry, and Lawrence himself, from at least 1917 on. Replacing Thomas Hardy as prime precursor, Whitman spoke directly to Lawrence's vitalism, immediacy, and barely evaded homoeroticism. On a much smaller scale, Whitman earlier had a similar impact on Gerard Manley Hopkins. Lawrence, frequently furious at Whitman, as one might be with an overwhelming father, a King Lear of poetry, accurately insisted that the Americans were not worthy of their Whitman. More than ever, they are not, since the Jacksonian democracy that both Whitman and Melville celebrated is dying in our Evening Land.
What defines America? "Democracy" is a ruined word, because of its misuse in the American political rhetoric of our moment. If Hamlet and Don Quixote, between them, define the European self, then Captain Ahab and "Walt Whitman" (the persona, not the man) suggest a very different self from the European. Ahab is Shakespearean, Miltonic, even Byronic-Shelleyan, but his monomaniacal quest is his own, and reacts against the Emersonian self, just as Melville's beloved Hawthorne recoiled also. Whitman, a more positive Emersonian, affirms what the Sage of Concord called self-reliance, the authentic American religion rather than its Bushian parodies. Though he possesses a Yale BA and honorary doctorate, our president is semi-literate at best. He once boasted of never having read a book through, even at Yale. Henry James was affronted when he met President Theodore Roosevelt; what could he have made of George W Bush?
Having just reread James's The American Scene (1907), I amuse myself, rather grimly, by imagining the master of the American novel touring the United States in 2005, exactly a century after his return visit to his homeland. Like TS Eliot in the next generation, James was far more at home in London than in America, yet both retained an idiom scarcely English. They each eventually became British subjects, graced by the Order of Merit, but Whitman went on haunting them, more covertly in Eliot's case. The Waste Land initially was an elegy for Jean Verdenal, who had been to Eliot what Rupert Brooke was to Henry James. Whitman's "Lilacs" elegy for Lincoln became James's favourite poem, and it deeply contaminates The Waste Land.
I am not suggesting that the American aesthetic self is necessarily homoerotic: Emerson, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Faulkner, Robert Frost after all are as representative as are Melville, Whitman and Henry James. Nor does any American fictive self challenge Hamlet as an ultimate abyss of inwardness. Yet Emerson bet the American house (as it were) on self-reliance, which is a doctrine of solitude. Whitman, as person and as poetic mask, like his lilacs, bloomed into a singularity that cared intensely both about the self and others, but Emersonian consciousness all too frequently can flower, Hamlet-like, into an individuality indifferent both to the self and to others. The United States since Emerson has been divided between what he called the "party of hope" and the "party of memory". Our intellectuals of the left and of the right both claim Emerson as ancestor.
In 2005, what is self-reliance? I can recognise three prime stigmata of the American religion: spiritual freedom is solitude, while the soul's encounter with the divine (Jesus, the Paraclete, the Father) is direct and personal, and, most crucially, what is best and oldest in the American religionist goes back to a time-before-time, and so is part or particle of God. Every second year, the Gallup pollsters survey religion in the United States, and report that 93% of us believe in God, while 89% are certain that God loves him or her on a personal basis. And 45% of us insist that Earth was created precisely as described in Genesis and is only about 9,000 or fewer years old. The actual figure is 4.5 billion years, and some dinosaur fossils are dated as 190 million years back. Perhaps the intelligent designers, led by George W Bush, will yet give us a dinosaur Gospel, though I doubt it, as they, and he, dwell within a bubble that education cannot invade.
Contemporary America is too dangerous to be laughed away, and I turn to its most powerful writers in order to see if we remain coherent enough for imaginative comprehension. Lawrence was right; Whitman at his very best can sustain momentary comparison with Dante and Shakespeare. Most of what follows will be founded on Whitman, the most American of writers, but first I turn again to Moby-Dick, the national epic of self-destructiveness that almost rivals Leaves of Grass, which is too large and subtle to be judged in terms of self-preservation or apocalyptic destructiveness.
Some of my friends and students suggest that Iraq is President Bush's white whale, but our leader is absurdly far from Captain Ahab's aesthetic dignity. The valid analogue is the Pequod; as Lawrence says: "America! Then such a crew. Renegades, castaways, cannibals, Ishmael, Quakers," and South Sea Islanders, Native Americans, Africans, Parsees, Manxmen, what you will. One thinks of our tens of thousands of mercenaries in Iraq, called "security employees" or "contractors". They mix former American Special Forces, Gurkhas, Boers, Croatians, whoever is qualified and available. What they lack is Captain Ahab, who could give them a metaphysical dimension.
Ahab carries himself and all his crew (except Ishmael) to triumphant catastrophe, while Moby-Dick swims away, being as indestructible as the Book of Job's Leviathan. The obsessed captain's motive ostensibly is revenge, since earlier he was maimed by the white whale, but his truer desire is to strike through the universe's mask, in order to prove that while the visible world might seem to have been formed in love, the invisible spheres were made in fright. God's rhetorical question to Job: "Can'st thou draw out Leviathan with a hook?" is answered by Ahab's: "I'd strike the sun if it insulted me!" The driving force of the Bushian-Blairians is greed, but the undersong of their Iraq adventure is something closer to Iago's pyromania. Our leader, and yours, are firebugs.
One rightly expects Whitman to explain our Evening Land to us, because his imagination is America's. A Free-Soiler, he opposed the Mexican war, as Emerson did. Do not our two Iraq invasions increasingly resemble the Mexican and Spanish-American conflicts? Donald Rumsfeld speaks of permanent American bases in Iraq, presumably to protect oil wells. President Bush's approval rating was recently down to 38%, but I fear that this popular reaction has more to do with the high price of petrol than with any outrage at our Iraq crusade.
What has happened to the American imagination if we have become a parody of the Roman empire? I recall going to bed early on election night in November 2004, though friends kept phoning with the hopeful news that there appeared to be some three million additional voters. Turning the phone off, I gloomily prophesied that these were three million Evangelicals, which indeed was the case.
Our politics began to be contaminated by theocratic zealots with the Reagan revelation, when southern Baptists, Mormons, Pentecostals, and Adventists surged into the Republican party. The alliance between Wall Street and the Christian right is an old one, but has become explicit only in the past quarter century. What was called the counter-culture of the late 1960s and 70s provoked the reaction of the 80s, which is ongoing. This is all obvious enough, but becomes subtler in the context of the religiosity of the country, which truly divides us into two nations. Sometimes I find myself wondering if the south belatedly has won the civil war, more than a century after its supposed defeat. The leaders of the Republican party are southern; even the Bushes, despite their Yale and Connecticut tradition, were careful to become Texans and Floridians. Politics, in the United States, perhaps never again can be separated from religion. When so many vote against their own palpable economic interests, and choose "values" instead, then an American malaise has replaced the American dream.
Whitman, still undervalued as a poet, in relation to his astonishing aesthetic power, remains the permanent prophet of our party of hope. That seems ironic in many ways, since the crucial event of Whitman's life was our civil war, in which a total of 625,000 men were slain, counting both sides. In Britain, the "great war" is the first world war, because nearly an entire generation of young men died. The United States remains haunted by the civil war, the central event in the life of the nation since the Declaration of Independence. David S Reynolds, the most informed of Whitman's biographers, usefully demonstrates that Whitman's poetry, from 1855-60, was designed to help hold the Union together. After the sunset glory of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", the 1865 elegy overtly for Abraham Lincoln, and inwardly for Whitman's poetic self-identity, something burned out in the bard of Leaves of Grass. Day after day, for several years, he had exhausted himself, in the military hospitals of Washington DC, dressing wounds, reading to, and writing letters for, the ill and maimed, comforting the dying. The extraordinary vitalism and immediacy departed from his poetry. It is as though he had sacrificed his own imagination on the altar of those martyred, like Lincoln, in the fused cause of union and emancipation.
Whitman died in 1892, a time of American politics as corrupt as this, if a touch less blatant than the era of Bushian theocracy. But there was a curious split in the poet of Leaves of Grass, between what he called the soul, and his "real me" or "me myself", an entity distinct from his persona, "Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, an American":
"I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other."
The rough Walt is the "I" here, and has been created to mediate between his character or soul, and his real me or personality. I fear that this is permanently American, the abyss between character and personality. Doubtless, this can be a universal phenomenon: one thinks of Nietzsche and of WB Yeats. And yet mutual abasement between soul and self destroys any individual's coherence. My fellow citizens who vote for "values", against their own needs, manifest something of the same dilemma.
As the persona "Walt Whitman" melted away in the furnace of national affliction in the civil war, it was replaced by a less capable persona, "the Good Grey Poet". No moral rebirth kindled postwar America; instead Whitman witnessed the extraordinary corruption of President US Grant's administration, which is the paradigm emulated by so many Republican presidencies, including what we suffer at this moment.
Whitman himself became less than coherent in his long decline, from 1866 to 1892. He did not ice over, like the later Wordsworth, but his prophetic stance ebbed away. Lost, he ceased to be an Emersonian, and rather weirdly attempted to become a Hegelian! In "The Evening Land", an extraordinary poem of early 1922, DH Lawrence anticipated his long-delayed sojourn in America, which began only in September of that year, when he reached Taos, New Mexico. He had hoped to visit the United States in February 1917, but England denied him a passport. Lawrence's poem is a kind of Whitmanian love-hymn to America, but is even more ambivalent than the chapter on Whitman in Studies in Classic American Literature.
"Are you the grave of our day?" Lawrence asks, and begs America to cajole his soul, even as he admits how much he fears the Evening Land:
"Your more-than-European idealism,
Like a be-aureoled bleached skeleton hovering
Its cage-ribs in the social heaven, beneficent."
This rather ghastly vision is not inappropriate to our moment, nor is Lawrence's bitter conclusion:
"'These States!' as Whitman said,
Whatever he meant."
What Whitman meant (as Lawrence knew) was that the United States itself was to be the greatest of poems. But with that grand assertion, I find myself so overwhelmed by an uncomfortable sense of irony, that I cease these reflections. Shelley wore a ring, on which was inscribed the motto: "The good time will come." In September, the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was quoted as saying at Zion Church in Whistler, Alabama: "The Lord Jesus Christ is going to come on time if we just wait."
© Harold Bloom 2005
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