When Walt Whitman first sounded his “barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world,” it was 1855 and much of the Old World did indeed consider the citizens of the antebellum United States of America to be uncivilized, uncouth, uncultivated, uncultured, unsophisticated and untamed.
It’s interesting, then, that the critical reception of the work was far more favorable in Europe than in the US, where Puritanical fervor caused Whitman to be fired from his position with the Department of the Interior, where it was called “a mass of stupid filth,” where public accusations of (gasp) homosexuality were leveled against the poet, and where the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice (I bet their gatherings were rollicking good times) declared it “obscene literature” and pressured the publisher to withdraw it.
A review in the London Weekly Dispatch, on the other hand, said of Whitman’s poems that “in their strength of expression, their fervor, hearty wholesomeness, their originality, mannerism, and freshness, one finds in them a singular harmony and flow, as if by reading, they gradually formed themselves into melody, and adopted characteristics peculiar and appropriate to themselves alone.” Note the “wholesomeness.”
Leaves of Grass is a volume I find myself going to again and again, and the monumental “Song of Myself” contains so many gems of wisdom and expression that it rewards repeated readings. One that is particularly pertinent to the father of two sons:
You are also asking me questions and I hear you,
I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself.
Sit a while dear son,
Here are biscuits to eat and here is milk to drink,
But as soon as you sleep and renew yourself in sweet clothes,
I kiss you with a good-by kiss and open the gate for your egress hence.
Long enough have you dream’d contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.
Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again,
Nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the
origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are
millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
But it is a passage from the preface to Leaves of Grass that best encapsulates my perspective on parenthood, my general outlook on life. To me it is a sort of personal manifesto, and it needs no analysis or comment on my part; please read it carefully, thoughtfully, and, if possible, “read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life.”
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men—go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families—re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.