Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The other W.

From Horace Traubel's journal "With Walt Whitman in Camden" (via PomeRantz):

Friday, April 6, 1888.

"Not the negro," said W. today: "not the negro. The negro was not the chief thing: the chief thing was to stick together. The South was technically right and humanly wrong." He discussed the present political situation in a rather more explicit way than is usual with him. He "cares less for politics and more for the people," he explains: "I see that the real work of democracy is done underneath its politics: this is especially so now, when the conventional parties have both thrown their heritage away, starting from nothing good and going to nothing good: the Republican party positively, the Democratic party negatively, the apologists of the plutocracy. You think I am sore on the plutocracy? Not at all: I am out to fight but not to insult it: the plutocracy has as much reason for being as poverty—and perhaps when we get rid of the one we will get rid of the other." W. will not talk persons in his censure. He says he will talk persons only in his love. "When I hit I want to hit hard, but I don't want to hit any man, the worst man, even the scoundrel, one single blow that belongs to the system from which we all suffer alike." Could this suffering have been avoided? "No more than the weather: it is as useless to quarrel with history as with the weather: we can prepare for the weather and prepare for history." Then was history automatic? "Not at all: it is free in all its basic dynamics: that is, the free human spirit has its part to perform in giving direction to history." Was this statement not self-contradictory? "I shouldn't wonder: in trying to represent both sides we always run some risk of finishing on the vague line between the two." He admitted that there was "no practical politics in this kind of talk," but then: "What do I want with practical politics? Most all the practical politics I see anywhere is practical villainy." Did he see anything within the political life itself in America at present to excite his hope? "Absolutely nothing: not a head worth while raised above the surface: not a cross section of a party, or a clique even in any party anywhere, to promise a formidable reaction and advance." Then he was despondent? "Not a bit so, for you see I am not looking to politics to renovate politics: I am looking
to forces outside--the great moral, spiritual forces--and these stick to their work, through thick and thin, through the mire and the mirage, until the proper time, and then assume control." Finally he said: "The best politics that could happen in our republic would be the abolition of politics."

Whitman's cardboard butterfly was missing from the Library of Congress for over 50 years.

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