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Gilbert: Whitman's Election Day

(Host) It's been said that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. And as the country prepares to vote once again, commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert tells us about a timely poem written by one of America's greatest poets.

(Gilbert)In 1884 the great American poet Walt Whitman wrote passionately, as he always did, about what he considered the most powerful and impressive feature of our country. You might think that would be one of the great natural wonders of this so-called New World, those places of sublime grandeur in which Americans took special national pride in the nineteenth century, and still do today . Places like Yosemite Valley; the Grand Canyon, carved by the Colorado River; the Mississippi River, and the Great Lakes. These are literally awesome places, magnificent natural treasures that Europe, the Old World, it was argued, could not match. These unique, inspiring places were looked on in nineteenth century America as embodiments of our strong national character.

Whitman wrote:

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara - nor you, ye limitless prairies - nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite - nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyserloops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones - nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes - nor Mississippi's stream . . .

And so on.

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time climbing the soaring granite cliffs of Yosemite Valley; I know well how spectacular that place is.

So what was it, then, that Whitman considered even more impressive, more powerful? Election day, what he called America's choosing day. In his poem Election Day, November, 1884, Whitman emphasizes that it's not those chosen that are at the heart of the matter, but rather the act itself, of choosing a President every four years.

Whitman compares ballots to rain showers and snow-flakes and writes enthusiastically about how the magnificent act of voting spans the entire nation:

[quote] The stretch of North and South arous'd - sea-board and inland - Texas to Maine - the Prairie States - Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West - the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling . . .

The poem ends by noting that while voting is stormy and imperfect, its purpose is sacred, its history noble: These stormy gusts and winds, Whitman writes, waft precious ships,/Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's,Lincoln's sails.

It's ironic that this most idealistic and American activity that Whitman celebrates above all else now typically involves a bit more than half of those eligible to vote. Elsewhere in the world people are quite literally dying for the right to choose their own leaders.

Clearly, it would be an understatement to say that politics in the United States leave much to be desired. But the big picture remains astonishing: routinely we keep our leaders (on the national, state, and local levels) or send them packing, and they go peacefully when the slightest majority or even plurality says so. That's an outcome that the citizens of most other nations of the world would find even more awe-inspiring than the cliffs of Yosemite or the heart-racing roar of Niagara Falls.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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