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Mooney ENGL 2525 4 December 2008 Conflicting and Converging Views of God and America through the Eyes of Walt Whitman and 17th Century Pilgrim-Puritan Writers In the early 17th century, America became home to two groups of English emigrants: the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Both groups came to the New World in search of religious freedom and better opportunities, and both were largely successful; they each colonized portions of the New England area, set up their own autonomous governments and, most importantly, established ways of life based on their strict religious views and moral codes. Approximately two hundred years later, American poet Walt Whitman published his controversial poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. On the surface, Whitman’s poetry, which expresses ideas of humanism, blatant sexuality and sentimentality, is a far departure from 17th century Pilgrim-Puritan ideals. However, a closer look at the works of Pilgrim-Puritan authors William Bradford, John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor reveals that, although dissimilar in key aspects, these religious 17th century authors share many views on God and America with the revolutionary 19th century poet Walt Whitman. When the Puritans arrived in the New World, they believed that they were creating what was to become God’s prophesied “City upon a Hill” (Winthrop, “Modell” 317). They wished to breathe life into a land that they saw as basically divine in nature. It was the land that God had given to them in a covenant centuries earlier. The Puritan (and Pilgrim) quest to live and thrive in America was not just a simple desire or vague outline; it was a holy mission, a vocation. This intense yearning for a great and worthy America was also realized by Walt Whitman in the mid-
Chu 2 to-late-1800’s. Whitman has often been hailed as the “poet of democracy,” the voice of America and the ultimate American “everyman.” He had a certain vision of America that was not unlike the vision of his Pilgrim-Puritan counterparts. This vision involved a strong sense of spirituality and human introspection. Whitman often wrote essays and poems about the despicable state of American politics, and the corruption that threatened to overwhelm many aspects of American culture. The Puritans demonstrated similar concerns in a number of jeremiads that were published years after the settlement of the first generation Puritans. These jeremiads were literary texts that warned the Puritans against their increasingly materialistic and wicked behavior. Like Whitman’s works, the jeremiads were prompted by a fear that the America that the authors knew was on the brink of a downfall. For both Whitman and the Pilgrim-Puritan writers, this fear had much (in the case of the latter, everything) to do with their ideas of God. The subject of God is discussed thoroughly in the literary works of both Whitman and the Pilgrim-Puritan writers, and evidences the passionate idea of spirituality and God in their everyday lives. Although Whitman’s religious views were far from traditional, there is no denying that God played a crucial role in his life and was the subject of many of his poems. Whitman was extremely passionate about his belief that God was inseparable from his life, and that he could “hear and behold God in every object” (“Song” 48.20). This is a key similarity between Whitman and the Pilgrim-Puritan writers, who also strongly believed that God was present in every facet of life. This idea can be observed in the theological doctrine of typology— the interpretation of the Old Testament as a prefiguration of the life of Christ and the modern lives of God’s chosen people (the early Christians). In other words, this sort of typological thinking led the Pilgrims and Puritans to believe that nothing on Earth was arbitrary or without meaning. Everything was a sign from God—a symbol of his favor or rejection. All external realities were physical expressions of God’s will. A prime example of theological thinking can
Chu 3 be found in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. In this account, Bradford attributes a number of events (the death of an irreligious sailor, the safe passage of the Pilgrims across the seas, the actual settlement at Plymouth) entirely to the good will of God (327-329). The similarity between Whitman’s and the early Christians’ notion of God’s ubiquity is best captured, however, in the concept of nature. Whitman often wrote about the majestic and sensual transcendence of nature, glorifying it as not just beautiful, but truly holy. This reverence is mirrored in Anne Bradstreet’s “Contemplations.” In this poem, Bradstreet describes nature as the ultimate manifestation of God, a most powerful conduit in which Man can experience the true divinity of the Lord. Again, the most striking parallel at hand is between Whitman’s and Bradstreet’s corresponding convictions that nature is a direct manifestation of God Himself. The worship of nature is incomplete—erroneous—without the appreciation and praise of God in connection with it. However, Whitman is much more liberal with his interpretation of the actual relationship between God and Man. Through his writing, it is clear that Whitman’s idea of worship and organized religion is much more relaxed than the harsh, obligatory relationship between the early Christians and their Church. Whitman’s relationship with God, as described in “Song of Myself,” is friendly, appreciative and satisfied. He sees no reason to go to Sunday service and pray on his knees when he can just look around and appreciate God in the world around him. He even asks the reader, quite blatantly, “Why should I wish to see God better than this day?” (48.22). This question would horrify a Pilgrim or Puritan only two centuries earlier, whose religion clearly dictates that all those who are God’s chosen people will strive endlessly and actively to show that they are in God’s favor. While they work to prove to each other that they are indeed one of God’s elect, Whitman declares, “I loafe and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass” (4-5). Clearly, Whitman is confident that the way to connect his body and mind
Chu 4 with his soul and with God is to take part in the peaceful appreciation of God’s nature and to experience the beauty of the tangible world that God created for Man. Hence, it can be said that Whitman’s approach to worship is organic and relaxed, while the Pilgrim-Puritan approach is much more structured. Another obvious difference in the relationship between God and the early Christians and the relationship between God and Whitman is the way that the two parties exercise humility. Whitman is certainly the less humble of the two; he elevates Man to the point of celebration and worship. This is not to say that he undervalues the greatness of God, but only that he claims that the individual is a powerful being, himself full of God’s grace. Whitman is not ashamed to say that he witnesses God “in the faces of men and women…and in [his] own / face in the glass” (48.25-26). This is in clear contrast with Puritan poet Edward Taylor’s humble assertions that he does not deserve any claim over his own possessions because they all belong to God, who is almighty and can do whatever He pleases with them. In his poem, “Upon Wedlock, & Death of Children,” the poet even tells God that He can have Taylor’s children in their premature deaths: “Lord take’t. I thanke thee, thou takst ought of mine, / It is my pledg in glory” (28-29). Despite these differences in modes of worship, it is interesting to note how similar Whitman’s ideal lifestyle and the Pilgrim-Puritan ideal lifestyle were. During the Civil War, Whitman formed a system of moral beliefs, greatly influenced by the political injustices of the era, which determined his lifestyle until his death. Whitman promised himself that he would try to live a “purged” and “cleansed” life (Folsom, “Walt”). This is an easy parallel to the Pilgrims and Puritans, who adhered to a very severe code of conduct that was intended to keep their bodies and souls pure and virtuous. In this way, it can be said that ideally, Whitman’s way of life was quite similar to that of the Pilgrims and Puritans. They both desired to live clean lives. Realistically, this meant that neither Whitman nor the early Christians approved of drunkenness,
Chu 5 the former going so far as to abstain from alcohol completely (Folsom). Also, both parties believed in equality and compassion (for the Pilgrims and Puritans, however, this idea pertained only to their own closed community). In fact, their shared conviction that the individual must subject himself to the masses is one of their most prominent similarities. Whitman held that nothing “is greater to one than one’s self is” (48.3); however, he also asserted that no individual is any more elite than another. He believed that the true spirit of democracy lay in the collaboration of individuals and the compassion of the masses (Folsom). John Winthrop, governor of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, held a similar conviction. He was a strong proponent of brotherhood and community, and maintained that “there is noe body but consistes of partes and that which knits these partes together gives the body its perfection” (311). Thus, it can be seen that Pilgrim-Puritan ideals did not simply fade away with the dispersion of the early Christians; rather, many of these beliefs continued to live on, even in the mind and works of Walt Whitman, one of America’s most radical and controversial literary figures. Clearly, themes of spirituality in everyday life and the nature of America are able to transcend various societal and temporal barriers.
Chu 6 Works Cited Bradford, William. “Of Plymouth Plantation.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. 327-329. Folsom, Ed and Kenneth M. Price. “Walt Whitman.” The Walt Whitman Archive. 25 November 2008. The Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska– Lincoln. 3 December 2008. <http://www.whitmanarchive.org/biography/walt_whitman/index.html> Taylor, Edward. “Upon Wedlock, & Death of Children.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. 28-29. Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” The Text Archive. Peter Batke’s Homepage. 22 October 2001. <http://www.princeton.edu/~batke/logr/log_026.html> Winthrop, John. “A Modell of Christian Charity.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. 317.
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