“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine in December 1776, during the dark days of our Revolutionary War, our fragile nation only 6 months old.
Today, 244 years later, we are yet again feeling our fragility. Though Joe Biden is our president-elect, and will take office on Jan. 20, President Donald Trump seems intent upon insisting, without a shred of evidence, that he is the “true” winner of the Nov. 3 election. Moreover, Trump continues to sow seeds of doubt, division and discontent about the very legitimacy of our electoral process – and, as a result, millions of his followers will continue to shake the foundations of our democracy by affirming that the Democrats stole the election.
Have we become ungovernable? Can our house divided remain standing?
During these past weeks and months of sorrow and pain, I have found some measure of reassurance and hope in the words of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), one of our nation’s greatest poets. His long lines of verse overflow with his love for America.
As he wrote in 1860, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear” – songs of the carpenter, mason, boatman, deckhand, shoemaker, hatter, wood-cutter, ploughboy. “The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the little girl sewing or washing. … Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”
Like so many others of Whitman’s more than 400 poems, “I Hear America Singing” celebrates his embrace of his fellow Americans, his feeling of “We’re all in this together.”
In his earlier, much longer, and far more complex poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856), Whitman went even further by embracing his fellow Americans who had not yet been born. As he crosses the East River from Manhattan back to Brooklyn late in the day – “Clouds in the west – sun there half an hour high” – he projects himself 50 years, 100 years into the future:
“I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or even of so many generations hence,/Just as you feel when you look at the river and sky, so I felt,/ Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,/Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d .…”
Just as Whitman sang songs to America, his fellow Americans sang songs back to him, reinforcing his identity as “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos …” (“Song of Myself,” section 24).
It is no accident that “an American” are the first two words that Whitman uses to describe himself in the very first poem of his collection called “Leaves of Grass.” As he states in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” it is his fellow Americans who guarantee both his mortality and his immortality: “The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,/The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.”
I have never taken any of the ferries that continue to cross the East River in New York City, between Manhattan and Brooklyn, but I have taken the Staten Island Ferry many times, for just a nickel a ride, between South Ferry on the southern tip of Manhattan and St. George on the northeast corner of Staten Island – 5.2 miles and about half an hour of breathing in the salt air of Upper New York Bay. At times, the western sun there is “half an hour high,” and one of my fellow passengers, standing nearby on the windswept deck, is an old man with a flowing white beard who still calls himself Walt Whitman, an American.
As we continue to struggle through these uncertain times that try our souls, we would do well to capture something of Whitman’s largeness of spirit, something of his capacity to imagine himself into the future, something of his unquenchable love for the America that once was, for the America that we are today, and for the more perfect union we are yet to be.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.