Thursday, January 16, 2014

When it Comes to Social Media, Walt Whitman Nailed it Over 150 Years Ago

This is the second installment of our new Friday Feature exploring the literature I'm teaching my sophomores in our Great American Road Trip course.  I'm so excited to be sharing some of my favorite books--stories that have inspired me and fed my sense of adventure and belief that anything at all is possible if you just set out and explore. Glad to have you along for the ride.

So my students and I have decided that Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself is pretty much the 19th century equivalent of this:

While 4 year old Jessica danced on her bathroom counter celebrating herself through song, 37 year old Whitman “loafed” on the grass and penned:

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man
    hearty and clean,

Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be
    less familiar than the rest.

I am satisfied — I see, dance, laugh, sing;

Chances are Jessica’s Daily Affirmation has scrolled across your newsfeed at some point.  YouTube stats indicate that the link was clicked, liked or shared over 14 million times—by people who probably went right back to scrolling across their screens, missing the call to celebrate the moment.

Another hot social gem popping up on my newsfeed of late encourages viewers to put down the very devices on which they’re viewing the slice-of -life video documenting our sad, screen-addicted state of affairs.  But Whitman wouldn’t know anything of our modern day obsession with banal trivialities that take us from the here and now….would he?

Let’s hear from him:

Trippers and askers surround me,

People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward
   and city I live in, or the nation,

The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors
   old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,

The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I

The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or
   loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,

Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful
     news, the fitful events;

These come to me days and nights and go from me again,

But they are not the Me myself.
                                                                  ---Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, section 4

I don’t know about you, but that pretty much reads like my facebook newsfeed.  Whitman coined his own term for this cacophony of distraction: the blab of the pave.  His version sounds like this:

 The blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of
     the promenaders,

The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb,
       the clank of the shod horses on the granite floor,

The snow-sleighs, clinking, shouted jokes, pelts of snow-balls,
the hurrahs for popular favorites, the fury of rous'd mobs,
The flap of the curtain'd litter, a sick man inside borne to the


The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and fall,

The excited crowd, the policeman with his star quickly
       working his passage to the centre of the crowd,

The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes,

What groans of over-fed or half-starv'd who fall sunstruck or
       in fits,

What exclamations of women taken suddenly who hurry
       home and give birth to babes,
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here, what
       howls restrain'd by decorum,
Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made,
       acceptances, rejections with convex lips,
I mind them or the show or resonance of them —
 I come and I
---Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, section 8

Not so different from the content of the statuses, memes, and commentary on perpetual scroll across my screens.  My students and I agree: in terms of living in the joy of the moment, not much has changed since the Civil War era. 

Is the human condition, then, to be doomed to distraction, diversion, and missed moments?  Will the "trippers" and "askers" always consume our best moments?  Are we forever chained to the constant chatter that is, collectively, "the blab of the pave"?

For perspective, we turn once more to Whitman:

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

    from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

---Song of Myself, Section 2

What will you experience first hand today? What will you look at, listen to, and celebrate?  Don't look to me for answers, or even to Whitman--walk away from the screen and into your story. 

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