Totality and Celebration in Whitman's "Song of the Open Road"
Having lived in New York City for some time now, I often wonder what a famous landmark would have to offer in conversation if it could speak. The top floor of the Empire State building, the Statue of Liberty, the steps of Times Square, Grand Central Station, that gorgeous bridge in Central Park, the Met—such secrets they must know! People from all walks of life, locals and tourists, young and old have visited them in the millions and have shown themselves before these attractions, even if only for a short time. Having been exposed to such a diverse mass of humanity, always listening—what would they have to teach me?
In his “Song of the Open Road”, Walt Whitman describes in great detail a concept closely related to my ponderings:
“You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.
Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial,
The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,
The escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,
The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,
They pass, I also pass, any thing passes, none can be interdicted,
None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me.”
The road itself is envisioned by Whitman to be a passive receiver of all that travels on it. He imagines, even in their physical absence, the incredible variety of people who have used it for every conceivable purpose, every possible scenario. It is non-judgmental, all-accepting and an essentially neutral space. This idea is reinforced in the following stanza:
“I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are so dear to me.
You flagg’d walks of the cities! you strong curbs at the edges!
You ferries! you planks and posts of wharves! you timber-lined sides! you distant ships!
You rows of houses! you window-pierc’d façades! you roofs!
You porches and entrances! you copings and iron guards!
You windows whose transparent shells might expose so much!
You doors and ascending steps! you arches!
You gray stones of interminable pavements! you trodden crossings!”
Whitman seems to be circumscribing the road—describing exhaustively the features that surround it throughout the city. By listing all of these urban features in in this particular section of Whitmanian celebration of existence, the author explicitly groups these items together in direct opposition to the road. The road is the diametrical opposite of such 3 dimensional features—archetypically flat and straight, smooth and narrow, it seems to be the negative space created by our human production. The road stays still while all civilization orbits around and above it. Although the road is also man-made, it is the salient feature that connects almost all elements of human urban life (and much rural life as well).
Perhaps this is what Whitman meant when he wrote “You express me better than I can express myself,You shall be more to me than my poem.” A common method throughout much of the author’s writing, in this poem and elsewhere, is this celebratory exhaustive listing of seemingly mundane objects that Whitman finds so beautiful, so striking. With his hallmark specificity, Whitman seeks to describe a totality of whatever theme he is talking about, to make the reader appreciate the fullness and immensity of a scene in nature or in this case, a city. By recounting every feature of city living, it dawns on the reader that all that tied together with, and indeed was only made possible by the presence of roads.
In turn, the road becomes a metaphor for Whitman’s literary goal—the road both ties everything together while at the same time absorbing the teeming mass of humanity that journeys over it. It sees the totality of human experience, and through close examination will yield that totality to the viewer, exactly what Whitman does in his writing. Much like New York’s famous landmarks, the author’s vision of the road contains that complete and wondrous celebration of all of mankind’s fears and failings, in unison with its hopes and achievements.