Home  »  Prose Works  »  197. Mississippi Valley Literature

Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Prose Works. 1892.

I. Specimen Days

197. Mississippi Valley Literature

LYING by one rainy day in Missouri to rest after quite a long exploration—first trying a big volume I found there of “Milton, Young, Gray, Beattie and Collins,” but giving it up for a bad job—enjoying however for awhile, as often before, the reading of Walter Scott’s poems, “Lay of the Last Minstrel,” “Marmion,” and so on—I stopp’d and laid down the book, and ponder’d the thought of a poetry that should in due time express and supply the teeming region I was in the midst of, and have briefly touch’d upon. One’s mind needs but a moment’s deliberation anywhere in the United States to see clearly enough that all the prevalent book and library poets, either as imported from Great Britain, or follow’d and doppel-gang’d here, are foreign to our States, copiously as they are read by us all. But to fully understand not only how absolutely in opposition to our times and lands, and how little and cramp’d, and what anachronisms and absurdities many of their pages are, for American purposes, one must dwell or travel awhile in Missouri, Kansas and Colorado, and get rapport with their people and country.

Will the day ever come—no matter how long deferr’d—when those models and lay-figures from the British islands—and even the precious traditions of the classics—will be reminiscences, studies only? The pure breath, primitiveness, boundless prodigality and amplitude, strange mixture of delicacy and power, of continence, of real and ideal, and of all original and first-class elements, of these prairies, the Rocky mountains, and of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers—will they ever appear in, and in some sort form a standard for our poetry and art? (I sometimes think that even the ambition of my friend Joaquin Miller to put them in, and illustrate them, places him ahead of the whole crowd.)

Not long ago I was down New York bay, on a steamer, watching the sunset over the dark green heights of Navesink, and viewing all that inimitable spread of shore, shipping and sea, around Sandy hook. But an intervening week or two, and my eyes catch the shadowy outlines of the Spanish speaks. In the more than two thousand miles between, though of infinite and paradoxical variety, a curious and absolute fusion is doubtless steadily annealing, compacting, identifying all. But subtler and wider and more solid, (to produce such compaction,) than the laws of the States, or the common ground of Congress or the Supreme Court, or the grim welding of our national wars, or the steel ties of railroads, or all the kneading and fusing process of our material and business history, past or present, would in my opinion be a great throbbing, vital, imaginative work, or series of works, or literature, in constructing which the Plains, the Prairies, and the Mississippi river, with the demesnes of its varied and ample valley, should be the concrete background, and America’s humanity, passions, struggles, hopes, there and now—an eclaircissement as it is and is to be, on the stage of the New World, of all Time’s hitherto drama of war, romance and evolution—should furnish the lambent fire, the ideal.