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

I. Specimen Days

198. An Interviewer’s Item

Oct. 17, ’79.—TO-DAY one of the newspapers of St. Louis prints the following informal remarks of mine on American, especially Western literature: “We called on Mr. Whitman yesterday and after a somewhat desultory conversation abruptly asked him: ‘Do you think we are to have a distinctively American literature?’ ‘It seems to me,’ said he, ‘that our work at present is to lay the foundations of a great nation in products, in agriculture, in commerce, in networks of intercommunication, and in all that relates to the comforts of vast masses of men and families, with freedom of speech, ecclesiasticism, &c. These we have founded and are carrying out on a grander scale than ever hitherto, and Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado, seem to me to be the seat and field of these very facts and ideas. Materialistic prosperity in all its varied forms, with those other points that I mentioned, intercommunication and freedom, are first to be attended to. When those have their results and get settled, then a literature worthy of us will begin to be defined. Our American superiority and vitality are in the bulk of our people, not in a gentry like the old world. The greatness of our army during the secession war, was in the rank and file, and so with the nation. Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of the people. Our leading men are not of much account and never have been, but the average of the people is immense, beyond all history. Sometimes I think in all departments, literature and art included, that will be the way our superiority will exhibit itself. We will not have great individuals or great leaders, but a great average bulk, unprecedentedly great.’”