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On "I Hear America Singing"

James E. Miller, Jr.

. . . "I Hear America Singing" presents an image of America that America would like to believe true—an image of proud and healthy individualists engaged in productive and happy labor. Mechanic, carpenter, mason, boatman, deckhand, shoemaker, hatter, wood-cutter, plowboy—from city to country, from sea to land, the "varied carols" reflect a genuine joy in the day’s creative labor that makes up the essence of the American dream or myth. . . . America singing emerges as a happy, individualistic, proudly procreative, and robustly comradely America. It is surprising that in such a brief poem so much of Whitman’s total concept of modern man could be implied.

from A Critical Guide to Leaves of Grass (U of Chicago P, 1957), 146-147.

Ezra Greenspan

[F]or Whitman, . . . the temptation was strong, even irresistible, to identify himself with the national collective, and his creative expression was often an attempt to devise ways to realize that ambition, whether indirectly, as in "Song of Myself," or directly, as in "I Hear America Singing." In the latter case, Whitman imagined the dynamic power of the nation not as a geographical entity spreading westward but as an activity—and one of his favorite ones, at that: singing. The poem consists of a vision of the various units of the country—the mechanic, the carpenter, the mason, the young wife, the boatman—each person separately "singing" his or her individual song. But where in [the poem] "Pictures" each person acts his or her role separately, this poem blends the individual acts of singing into a harmonious participial ensemble of America singing. The paradox from which the poem works, the empowerment of each element of the country individually but at the same time their merger in the collective empowerment of the nation as a whole, was one that Whitman saw as forming a fault line across American society. I believe, in fact, that the fear of the failure of the individual parts to conjoin as neatly and harmoniously as the seamless whole orchestrated by this poem was one that Whitman knew profoundly even before his development by the mid-1850s into the poet of Leaves of Grass.

from "Some Remarks on the Poetics of ‘Participle-Loving Whitman’" in Greenspan, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman (Cambridge UP, 1995), 101.

David Reynolds

Whitman’s picture in "I Hear America Singing" of average people singing their "varied carols" was more than just a metaphor. It reflected a pre-mass-media culture in which Americans often entertained themselves and each other. Whitman’s spouting Shakespeare atop omnibuses, declaiming Homer and Ossian at the seashore, and humming arias on the street typified these performances in everyday life. His poetry tried to keep alive this participatory, dialogic spirit.

from Walt Whitman’s America (New York: Knopf, 1995), 156.

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