Walt Whitman, immigration policy, and Donald Trump’s wall; or, the Berlin Wall redux

 

 

In response to:

“Supreme Court Tie Blocks Obama Immigration Plan,” The New York Times, June 23, 2016

 

 

I offer the following brief comments of my own as well as pertinent quotations from Walt Whitman and about him.

The controversy over immigration has been going on for a long time.

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

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In response to great waves of immigration that occurred between 1880 and 1920, the so-called Brahmins had become ever more insistent about a particular perspective on American culture, asserting that the real, pure, or true Americans were Anglo-Saxons. The great migrations coincided with the founding of such groups as the Society of Mayflower Descendants and the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. The migrations also coincided with the efforts of publishers who commissioned numerous professors (almost all from New England) to write literary histories for high school and college use with the hope of unifying the heterogeneous American people under the “aegis of New England” by fashioning a national history anchored in that region. Nina Baym has noted that “conservative New England leaders knew all too well that the nation was an artifice and that no single national character undergirded it. And they insisted passionately . . . [on] instilling in all citizens those traits that they thought necessary for the future: self-reliance, self-control, and acceptance of hierarchy.

[Walt] Whitman, less radical in the 1850s in the face of the slavery crisis than many Boston intellectuals, had become by the 1880s increasingly associated with the teeming masses, the immigrants, the downtrodden of all types. Meanwhile some of the same Boston intellectuals who had led the charge for the emancipation of blacks had come to be associated with propriety, exclusiveness, and backsliding on racial issues. [It seems my New England ancestors had such prejudices.]

— Kenneth M. Price, To Walt Whitman, America, pg. 31

 

 
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It is a shame that what I consider to be enlightened attitudes do not prevail today. We do not seem to have reached, or advanced beyond, the point reached by Whitman in the evolution of his views.

Whitman, who got his start as a journalist, editorialized against all immigration restriction, insisting that America must embrace immigrants of all backgrounds.

 

— Roger W. Smith, June 2016

 

 

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The following are excerpts from Whitman’s poems and from remarks of Whitman that were recorded by his “Boswell,” Horace Traubel.

 

 

the perpetual coming of immigrants … the free commerce … the fluid movement of the population
— Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass

 

 

‘’See, in my poems immigrants continually coming and landing,

— Walt Whitman, “Starting From Paumanok”; Leaves of Grass

 

 

The man’s body is sacred, and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred;
Is it a slave? Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants
just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off–just as much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.

— Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric,” Leaves of Grass

 

 

 

[Thomas B.] Harned broached the subject of the restriction of immigration, and happening to say, “most people believe in it–it’s very unpopular now-a-days not to believe in it,” W[hitman]. exclaimed contemptuously: “All, did you say, Tom–or almost all? Well, here’s one who spits it all out, contract labor, pauper labor, or anything else, notwithstanding.” Harned said: “I did not say I believe in restriction–I said most people do.” W. went on vehemently: “Well for you, Tom, that you do not say it. I have no fears of America–not the slightest. America is for one thing only–and if not for that for what? America must welcome all–Chinese, Irish, German, pauper or not, criminal or not–all, all, without exceptions: become an asylum for all who choose to come. We may have drifted away from this principle temporarily but time will bring us back. The tide may rise and rise again and still again and again after that, but at last there is an ebb–the low water comes at last. Think of it–think of it: how little of the land of the United States is cultivated–how much of it is still utterly untilled. When you go West you sometimes travel whole days at lightning speed across vast spaces where not an acre is plowed, not a tree is touched, not a sign of a house is anywhere detected. America is not for special types, for the caste, but for the great mass of people–the vast, surging, hopeful, army of workers. Dare we deny them a home–close the doors in their face–take possession of all and fence it in and then sit down satisfied with our system–convinced that we have solved our problem? I for my part refuse to connect America with such a failure–such a tragedy, for tragedy it would be.” W. spoke with the greatest energy. It is a subject that always warms him up. “You see,” he said finally, “that the immigrant, too, like the writer, comes up against the canons, and has to last them out.”

— Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. II, pg. 34 (entry for Tuesday, July 24, 1888)

 

 

[Whitman] said: “I believe in the higher patriotism–not, my country whether or no, God bless it and damn the rest!–no, not that–but my country, to be kept big, to grow bigger, to lead the procession, not in conquest, however, but in inspiration. If the procession, not in conquest, however, but in inspiration.

— Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. II, pg. 94 (entry for Sunday, August 5, 1888)

 

 

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For what it’s worth, I am thoroughly in agreement with Whitman.

We Americans, all of us, are the descendants of immigrants. They have brought so much in terms of cultural richness, ingenuity, initiative, and plain hard work to this nation. THEY are who and what make this country great.

I am completely opposed to Donald Trump’s Know Nothing stance. He wants to set us back a century in terms of attitudes towards immigrants. He wants to build a wall at the Mexican border! It’s the Berlin Wall redux.

Note — it’s ironic, is it not? — what Walt Whitman said emphatically (as quoted above) 128 years ago, when similar sentiments were being propagated:

“Dare we … close the doors in their [immigrants’] face–take possession of all and fence it in [italics added]?”

In Berlin on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan made the famous speech in which he said: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The demolition of the wall began three years later.

Now Trump wants to build one of his own.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith,

      June 2016

 
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See also:

 

“Up Against the Wall” (editorial), The New York Times, April, 2017

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/04/08/opinion/up-against-the-wall.html

A very penetrating analysis of what’s wrong with Trump’s proposal to build a wall at our Southern border.

 

Plus:

 

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/scotus-immigration-ruling-puts-millions-deportation-limbo-article-1.2685908

 

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/06/24/us/immigration-obama-supreme-court.html

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/06/24/how-the-supreme-courts-deadlock-will-change-immigration-politics/

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts a websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin.
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