thumbnail of Portrait of the American; Quest for self
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
I celebrate myself and thing myself and what I guess you tell us you him for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. Have you reckoned a thousand acres much. Have you reckoned the Earth much. Have you practiced so long to learn to read. Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems. Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems you shall possess the good of the earth and sodden you shall no longer take things at second or third hand nor look through the eyes of the dead nor feed on the specters in books. You shall not look through my eyes either nor take things from me. You shall listen to all sides and little to them from yourselves. The American quest for self. The effort to find out who we are is defined by Walt Whitman and what may well be America's greatest poem. It is called Song of Myself and it announces the theme of the program.
You are about to hear I am British May and this is Portrait of the American portrait of the American produced for the National Education already on network under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation. Program number 11. Quest for self the producer moderator Dr. Barry Sree author scholar and teacher of American studies. Assuming that we in America are not defined by tradition even by family beyond a point that we do not favor looking through the eyes of the dead or depending on the specters in books how is anyone in this land to know who and what he is. This is a question with a fascinating history and it's one that has relevance to our time also it's a question we also ask although we probably would state it in other terms we would speak of our identity crisis or self-image or existential faith to use the jargon of the day. This quest for self is the theme of the present program
which begins with four views on the poetry of Walt Whitman by four American literary critics and ends with a discussion of politics and the changing image of the American Negro. First let me break in without further introduction on the comment made by critic Alfred Kazan when I asked him about Walt Whitman weapon is a very great you know to me he is a loser with always faking and bombast. He's still perhaps the greatest poet we produce in particular I want to ask the quest for self for the sense of self of the guy in his poetry. Well Whitman's great poem of course is called Song of Myself. And but he don't. But but he starts with himself I think myself I celebrate myself he says but I assume a show soon. But for him receiver self was not the ultimate data but they term as it is for us for him. Be yourself. Of course it was primarily the soul taking the word soul in its largest most comprehensive most plastic
significance and the self or so this individual person was a guide to the whole of reality. If you wouldn't believe the world was made up of souls made up of atoms who were really so contrary one soul recognizes itself in the other or as Melbourne put it genius all over the world stands hand in hand with genius and one sheet. Shock of recognition runs the whole circle around and with Minutes importance to me. He's very dear to me for this reason that we him either self is really a door to reality it's a way of getting one deeper and deeper into other things. Remember Whitman says somewhere that the astonished muse in America finds up amid the your kitchen where you know the classic muse having departed from Greece and Rome Prancer then one might say you know that sense that the Spanish muse would be even more astonished myself now among the mixmaster television sets up in a plastic cushions. Unlike
the lightweight life all of which boils down to a war which taken together is very heavy. One plus one plus one plus one all those plastic question that a lot of tonnage in the end. Let's interrupt these comments by Alfred Kazin long enough to hear from Whitman himself. This concept of the self in Song of Myself the i in his poetry of the concept of the self as a door to reality with a fondness for things that are vulgar and lowly the things that so astonish the muse is illustrated in the excerpts that follow Whitman first gives three succinct images of reality three stages in the life of man and then goes on to announce the theme of his poem The little one sleeps in its cradle. I lift the gauze and look a long time and silently brush away flies with my hand. The youngster in the red faced girl turned aside up the bushy Hill. I peering leave you them from the top. The suicide sprawled on the bloody floor of the bedroom. I
witnessed the corpse with its doubled hair. I know where the pistol has fallen in me the caress or of life whatever moving backward as forward slowing to niches aside and Junior bending. Not a person or object missing. Absorbing all to myself and for this. What is commonest cheapest nearest easiest is me me going in for my chances spending vast return I dony myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me not asking this god to come down to my goodwill scattering it freely for ever. Why is it that this poetry which once meant so much to whole generations has largely escaped the attention of the modern generation living amid all those plastic cushions. Here again is Mr. Kazan. I read somewhere once years ago in one of some fine European book on Whitman in which one that the press were.
The burial squad sometimes found when they picked up the French and German soldiers lying together where they had fallen. That both the French and Germans would often carry pocket would have carried pocket visions of Whitman Whitman in a first world war was a very important figure to that idealistic generation you see. And nowadays of course part of what I've been talking about is this increasing cult of disenchantment there is of pessimism which makes it necessary for us to talk about poetry of this kind if we were hopelessly romantic apart like Allen Ginsberg who imitates a lot of Whitman's long lines makes a point of excluding reality in favor of herself in favor of one kind of emotion happiness seeking self. The women you see thought of herself as bounding out to the outside world include the world that's what made him happy and that's why he is a poet of happiness and that's why the greatest moments in Song of Myself in a crossing Brooklyn ferry are moments
of absolute and Chapman with being itself which is something which under the stress of what I've been talking about naming this technical calculus this time machine which is binding us you know. Carrying us nowhere on the rest of this people have fallen into a habit of of easy this enchantment. You know life stinks life is supposed to think nowadays it's almost part of the roof for us to say that it does. And women for that reason embarrasses young people today they can't believe very serious. They think that happiness is always a frivolous matter. So far a second view with men or rather the American as he might be represented by Whitman I turned to Eve Hobhouse son whom I asked to explain what he meant by calling the American a radical innocent. He is a radical innocent in the sense that he insists on private vision and hears to a private vision. And the vision can be as can be so private that it can be anarchic or it can be
mystical or it can be religious or it can be demonic but it remains private and he remains caught in that vision by saying that he is caught in his private vision. I also am saying that he insists on the prerogatives and the imperatives of the self. Not only of the individual but of the self his own inner self. If he insists on the imperatives of the self so much so that as I've tried to point out in the book he is led to deny the fact of death so that perhaps the ultimate definition of radical innocence would be the denial of death and affirmation of the self and the denial of death even in the face of the fact of death. Would you have any thoughts on that. Poetry in relation to such a definition it's a wonderful example of this kind of definition. Knowing Whitman I don't see the final denial of
death so much as the denial of death through cosmic consolation in a sense becoming one with the whole order of things and therefore denying the death of the of the of the individual but not of the self somehow or other the soft becomes caught up in this larger a cosmic law. Being and and and there's persistence and continuity in in that sense the affirmation of self the denial of death the cosmic reconciliation. Consider these lines for example the smallest sprout shows there was really no death and if there ever was it led forward life and does not wait at the end to arrest it and seize the moment life appeared. All goes forward and outward nothing collapses and to die is different from what any one supposed and luckier. I know I am deathless I know this all but of mine cannot be swept by a cop and his compass.
I know I shall not pass like a child's curlicue cut with a bird stick at night. I exist as I am. That is enough on past programs in the series we've talked about the contradiction in American life between on the one hand our self-reliance our inner direction our individual ism and on the other hand our humanitarianism our compassion or other directedness to use David Reese Min's term in Whitman However the division between the two disappears as Lewis pointed out when I asked him what he felt had been Whitman's significant contribution to the shaping of the American mind. I would suppose. Combination of two major qualities and they really come out at the very beginning of Song of Myself where he says I sing myself and celebrate myself. And. Forget re Adam be lying to me as good as the land still
it belongs to you. That said and I think good in other words he he preserves in his best poetry and it's merely his earlier poetry again. The heroically self-reliant American who is shaping life for himself who is utterly free in every imaginary imaginable meaning of freedom but who is at the same time utterly equal to all other human beings in the sense of absolute equality that it goes through within those verses. All peoples and all objects there is no hierarchy in womens world and secondly tremendous sense of compassion of the sharing in the suffering and sharing in the joys of other people. In a sense this is his version of the three of the three great qualities of democracy that is liberty equality and fraternity.
And in Song of Myself he is while asserting himself and his own nature is something every reader to do exactly the same thing so that when he speaks for the capital I hear you speaking for the Americans he was speaking for the American asserts that is right. Here then is our WB Lewis's image of Whitman self as utterly free as for instance when he says nothing not God is greater to one than oneself is. But at the same time utterly equal as when he says I speak the password primeval I give the sign of democracy. By God I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart all the same. And finally speaking for us. I am of the old and the young of the foolish as much as the wise maternal as well as paternal a child as well as a man one of the nation of many nations the smallest the same. And the largest say
all Southern. Soon as a northerner of every hue and caste and by every rank and religion are Forth you want Whitman is a sharply dissenting one. It is offered by Irving Howe whom I asked to explain what he meant in writing in his fine book of essays a world more attractive than Walt Whitman lacked all the qualifications for being the national Bard he intended to be and wanted to be. Well he supposed to be the great exponent of American democracy. Ordinary American life of the good standard of wholesome American virtues and the truth is that he was nothing of the sort and the truth is that he was about he me and aware that most Americans immediately dislike. He was a Bohemian. He was a skulking sort of fellow who lived in the undersides of cities. His sex life remains still problematic if exist at all. And perhaps even scandalous as far as we know he
liked opera which it is traditional and American to sneer at or make fun of. That is to say he was highbrow. And very low brow at the same time. He did not believe in the ordinary standard divert use of industry hard work. He believed in loafing very much. Another words what he really represents is not the American south but so to say the under self the underside which sneaks around and try to come up and break through the crust of convention and that may be one reason why he still is so influential a poet. But the notion that what Whitman represents the standard American virtues is a big joke. What about the image of the American dream and think Oh well there isn't any one image of an American in Song of Myself. The whole idea of Song of Myself is that you try on a variety of selves that you move from one version one possibility to another now it is true in that sense he
does represent one of the. Recurrent notions or possibilities of American life or at least American life as reflected in American literature. That is to say he reflects the idea that you can have more than one chance. Europeans aren't even sure that that human beings can have one chance here in America we separate from the fact you are delusion. But you can have any number of chances Song of Myself as a Russian that but a glorious version in that he sort of like keeps drawing on variant possibilities how can I be here why can't I be there when at the same time recognizing nevertheless that there are limitations at work. A self that keeps trying on their possibilities. Consider these passages from the poem. I am a free companion. I believe whack by invading Watchfire is. I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself. I type in her all night to my thighs and lips. My voice is the wife's voice the screech by the rail of the staircase. They pitch my mans body up dripping and groaned.
One of my changes of garments. I do not ask the wounded person how he feels. I myself become the wounded person. My hurts turn Live it up on me as I leaned on a cane and. Not a youngster is taken for loss and he but I go up to him to be tried and sentenced. Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp but I also lie at the last gasp my face as I colored my sinews away from the people retreat askers embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them. I project my hat sit faced and surely with all these varieties of feelings with which to identify with all these chances to become one with others and with the outward world with reality a man should have no difficulty in his quest for self. But the question is whether when we translate a poetic abstraction to the present day reality whether
Whitman's tenets of faith still hold true or whether they become as Irving Hall suggests American delusions. Take the issue of self-reliance in American politics. Victoria shock a political scientist who teaches at Mount Holyoke College and has served on the president's commission on voting has some doubts about the efficacy of the self-reliant voter the so-called independent. Well there's no question that what it is it is a part of our American heritage that the Americans want to think of himself as a capital independent. If it becomes. An intellectual symbol among voters today and yet all of our studies show that there is no such thing as an independent. I wish you'd explore that line of fire if you think the American voter is fooling himself. And yes by and large an independent is often the person who wishes to cover up his party membership. He may be a Democrat in a
Republican community and not wish to do it too often and his fellow well will say members of the community and he thereby declares himself an independent. Or he may just think of himself as such. But curiously enough the Independent is a person who tends to vote one way all of the time. That is only fooling himself. As I've talked to many young people today I find that one of their ideals is this notion of independence. And yet when they discover that as an independent. Just take voting for an example here that as an independent they cannot actually participate in the process of selecting nominees for office in the primary unless they belong to a political party. When they discover this they realize that this is simply a symbol and does not have
reality. This issue of the voter versus the party is really one version of the debate over the individual versus the group that is individual ism versus conformity that one hears debated often in our time. Lewis sees that same contradiction in other areas of modern group life and he suggests one way out of this dilemma that I think Whitman himself might have approved. One of the current but valid is that a person can be. And into the supper light individual by giving the best service to his firm or his outfit or something this is a new theory of self-reliance and it's a way in which I think a sophisticated conformity can try to continue. To celebrate the Amazonian virtues. I think instead of the individuality of the person in a large math society then the good of the company becomes the Who are the good of the university under the agency and the individual so merges his identity for
a larger identity of the group. I hear these are awfully funny questions but I fall back on your word suggested an ancient distinction and I think it may be a medieval distinction between the individual and the person. It seems to me that. A man as a member of a university is a member of a firm. Member of a professional football team is an individual and in this meaning of them the individuality should be. Subordinated to the good of the whole. But his person must not be that is his sovereign nature his essential and distinguishable humanity I think can be and can and must be kept kept distinct. When we turn to a subject like race relations Whitman's concern with the quest for self takes on particular urgency in our time. Among the
questions Whitman asked in some Song of Myself were these what is a man anyhow. What am I. What are you. Now it's these very questions that were translated into specific meaning by James Farmer national director of the Congress of Racial Equality. When I asked him whether the American Negro today would see himself primarily as an American or as a negro I think that sometime in the life of every intelligent American Negro he has been confronted with that question What am I am I an American who happens to be black. Or am I a negro who happens to live in America. A black man who happens to live in America. And that's the dilemma that dualism that has confronted negroes since the first Negroes came over here.
No I don't think it's far from the mark here to raise these same questions about say the Americans you or the American woman. The American Catholic the American Socialist or the American writer or artist in these areas and other areas we find similar dualisms that have had great impact upon American history. But for the American Negro in the 1960s especially this quest for self for identity for self image became a crucial factor in the civil rights movement. And it had very specific implications and applications as Mr Farmer speaking as a leader of this movement pointed out we have very much are concerned about the positive accomplishments of the civil rights revolution in terms of self-image and we grow and develop more pride and a sense of identity and dignity had to being held high and people are walking straight up and up thinking now I am somebody. A few years ago a man felt that he was nobody. That's terribly important. And nothing else in terms of movement is possible without a sense of dignity it
seems to me. I think you feel the participation in the movement itself makes a difference in what Americans think of themselves and what my future generations will think of us. Oh very definitely so. It's obviously having a period in which rapid history is being made and such history will be recorded in the history books of the future our children and grandchildren reading those history books will turn to us someday and I ask Father Mother grandpa grandma What were you doing that you were part of that movement. You were alive then you were old enough to take part. Where were you. Were you in it. Were you in the March on Washington. Were you down in Selma Alabama. What were you doing while Birmingham was going on and so forth. Where were you during the Freedom Rides. And that of course will be very advantages to any parent if he's able to say that he was somehow involved
and engaged in something more than not part of the American story. Isn't that in the individual's quest for self that I mean the assumption is that here on this continent or here in the United States we don't we are not given our sell by tradition or accident of birth that we make ourselves what we are. By in part participating in such movements. You mentioned in the past but the labor movement in the feminist movement and other movements have been important to individuals who participate in them in this part of the quest for self. I think it is I think it is and I think it's particularly important in view of the fact that the individual has felt submerged beneath the bigness of this society has felt that he was only a car again some giant machinery and that he was helpless. There was nothing he could do. You can't fight city hall type of thinking. We are fighting city hall and people as individuals are sensing that they are not insignificant. They are
terribly important and they're using this power that they're fighting. And that connection. It seemed interesting to me to discover that in the newest of civil rights programs in many areas some familiar language is showing up with an unusual contact of such language or self-help. Friends are not reliant for the self-made man which is a part of the American mythology and has appeared in different contexts over the course of American history. But isn't there here a revival of this basic notion that one needs to open the opportunities of man to help themselves not to give to as the eternal mystically to give to groups of people who are suffering individual things but to give them opportunities for self help. That is very true. Basic to the civil rights revolution is the concept that we don't want people to do it for us we want to participate in doing it for ourselves. The
same idea is finding its way fortunately into the war on poverty. The anti-poverty program not a concept of specialist coming into the city to help the poor poor as it were but to help devise programs whereby the poor may help themselves. I think this is very important. And in the process discover themselves discover themselves as they help themselves. Then who is to say after all that man wasn't speaking for our time and for all of us when he wrote that high. Not any one else can travel that road for you. You must travel it for yourselves long have you dreamed the contemptible dreams. Now I washed the gum from your eyes. You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life. Long had you timidly waited holding a plank by the shore. Now I will you to be a bolder swimmer to jump off in the midst of the sea rise again. Not to me and shout. I am the teacher of athletes.
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher. Let's put up that what have you to confide in me. Look in my face while I snuff this title of evening talk honestly. No one else hears you and I stay only a minute longer. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love. If you want me again look for me under your boot. So it's. Missing me. One place such another I stop somewhere waiting for you. Portrait of the American program number 11. Quest for self the producer moderator Dr Bedi may author scholar and teacher of American studies. This program was produced by Wayne State University in Detroit. Their reader was Dave medico the program was directed by Dan Logan technical direction by Ed Raymond Greg Elliott. Your announcer Phil Jones a grant from the National Home Library Foundation has made
possible the production of this program for national educational radio. This is the national educational radio network.
Portrait of the American
Quest for self
Producing Organization
Wayne State University
WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/500-v97zqv7j).
Episode Description
Fourth theme: the American self. Inner-direction to other direction.
Series Description
Series that examines assessments of the American using the themes of innocence, affluence, success and the American self. Features analysis by Dr. Betty Ch'maj, interviews, dramatic readings. Series features interviews with John Dos Passos, James Farmer, Marshall Fishwick, Alan Harrington, Ihab Hassan, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, R.W.B. Lewis, and William H. Whyte, Jr.
Broadcast Date
Asset type
Media type
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Host: Ch'maj, Betty E. M.
Interviewee: Kazin, Alfred, 1915-1998
Interviewee: Farmer, James, 1920-1999
Interviewee: Howe, Irving
Interviewee: Lewis, R. W. B. (Richard Warrington Baldwin)
Interviewee: Hassan, Ihab Habib, 1925-
Interviewee: Schuck, Victoria
Producer: Gouds, Moyra
Producing Organization: Wayne State University
Producing Organization: WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-3-11 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:20
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “Portrait of the American; Quest for self,” 1966-02-18, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 26, 2024,
MLA: “Portrait of the American; Quest for self.” 1966-02-18. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 26, 2024. <>.
APA: Portrait of the American; Quest for self. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from