Preface to Leaves of Grass

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Walt Whitman’s “1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass” and Captain John Smith’s “A Description of New England”: Parallel Visions of the American People and the Shaping of the Nation’s Identity

Walt Whitman’s “1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass,” and Captain John Smith’s “A Description of New England,” articulate the visions each held of the American people, as well as demonstrate the interpersonal and physical facets necessary in fashioning an ideal nation. Composed over two centuries after the publishing of Smith’s treatise, Whitman’s “1855 Preface” reflects the principles Smith outlines in his quest to create the New World, and the importance of considering individual identities in the formulation of this Nation’s identity. Smith’s “A Description of New England” summons’ young English men to aide in the crafting of the New World, provided they are of wholesome virtues, and wish to pass such merits onto their descendants, creating bright futures in the shining New World. In the third paragraph of “1855 Preface,” Whitman describes the successful product of such learned virtues on the nation: The largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen. Not nature nor swarming states nor streets and steamships nor prosperous business nor farms nor capital nor learning may suffice for the ideal of man…A live nation can always cut a deep mark and can have the best authority the cheapest…namely from its own soul. This is the sum of the profitable uses of individuals or states and of present action and grandeur of the subjects of poets. (997)

Whitman emphasizes the idea that a nation is only as grand, or large as the spirit of its citizens, and such grand nations are worthy of grand poets. As a poet, Whitman compliments America and its people, as he finds both worthy enough to become the subject of his writing. Captain Smith envisioned creating an impressive nation while composing his treatise, and took consideration as to his idyllic audience at the onset of his discussion. Smith asks: What so truly suits with honor and honesty, as the discovering things unknown? Erecting townes, peopling countries, informing the ignorant, reforming things unjust, teaching virtue; and gain(ing) to our native mother country a kingdom to attend her; find(ing) employment for those that are idle, because they know not what to do; so far from wronging any, as to cause posterity to remember thee; and remembering thee, even honor that remembrance with praise?” (54) Smith’s accent on transforming the ignorant and unmerited, and teaching virtues is an illustration of the futuristic ideals he holds for the young men he calls upon to create the new world. Captain Smith envisions a nation of generosity, and distinction, and indicates the grandeur that will someday become the subject of poets. In keeping such a vision, Captain Smith provides a list of vices which are not wanted among the men destined to come to the shining new world: …who would live at home idly…only to eat, drink, and sleep, and so die? Or by consuming that carelessly, (which) his friends got worthily? Or by using that miserably, which maintained virtue honestly?...Or…toil out they heart, soul, and time, basely, by shifts, tricks, cards, or dice?...deceive they friends…in borrowing where though never intendest to pay; offend the laws…burden thy country, abuse thyself, despair in want…wish thy parents death…to have their estates? (54-55) Whitman reflects Smith’s vision at the beginning of his “Preface,” honoring America, and complimenting its humility and order. Continuing his praise of the nation he so adores, Whitman states: Here at least is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here is not merely a nation but a teeming of nations. Here action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses....
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