Pieces of art are reflections of their creators and the social and historical conditions of their respective times. This observation applies fully to literature and, in particular, poetry, so it may often make perfect sense to interpret poems as the authors’ reflections on the reality that surrounds them. With this in mind, one can certainly assess Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” as literary analyses of America, each of which offers a coherent vision of the country. Since the days of the early colonization, what was to become the United States was based on the idea of creating a special society. Whether labeling it the “city upon the hill,” “a more perfect Union,” or “Manifest destine,” powerhouses of American history generally shared the belief that they created a special historical project. However, this project also impacted multitudes of people for the worst, and both Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s vision of America recognize this suffering. However, while Whitman views it as something passing by in an idyllic pastoral landscape, Ginsberg sees it as an inevitability inflicted by industrial Moloch while having nothing but art to voice one’s feelings.
One obvious difference between the two poems’ versions of America is how they choose to portray their setting, as Whitman opts for an almost pastoral depiction. The poem celebrates the union with the natural world and urges humanity to accept and endorse it. This approach is quite evident as early as the second section of the poem when the author professes its intent to “go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked” (Whitman 2). This symbolic unity with nature, befitting a creature that is, by definition, its part, is one of the poem’s central themes. It gives America, as portrayed in “Song of Myself,” a pastoral and almost idyllic quality as the place where a person is never too far from the ground and, hence, his or her roots. A person in this setting may well spend his time contemplating what grass is, prompted by the question of a little boy (6). Obviously, it is not all there is to be done in Whitman’s America – but it is at least a technical possibility due to life being so close to nature both literally and figuratively.
Admittedly, Whitman is aware of the gradual changes that threaten to push this unity with nature from the prominence it occupies in his life and his mind. Early on, he outright juxtaposes his deified image of nature to the “houses and rooms” that are “are full of perfumes” (Whitman 2). This image is most likely the metaphor for human civilization – both houses and fragrances are artificial, even if they imitate natural objects and aromas. Whitman does not deny civilization per se – he admits to “know it and like” human-made scents (2). However, he also cautions against the possible negative effects of preferring artificial aromas to the natural atmosphere because the “distillation would intoxicate [him] also” (Whitman 2). What this vision seems to suggest about Whitman’s America is that living there is still fairly close to nature, but there are intoxicating influences of modern civilization that threaten to change this fact.
If in Whitman’s America, the downsides of industrialization are just a warning for the future, in Ginsberg’s America, they are already reality made manifest. The author rededicates the entire second section of his poem to describing the Moloch, which is a fairly unsubtle metaphor for unrestrained and unbridled American industrialism. The author immediately describes America of his time as one “whose mind is pure machinery,” stressing the precedence of cold calculations over human emotion (Ginsberg II). He also makes extensive use of religious imagery to emphasize the negative connotations. The name “Moloch” itself refers to a Biblical deity notorious for human sacrifices made in its honor. The skyscrapers of this modern bloodthirsty god “stand in the long streets like endless Jehovas” (Ginsberg II). By making this comparison, Ginsberg probably likens them to idols that require constant admiration and worship. Since Moloch’s blood “is running money,” the pursuit of “unobtainable dollars: in the economy driven by industrialization and consumerism becomes this worship. To summarize, while Whitman’s America was still largely rural and even pastoral, Ginsberg’s America is an industrialized hellscape where everyone has to move at a frantic pace.
Even though the setting described in Whitman’s poem offers a serene vision of America the land, the author does not shy away from demonstrating the abundance of turmoil and suffering in America the country. Throughout the considerable length of the poem, Whitman regularly references the social issues that permeated the United States at the time of him writing the poem. He lists “battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news” as just a few examples of things that happen in his America (Whitman 4). He also references specific reasons for suffering, such as the peculiar institution, when describing his encounter with a runaway slave whom he helped to get further North, away from the slaveholders (Whitman 10). When painting the large and complex landscape of American life, Whitman does not forget that it involves the suffering of a great many people. At the same time, though, he does not make this suffering the central subject of the poem – rather, it is just one more stroke to the wide and far-reaching portrayal of American life.
This is not the case with Ginsberg’s poem, as it makes suffering one of the central – is not the single most important – theme. The poem’s first section immediately begins with the statement of death and destruction. When Ginsberg proclaims, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed,” he sets the tone for the rest of the section and, arguable, the entire poem (I). The suffering that befits these people comes in many forms, from social death for the acts declared improper to the drugged haze that dulls thinking and physical destruction. Some of those Ginsberg describes are “expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes” (I). Some are left to suffer from “Tangerian bone-grindings and migraines of China under junk-withdrawal” (Ginsberg I). Others fall prey to the police brutality targeting youngsters, as signaled by the line “busted in their pubic beards” (Ginsberg I). What unites all of them is that they belong to vulnerable social groups. As a result, the Moloch or urbanized industrial life is able to claim them with ease in the survival-of-the-fittest America that does not necessarily favor the brightest minds.
Speaking of vulnerability, it is necessary to discuss how the two poems compared handle the subject of nakedness, as it is paramount for understanding their contrasting versions of America. In “Song of Myself,” being naked means stripping away the artificial garments symbolizing civilization and returning to one’s natural conditions. This interpretation manifests clearly in “I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, / I am mad for [the atmosphere] to be in contact with me” (Whitman 2). In “Song of Myself,” nakedness is not something to avoid or be afraid of. On the contrary, being naked signifies the return to one’s intended image and the union with nature that Whitman strives to embrace to its fullest. In Whitman’s America, people get naked willingly because it is their way of becoming closer to what they should be as individual creatures and as a species. Even though the author registers the potential dangers of urbanization and all things artificial, they do not directly threaten those who seek perfect harmony with nature by removing the vestments of civilization.
The portrayal of nakedness on “Howl” stands in stark contrast to this optimistic perception, as, in Ginsberg’s poem, nakedness is firmly associated with vulnerability. The author forges this association early on, noting that the best minds of his generation met their end “starving hysterical naked” (Ginsberg I). This short phrase comprises three factors – hysteria that destroys the mind, voracious hunger that breaks the body from within, and nakedness that leaves the body susceptible to damage from without. The result is the overall picture of vulnerability that makes the aforementioned best mind san easy prey for Moloch of industrialized America. Surely, there are still occasional cases of nakedness as unity with one’s natural purpose, as when having sex “flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake” (Ginsberg I). Yet, more often than not, nakedness means being laid bare for Moloch’s, “naked and trembling before the machinery” of the hostile world (Ginsberg I). Ginsberg’s America is so much more hostile than Whitman’s that nakedness means being dangerously vulnerable rather than happily recreated in one’s natural image.
The final difference between these two versions of America is how the people living in them react to the suffering that surrounds them. In this respect, Whitman offers an interesting combination of recognizing the other’s pain yet, at the same time, distancing oneself from it. On the one hand, true to the spirit of his self-professed bond with all humanity, he claims to share the others’ pain as well. This metaphysical unity with all other humans allows the narrator to experience their suffering, if indirectly, as proclaimed in “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there” (Whitman 33). On the other hand, none of this suffering – or, at the very least, none of its direct causes – seems to affect the narrator much. When mentioning wars, turmoil, and other fateful events, the narrator remarks: “These come to me days and nights and go from me again, / But they are not the Me myself” (Whitman 4). In Whitman’s America, it is still possible to distance oneself from the suffering of others as a distinct part of America’s social landscape.
It is no longer an option in America as described by Ginsberg since, for him and those he describes, suffering becomes an inescapable fact of reality that is never far away. The best minds of the author’s generation that he sees destroyed before his eyes do not have the luxury of distancing themselves from suffering. Unlike the narrator in Whitman’s poem, they experience it not metaphysically – through the bond between all humans – but literally – through their naked and vulnerable bodies and minds. Ginsberg describes it literally, noting how the best minds in question “blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into… saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio” (I). Unable to distance themselves from the pain all around them, the country’s best minds forge art out of their suffering to give it voice, even if it is just a few notes played on a saxophone. In this respect, “Howl” assumes an almost meta-level significance. It describes how America’s vulnerable groups attempt to express their pain through art while itself being a piece of art trying to give voice to the country’s vulnerable.
As one can see, Whitman and Ginsberg offer profoundly different visions of America that coincide in few things apart of their recognition of suffering as an integral part of American experiences. While both poems register industrialization and its downsides, it is only a potential threat in Whitman’s America yet a full-fledged Moloch in Ginsberg’s vision. Both authors continuously refer to the pain and suffering that vulnerable groups of the American population experience on a daily basis. Still, the degree of danger varies wildly between the two representations. While being naked in Whitman’s America means becoming close to nature, in Ginsberg’s America, it signifies vulnerability to the ever-present threats of the hostile world. At the end of the day, the narrator residing in Whitman’s America may distance himself from the suffering surrounding him, but those living in Ginsberg’s America have no such luxury.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.” Poetry Foundation. n.d. Web.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Poetry Foundation. n.d. Web.