An American Primer

[The American Primer is a challenge rather than a finished fight. Whitman shows in it what he was prepared to do rather than what he thought he had perfected. It was his original intention to enlarge these notes into a study which would in a sense inclose the theme and dignify it in the way it deserved. Whitman in his early career planned for all sorts of literary ventures which were not consummated. Whitman was undoubtedly convinced that he had a mission. This conviction never assumed fanatic forms. Whitman was the most catholic man who ever thought he had a mission. But he did regard himself as such a depository. Yet he never believed or contended that he possessed exclusive powers or an extraordinary divination. He felt that if the message with which he was entrusted did not get out through him it would through some other. But in his earlier career, after he tired of writing in the formal way and to the formal effect,—for he played the usual juvenile part in literary experiment,—he felt that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to secure publishers either for his detail work or for his books. He often asked himself, How am I to deliver my goods? He once decided that he would lecture. And he told me that when the idea of the American Primer originally came to him it was for a lecture. He wrote at this thing in the early fifties,—even as far along as 1856-1857. And there is evidence that he made brief additions to it from time to time in the ten years that followed. But after 1855, when he succeeded in issuing the first edition of Leaves of Grass, some of his old plans were abandoned,—this lecture scheme with others,—and certain new plans were formulated. The Primer was thenceforth, as a distinct project, held in abeyance. I remember that once in the late eighties he laughed and said to me, "I may yet bring the Primer out." And when I laughed incredulously he added, "Well, I guess you are right to laugh: I suppose I never shall. And the best of the Primer stuff has no doubt leaked into my other work." It is indeed true that Whitman gave expression to the substance of the Primer in one way or another. Even some of its sentences are utilized here and there in his prose and verse volumes. But the momentum gathered and brought to bear upon the subject in the manuscript now under view was nowhere else repeated. The Primer, therefore, has, as a part of Whitman's serious literary product, a marked identity. Whitman said of it, " It was first intended for a lecture: then when I gave up the idea of lecturing it was intended for a book: now, as it stands it is neither a lecture nor a book." — HORACE TRAUBEL]

Much is said of what is spiritual, and spirituality, in this, that, or the other,—in objects, expressions. For me, I see no object, no expression, no animal, no tree, no art, no book, but I see, from morning to night, and from night to morning, the spiritual. Bodies are all spiritual. All words are spiritual—nothing is more spiritual than words. Whence are they? Along how many thousands and tens of thousands of years have they come?—those eluding, fluid, beautiful, fleshless realities, Mother, Father, Water, Earth, Me, This, Soul, Tongue, House, Fire.

A great observation will detect sameness through all languages, however old, however new, however rude. As humanity is one under its amazing diversities, language is one under its. The flippant read on some long past age, wonder at its dead costumes [customs?], its amusements, &c.; but the master understands well the old, ever-new, ever-common grounds, below those animal growths, and, between any two ages, any two languages and two humanities, however wide apart in time and space, marks well not the superficial shades of difference, but the mass shades of a joint nature.

In a little while, in the United States, the English language, enriched with contributions from all languages, old and new, will be spoken by a hundred millions of people: perhaps a hundred thousand words ("seventy or eighty thousand words"—Noah Webster).

The Americans are going to be the most fluent and melodious voiced people in the world—and the most perfect users of words. Words follow character,—nativity, independence, individuality.

I see that the time is nigh when the etiquette of salons is to be discharged that great thing, the renovated English speech in America. The occasions of the English speech in America are immense, profound—stretch over ten thousand vast cities, over through thousands of years, millions of miles of meadows, mountains, men. The occasions of salons are for a coterie, a bon soir or two—involve waiters standing behind chairs, silent, obedient, with backs that can bend and must often bend.

What beauty there is in words! What a lurking curious charm in the sound of some words! Then voices! Five or six times in a lifetime (perhaps not so often) you have heard from men and women such voices, as they spoke the most common word! What can it be that from those few men and women made so much out of the most common word! Geography, shipping, steam, the mint, the electric telegraph, railroads, and so forth, have many strong and beautiful words. Mines—iron works—the sugar plantations—the cotton crop and the rice crop—Illinois wheat—Ohio pork—Maine lumber—all these sprout in hundreds and hundreds of words, all tangible and clean-lived, all having texture and beauty.

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