Week 24, Whitman Civil War

John Gast, American Progress (painting, 1872).
John Gast, American Progress (painting, 1872).

This week's text is “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”

In 1872, a little-known Prussian-born artist named John Gast, then living in Brooklyn, painted an image that became famous in the following decades in the United States, as the destructive energies of the Civil War were funneled into what was then considered the much more constructive efforts of Manifest Destiny—America’s westward movement and its determination to occupy and dominate the entire breadth of the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Gast’s painting, which was quickly reproduced in a series of popular lithographs, portrayed a giant image of Columbia or Freedom (or maybe America herself) leading the western advance of civilization, bringing Eastern light to the Western darkness as American Indians and the buffalo vanished into the darkness, while the evolving lines of American technology, including trains and telegraph lines, followed the horses, covered wagons, and carriages into the expansive and expanding frontier. The painting could almost be an illustration for Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!,” a hymn which seems to be an equally spirited paean to the American domination of the continent: “We primeval forests felling, / We the rivers stemming, vexing we, and piercing deep the mines within; / We the surface broad surveying, and the virgin soil upheaving, / Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Today, many of us hear such rousing language as a kind of ecological/genocidal nightmare, the optimistic and unexamined cheering on of a postwar capitalistic fervor raping the “virgin” land and claiming Indian territory—all presented to us in a strong, relentless (and uncharacteristic) Whitman trochaic beat, a marching song calling America’s pioneers to action.

In the context of the Civil War, though, the poem might be viewed a little more sympathetically. Whitman, like many in the wounded and divided nation at the time, worried a great deal about what would happen when hundreds of thousands of soldiers, Union and Confederate, returned home, carrying with them their rifles, their experiences of bloodshed, and their lingering enmity. It was one of the great challenges for the tenuously reunited nation: how to turn soldiers back into citizens, how to make the warring armies of a fractured country a single unified army dedicated to building a civilization, how to turn bloody fields of battle into productive and fertile fields of crops. In 1876, at the end of Reconstruction, Whitman wrote: “In all History, antique or modern, the grandest achievement yet for political Humanity—grander even than the triumph of THIS UNION over Secession—was the return, disbanding, and peaceful disintegration from compact military organization, back into agricultural and civil employments, of the vast Armies, the two millions of embattled men of America.” He published these words as the headnote to his poem “The Return of the Heroes,” a poem that confronted what was, for Whitman, always a double-edged problem: the “heroes” who died and “returned” to the land (“the dead . . . fit very well in the landscape under the trees and grass”) needed to be always remembered, absorbed into the nation’s future, while the “heroes” who lived and returned to civilized life needed to create that future.

“O Pioneers!,” then, provides an outlet, an opportunity for the demobilized troops to remobilize as an ardent civilian population—the equal of heroic Civil War soldiers—to now take on the task of building, out of the rubble, a perfect Democracy. Whitman saw the war finally as having been fought for the West, the area of the country most associated with its future, where the “tan-faced” “Western youths”—who had been some of his favorite soldiers—with their “sharp-edged axes” would shape the nation’s destiny. This new “central inland race” would finally, Whitman believed, resolve all the nation’s old enmities: “All the hands of comrades clasping, all the Southern, all the Northern,” and even “all the masters with their slaves” would join together in one national body with a blended “continental blood intervein’d.”

Buried in this unyielding march of progress (“we must never yield or falter”) are “the apparitions pressing,” “those swarms upon our rear.” In one sense, these “swarms” are the civilizations of the past that are now giving way to the democracy of the future, but, in another sense, they are the countless Civil War dead that continue to haunt Whitman, the “ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging”: they are the invisible force that pushes us on, that urges us to make a worthy future out of their sacrifice. So, while Whitman celebrates the “resistless restless race” that Americans have become, still his “breast aches with tender love for all”: “I mourn and yet exult,” he says, always expressing the conflicted obligations he feels to both the living and the dead—those who make the future, and those out of whose deaths the future is made. Amidst the stirring march, then, remains a warning: we are moving into this future, Whitman sternly reminds us, “Not for delectations sweet, / . . . Not the riches safe and palling,” not for the “gluttonous feast.”

When he looked around the nation in the 1870s, as it entered what would come to be called “the gilded age,” Whitman was appalled to see a growing worship of money, wealth, ease, a growing divide in income distribution, and a growing forgetfulness of the awful sacrifice that had been made so that the nation might have a united, slave-free, democratic future. His ultimate fear was that the nation would give itself over to the “corpulent sleepers” with their “lock’d and bolted doors,” becoming a fat land of easy comfort for some, a parched land of poverty for others. If this anti-democratic nightmare happened, Whitman knew, the Civil War dead would remain lost, forgotten, mere ashes, their heroic deaths reduced to useless and meaningless butchery.


“Pioneers! O Pioneers!”


COME, my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready;
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp edged
Pioneers! O pioneers!


For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of
We, the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


O you youths, western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and
Plain I see you, western youths, see you tramping with
the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied, over there
beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden, and the
Pioneers! O pioneers!


All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and
the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing, as we go, the
unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we, and piercing deep
the mines within;
We the surface broad surveying, and the virgin soil up-
Pioneers! O pioneers!


Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the
high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting
trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


From Nebraska, from Arkansas,
Central inland race are we, from Missouri, with the con-
tinental blood intervein'd;
All the hands of comrades clasping, all the Southern, all
the Northern,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


O resistless, restless race!
O beloved race in all! O my breast aches with tender
love for all!
O I mourn and yet exult—I am rapt with love for all,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


Raise the mighty mother mistress,
Waving high the delicate mistress, over all the starry
mistress, (bend your heads all,)
Raise the fang'd and warlike mistress, stern, impassive,
weapon'd mistress,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


See, my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear, we must never yield or
Ages back in ghostly millions, frowning there behind us
Pioneers! O pioneers!


On and on, the compact ranks,
With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the
dead quickly fill'd,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and
never stopping,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the
gap is fill'd,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


All the pulses of the world,
Falling in, they beat for us, with the western movement
Holding single or together, steady moving, to the front,
all for us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


Life's involv'd and varied pageants,
All the forms and shows, all the workmen at their
All the seamen and the landsmen, all the masters with
their slaves,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


All the hapless silent lovers,
All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and
the wicked,
All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the
Pioneers! O pioneers!


I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way,
Through these shores, amid the shadows, with the
apparitions pressing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


Lo! the darting bowling orb!
Lo! the brother orbs around! all the clustering suns and
All the dazzling days, all the mystic nights with dreams,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


These are of us, they are with us,
All for primal needed work, while the followers there in
embryo wait behind,
We to-day's procession heading, we the route for travel
Pioneers! O pioneers!


O you daughters of the west!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and
you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move
Pioneers! O pioneers!


Minstrels latent on the prairies!
(Shrouded bards of other lands! you may sleep—you
have done your work;)
Soon I hear you coming warbling, soon you rise and
tramp amid us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


Not for delectations sweet;
Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and
the studious;
Not the riches safe and palling, not for us the tame en-
Pioneers! O pioneers!


Do the feasters gluttonous feast?
Do the corpulent sleepers sleep? have they lock'd and
bolted doors?
Still be ours the diet hard, and the blanket on the
Pioneers! O pioneers!


Has the night descended?
Was the road of late so toilsome? did we stop discour-
aged, nodding on our way?
Yet a passing hour I yield you, in your tracks to pause
Pioneers! O pioneers!


Till with sound of trumpet,
Far, far off the day-break call—hark! how loud and
clear I hear it wind;
Swift! to the head of the army!—swift! spring to
your places,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


“Note to future historians,” Charles Simic writes: “Don’t read old issues of The New York Times. Read the poets.” If the true history of a people can be discovered in its poetry, then what I heard in a car driving across northern Afghanistan, from the fabled birthplace of the poet Rumi in Balkh to the capital of the province, Mazar-e-Sharif, may prove to be more enduring than whatever comes of the fitful peace process designed to bring an end to the conflict: four older men reciting ghazals, one of which concluded with this couplet: “I’m tired, stressed out, depressed—do you know why?/ The history of yesterday is repeated again.” This made sense to me, for I had gazed in fascination on another drive at the burnt hulks of more than a dozen Soviet tanks: informal shrines arranged in a landscape that in some places is lined with unexploded ordnance.

How to rebuild a country torn apart by civil war? The work of poets may seem negligible. But a poem can contain a nation’s history as well as some of its possible futures. And Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” is a fine example of a poem in the form of a rallying cry. Dispensing with the lyric I, which in “Song of Myself” represents the entire cosmos, the poet adopts the voice of the collective we, summoning his countrymen to a new vision of their body politic, one rooted in westward expansion. This is how he proposes to bind the country together, healing the wounds of war with a call to action; hence in twenty-six numbered quatrains, each ending with the title as a refrain, he issues orders to the convalescing masses, urging them to convert the passion they once reserved for war against their brethren to commence a long march across the continent: “We to-day’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing,/ Pioneers! O pioneers!”

The distinctly militaristic aspect of this poem, not to say jingoistic, is part and parcel of the dark history of westward expansion, which among other things resulted in the Indian removals and widespread destruction of native habitats. This is not to blame Whitman for that—this dynamic was in place long before he was born—but to note some of the consequences of his enthusiasm for the conquering of the West. “Here is something we can all count on,” Simic writes in an essay on the Balkan wars. “Sooner or later our tribe always comes to ask us to agree to murder.” The Afghan poets escorting me around their province knew this well. By the time we reached Qala-e-Jangi, a castle on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif, my translation of one ghazal was complete: “You said it was the last time—yet again./ The history of yesterday is repeated again.” And so it was: not long after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, this castle was the site of a prison uprising, during which a CIA officer named Johnny “Mike” Spann became the first American killed in action. “You knew it was wrong,” the Afghan poet said, “and you did it again.”



Every nation carries a dark and violent history, one that is often disguised behind nationalistic hymns and myths and revisionist histories. Should writers ever celebrate their countries without acknowledging the darkest parts of their nation’s past?

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