Section 39, Song of Myself

Foreword

Now resurrected and full of renewed vitality, the poet introduces a mysterious new avatar, “the friendly and flowing savage.” This emerging American identity is associated with the wilderness (the word savage derives from roots meaning the forest or the wilds) and seems to be some blend of the American pioneer and the native American Indian (we might think back to the marriage of the trapper and the “red girl” in Section 11). The identity that Whitman celebrates here exists in that charged cultural space between what the historian Frederick Jackson Turner called “savagery and civilization,” where the self-reliant and rough American identity was formed on the frontier. This new “savage” is “flowing” because his identity must remain fluid, responsive to endless changes of environment and altering conditions. Existing on the ever-moving frontier—that always-changing border between the emerging civilization and the vanishing wilderness—the new “savage” is always waiting for civilization to catch up with him from the East but is also in some ways always “past” civilization and “mastering it,” because he is looser, more independent, more “lawless” in his behavior, less elegant in his speech, easier in his body than his more “civilized” fellow citizens of the East. Having left civilization to forge into the wilderness, he retains aspects of his civilized upbringing while adopting the necessary rough practicalities of frontier life. He flows comfortably into a more “savage” identity and builds his social ties on friendship rather than on laws.

The United States in the nineteenth century was created, of course, by pushing the frontier line from the east to the west on its course of “manifest destiny” to the Pacific Ocean. Two common terms were used at the time to describe the wilderness into which America was expanding—the “frontier” and the “backwoods.” “Frontier” suggested that the nation was facing west, that the “front” of the country was its western border as it looked toward the wilderness for its inspiration and its future, while “backwoods” suggested that the nation faced east as it backed its way into the wild west, looking toward Europe and its civilization as the model for what the new nation would become. Whitman believed in the west as America’s future, and here he combines into one figure those many strong and brave pioneers who took the first steps into turning the wilderness into civilization. So he evokes all the places where frontier life was active and vital, from Canada to Oregon to Iowa to Mississippi. Whitman hoped that America’s frontier experience would result in a culture very different from the European cultures it left behind, and his “friendly and flowing savage” becomes the loving and simple and powerfully “common” model of the new American, who, like the poet, behaves and talks and loves more naturally, less artificially, less hierarchically, and is more comfortable with his body than those from previous civilizations. This “friendly and flowing savage,” then, uses his bare hands to create a new culture, and new “modes” of behavior, new “emanations” (a word that etymologically means “flow out”) of democratic commonality, appear from the very “tips of his fingers” and “fly out of the glance of his eyes.” Wherever he goes, a rugged democracy materializes.

E.F.

Section 39

The friendly and flowing savage, who is he?
Is he waiting for civilization, or past it and mastering it?
Is he some Southwesterner rais'd out-doors? is he Kanadian?
Is he from the Mississippi country? Iowa, Oregon, California?
The mountains? prairie-life, bush-life? or sailor from the sea?
Wherever he goes men and women accept and desire him,
They desire he should like them, touch them, speak to them, stay with them.
Behavior lawless as snow-flakes, words simple as grass, uncomb'd head, laughter, and naivetè,
Slow-stepping feet, common features, common modes and emanations,
They descend in new forms from the tips of his fingers,
They are wafted with the odor of his body or breath, they fly out of the glance of his eyes.

Afterword

The first question posed in this section—“The friendly and flowing savage, who is he?”—has troubled Americans from the arrival of the English settlers in Virginia and Massachusetts, in the early seventeenth century. The root meaning of savage is “of the woods,” and the Native peoples inhabiting the forests of the New World stood as an affront to the so-called civilized colonists, who took these lands, in the name of Christendom, to establish “a city upon a hill.” The answer offered by the Puritan divine, Roger Williams, in A Key into the Language of America was that his Narragansett neighbors were no different than the settlers, who for the most part did not share his conviction; in his banishment to the wilds of Rhode Island, where his commitment to liberty of conscience was unwavering, he became a prototype of the new man praised by Whitman in “Song of Myself”: someone who combined a spirit of adventure, plainspokenness, and the gift of attracting others to his cause—the democratic man, that is. He is that larger-than-life figure who for the sake of everyone living on this continent, white and black and red and yellow, articulates ways of relating to one another that will not bring us all grief.

How to recognize him? Williams observed that “The whole race of mankind is generally infected with an itching desire of hearing news.” And it is no accident that the first American to compose “news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound would later define poetry, was a newspaperman. Whitman gathered reports from the frontiers of the West, from sea voyages and city walks, from science and the arts, and transformed them into something that would endure—“emanations… descend[ing] in new forms from the tips of his fingers.” His long poetic lines, gleaned from news clippings and the impressions, reflections, and yearnings that he recorded in his notebooks, have a savage beauty, which reinforce Thoreau’s belief that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” No wonder Thoreau’s last words pointed to the aboriginal heart of America: “Moose. Indian.” Like Whitman, he grasped that the only hope for this nation (he died in 1862, during the darkest year of the Civil War) lay beyond the known world, in the wild.

C.M.

Question

In this section, Whitman imagines a new kind of American “savage” who assumes “primitive” and “natural” kinds of behaviors and thus energizes the American culture by abandoning stultifying overly “civilized” forms of behavior. Are all cultures at some point altered by life on their frontiers? Do all countries have “civilized” areas that are contrasted by more “primitive” or “savage” areas far from the civilized center? Are the tensions between the civilized and savage parts of a culture always productive? Are these tensions always working to alter the nature of the national character?

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