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The Brief American Pageant , Sixth Edition
David M. Kennedy, Stanford University
Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University
Thomas A. Bailey
Mel Piehl, Valparaiso University
Primary Sources


Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source


Whitman Salutes the Indo-Hispanic Conrtibution to America
(1883)
Walt Whitman

Instructors' Note
This letter written by Walt Whitman illustrates for students the diversity of the roots of American culture. In the nineteenth century, the United States was only beginning to develop its own unique culture that did not rely on English roots for its legitimacy. Do students think that Whitman's ideas were perceived as radical in the 1880s?



Introduction
Walt Whitman was a nineteenth-century poet who was born in New York. His father built houses, and Whitman was largely self-educated. Throughout his life, he wrote poems and stories and produced sketches. He called his most famous work, Leaves of Grass, a "language experiment." Whitman initially published the work with twelve poems in 1855 and included more than 350 poems in the 1891 edition, which was the last before his death the next year. Throughout his work, he celebrated American history, politics, and geography. Think about the attitudes white people had toward the Hispanic and Native American residents of the Southwest as you read this letter Whitman wrote when he could not attend the anniversary of the founding of Santa Fe.

Questions to Consider
  1. Identify Walt Whitman.

  2. What limitations on the formation of an American culture unique to the United States did Whitman perceive? Do you agree?

  3. Why do you think Americans in the Southwest more readily acknowledged their Anglo-Norman history than their Spanish and Indian roots?

  4. How do you think Whitman's contemporaries reacted to this letter? Explain.



Source
Dear Sirs:

Your kind invitation to visit you and deliver a poem for the 333d Anniversary of founding Santa Fe has reach'd me so late that I have to decline, with sincere regret. But I will say a few words off hand.

We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources. Thus far, impress'd by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion'd from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake. Many leading traits for our future national personality, and some of the best ones, will certainly prove to have originated from other than British stock. As it is, the British and German, valuable, as they are in the concrete, already threaten excess. Or rather, I should say, they have certainly reach'd that excess. To-day, something outside of them, and to counterbalance them, is seriously needed.

The seething materialistic and business vortices of the United States, in their present devouring relations, controlling and belittling everything else, are, in my opinion, but a vast and indispensable stage in the new world's development, and are certainly to be follow'd by something entirely different— least by immense modifications. Character, literature, a society worth the name, are yet to be establish'd, through a nationality of noblest spiritual, heroic and democratic attributes— one of which at present definitely exists— different from the past, though unerringly founded on it, and to justify it.

To that composite American identity of the future, Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts. No stock shows a grander historic retrospect— in religiousness and loyalty, or for patriotism, courage, decorum, gravity and honor. (It is time to dismiss utterly the illusion-compound, half raw-head-and-bloody-bones and half Mysteries-of-Udolpho, inherited from the English writers of the past two hundred years. It is time to realize— it is certainly true— there will not be found any more cruelty, tyranny, superstition, &c., in the resume of past Spanish history than in the corresponding resume of Anglo-Norman history. Nay, I think there will not be found so much.)

Then another point, relating to American ethnology, past and to come, I will here touch upon at a venture. As to our aboriginal or Indian population— Aztec in the South, and many a tribe in the North and West— know it seems to be agreed that they must gradually dwindle as time rolls on, and in a few generations more leave only a reminiscence, a blank. But I am not at all clear about that. As America, from its many far-back sources and current supplies, develops, adapts, entwines, faithfully identifies its own— we to see it cheerfully accepting and using all the contributions of foreign lands from the whole outside globe— then rejecting the only ones distinctively its own— autochthonic ones?

As to the Spanish stock of our Southwest, it is certain to me that we do not begin to appreciate the splendor and sterling value of its race element. Who knows but that element, like the course of some subterranean river, dipping invisibly for a hundred or two years, is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action?

If I might assume to do so, I would like to send you the most cordial, heartfelt congratulations of your American fellow-country-men here. You have more friends in the Northern and Atlantic regions than you suppose, and they are deeply interested in the development of the great Southwestern interior, and in what your festival would arouse to public attention.

Very respectfully, &c.,

Walt Whitman



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