Singing the Body Electric Singing the Body Electric
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Singing the Body Electric

by Anne Trubek

November 9, 2008

Barack Obama as Walt Whitman, incarnate

"I am an acme of things accomplished, and I am encloser of things to be." -- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" When Barack Obama strode to the podium at Grant Park, he did so with a preternaturally assured demeanor, as if addressing millions as the next President was ordinary, expected, what he was born to do. He was replete; he emitted security.He strode on the stage alone, addressed us alone, and left alone. The families joined him, but after they left he lingered, waving, alone. I am a singular figure, he was saying, but I am also all of you.Singular and many. "I am large, I contain multitudes," Walt Whitman wrote.While many say Obama recalls Lincoln, King, Kennedy, or Roosevelt, to me, he recalls Walt Whitman. Obama is the American striver, the individualist, the Great Man. Yet he is also American diversity, democratic, the Representative Man. He is unique and the product of many. He made himself but we made him. This too is what Walt Whitman sang, of himself, in 1855:I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff that is fine,One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the             same,A Southerner soon as a Northerner ...Like Whitman, Obama is wholly himself and the embodiment of us. Both meld individual self with national identity. They are undeniably unique and they represent something extra-personal.They are also off by themselves-as was Obama at Grant Park:Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpably certain rest,Looking with its side-curved head curious what will come next,Both in and out of the game, watching and wondering at it.Obama's uncanny self-confidence is Whitmanic, too. He somehow assumes his mantle without arrogance, and is commanding yet humble:I resist anything better than my own diversity,And breathe the air and leave plenty after me,And am not stuck up, and am in my place.And that optimism! Whitman and Obama come to us with division and failure on their minds, but they bring to this darkness a breathtaking buoyancy, what Obama calls the audacity of hope. It is at once national--that good ol' American idealism-and temperamental, a habit of being:I celebrate myself, and sing myself,And what I assume you shall assume,For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.Whitman was fiercely political, and Abraham Lincoln is the historical figure to whom they both refer. When Whitman extols Lincoln in "O Captain! My Captain!" I admit a pang of identification with my president-elect:O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought it won;The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exultingWhitman followed elections, too. After the Civil War turned into the dark days of Reconstruction, Whitman wrote a paean to American democracy, Democratic Vistas. I thought of John McCain's graceful concession speech while re-reading it, blurry-eyed, on Wednesday morning:What is more dramatic than the spectacle we have seen repeated, and doubtless long shall see-the popular judgment taking the successful candidates on trial in the offices-standing off, as it were, and observing them, and their doings for a while, and always giving, finally, the fit, exactly due reward? I think, after all, the sublimest part of political history, and its culmination, is currently issuing from the American people. I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.At Grant Park, Obama was evidence that, as Whitman wrote in the preface to his epic "Leaves of Grass," "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." Obama absorbs Whitman, we absorb Obama, and "the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem."Photo from Flickr user bodhithaj.
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Singing the Body Electric