Scattered All Across America
Whitman’s Nights on the Mississippi from the Specimen Days collection reminded me of Langston Hughes’ poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers. I remember reading awhile back somewhere that Hughes was inspired by the work of Whitman and Carl Sandberg. When the speaker of Hughes’ poem asserts that he has heard “the singing in the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln/went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen it’s muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset” it echoes the same sentiments expressed by Whitman as he characterizes the river as “structure of perfection and beauty unsurpassable.”
When Sandburg describes his Chicago as the “player with railroads and the nation’s freight holder,” it reveals the common thread amongst the three poets and their poems: namely, expansion. Bridges that crossed the Mississippi River made it possible for Hughes to travel from his home state of Illinois to New York and Harlem. In fact, Hughes’ early travels are almost identical to the route of the Mississippi River. In the same vein, I believe Whitman’s bridge represents expansion.
Ultimately, I think that both Hughes and Sandburg’s poems connect to Whitman and Song of Myself by way of the shared theme of expansion. Whitman begins by spreading himself into atoms that belong to everyman (1). Hughes’ soul has “grown deep like rivers” and Sandburg proudly asserts that he is “the Nation’s Freight Handler;/Stormy, Husky and Brawny.” Expansion and Modernity are inextricably linked. Trains, planes and automobiles. I believe the connecting thread for all three pieces are the Mississippi River, boats and another form of expansion in addition to the railroad, which is generally associated with modernity. I believe that Hughes, Sandburg and Whitman spoke to American modernity: Americana, so to speak.