Notes from the Glebe

American Pioneers

Dec 10, 01:22 PM

by Nick Borchert

A few days previous, I happened to perceive both that my hair had exceeded acceptable length (even by my lax standards) and that there was a lovely snowstorm occurring outside my window; thus I determined to use the occasion of the former to pursue a more intimate relationship with the latter. The walk was pleasantly uncomfortable, as anticipated, but the spirit of it was somewhat ruined, for I must confess that, having in my possession an inducement nigh-irresistible to the college undergraduate—a $2-off coupon—I bypassed several local barbers en route to—apologies, Fr. Peters—the “high-overhead chain just up the street” known as Big League Barbers. Herein, in lieu of the small-talk that traditionally accompanies the shearing process, I enjoyed the dubious privilege of watching ESPN over the buzz of the clippers.

Oh that the buzz had been louder! I had just convinced myself that making NFL Live’s “Twitter Tuesday” the subject of a public tirade would be both curmudgeonly and uninteresting when, at a commercial break (which on the contrary offered no reprieve at all), I was obliged to see Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” being used to tout Levi-brand jeans. In the commercial, an austere voice reads the opening stanzas of the poem while sweaty young men and women, presumably of the “youthful sinewy races,” run about wielding torches, dashing through the wilderness, doing back flips, riding horses, cuddling, coupling, and looking generally athletic, as catchwords like “strong,” “capable,” and “America” flash across the bottom of the screen.

Now it is true of course that Whitman is to some extent receiving his just deserts; after all, the poem in question does contain the following stanza:

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

And though I would forget it, we must also remember that it was Whitman who gave us the abominable “Song of the Redwood-Tree.” But he elsewhere instructs that “You shall not heap up what is call’d riches, / You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve” and calls us to “Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!” If the Good Grey Poet was sometimes caught up in the capitalist spirit of the young nation, it was only because he perceived in that spirit leanings toward the “divine magnetic lands” of which he dreamed. When Whitman thought of “progress,” he thought of spiritual and moral progress, an eternal march of the American people toward “inseparable cities, with their arms about each other’s necks.” The enterprising, pioneering American spirit seemed to him exactly the disposition needed for such a journey, but no level of material success was ever the goal: “Have you outstript the rest? Are you President? / It is a trifle….they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.”

When Whitman offered that “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it,” I rather doubt that what he was searching for was that the American spirit which he so cherished be spent in the never-ending pursuit of wealth. But that is what happened in the main, so now the urgent words of the “lonely old courage-teacher” are being used to sell designer jeans. But the marketing gurus over at Levi Strauss & Co., if they had any ends beyond the creation of a successful product, would do well to heed these words of the Camden Sage:

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others…”

But all things considered, Dr. Peters is correct, and the real travesty of the day was that I consented to set foot in the chain barbershop in the first place simply to save a few bucks. Therefore, if you chance to be the next unfortunate soul to hear me moralize about the superiority of the farmer’s market to the supermarket, I hereby entitle you to scoff. But the next time, so help me Walt, I’m going local, where at the very least I won’t have to chance twenty minutes in front of a television.

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