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This report is taken from PN Review 221, Volume 41 Number 3, January - February 2015.

Letter from Washington: ‘Get to work, Mr. Whitman!’ David C. Ward
‘I loaf, and invite my soul.’ So wrote a nineteenth-century Washington bureaucrat, one Walter Whitman of the Interior Department. I can tell Brother Walt from first-hand experience in that same bureaucracy that conspicuous loafing is no longer in vogue. Even lazy and obstructionist bureaucrats – i.e. the ones who give bureaucracy its bad name – justify their laziness and obstructionism by citing the relentless press of business: they are unable to get things done precisely because they are so busy! Whitman’s invitation to us to step back from the world and contemplate the soul was intended to rebound to a further appreciation of the world around us: by turning inward on ourselves we would appreciate and cultivate our individuality and innate abilities in order to further bind us to our fellow citizens and to nature itself. Radical individualism would be adhesive, not divisive. Of course, Whitman’s project, realised in his poetry, was never fulfilled in the public sphere, rolled under as it was by the relentless drive of the economies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The second part of Whitman’s famous phrase – the ‘soul’ – disappeared. America has always been a country full of hard-headed strivers after material wealth and status. The Protestant ethic, which accounted for salvation through works, fairly easily jettisoned the difficult salvation part as nineteenth-­century Americans became bedazzled not by earthly works but by earthly goods. The ironic effect of radical Emersonianism, of which Whitman was a student, was to decouple morality from institutions (the church, in particular), leading to ...


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