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A Poem and A Logo: What Walt Whitman Gave The New Republic

Paper Graphic by Yulia Brodskaya for The New Republic

The idea that the journey is more significant than the destination, out of which Cavafy made something imperishable, is one of the controlling platitudes of American popular culture, and accounts for some of the consolation that Americans find amid confusion and also some of the forgiveness that they practice toward themselves. It must have originated in a time when journeys were interesting—when travel was an experience and not a suspension of experience. Surely we lost our sense of voyage when we stopped boarding ships. There is no more evocative emblem of the vicissitudes of destiny, of the grand drama of forward movement, than a ship, or a tossed ship. It was such a ship, a square-rigged frigate on a choppy windswept sea, which was chosen as the emblem of The New Republic when it was founded a hundred years ago, first in a handsomely executed etching in the rich realist style of the day and years later in a highly stylized version. This was not the ship of state. This was the ship of the life of the mind, which (as the ideological lurchings of this magazine demonstrated over the decades) is often at sea.

The artist who drew our ship was Robert Hallowell, an interesting man—“a curious mixture,” one historian has written, “of quiet charm, social idealism, practical business sense, and aesthetic sensibility.” Hallowell was a painter who served as the business manager and the publisher of The New Republic from 1914 until 1925, when he divorced his wife (the editor Charlotte Rudyard, an interesting woman) and left the magazine to devote himself to his art. His cityscapes, executed under the French influence, have a certain pictorial integrity, and are useful documents of New York City in the late 1920s and the 1930s; they showed in Paris and New York to good notices. But Hallowell never captured darkness. A photograph of him in 1935, presenting to Harvard his portrait of his former roommate John Reed, shows a dandy with lively, probing eyes. Bruce Bliven, in his memoir of his editorship of the magazine, reports that Hallowell and his family “lived in poverty.” In 1935 and 1936 Hallowell was assistant director of the Federal Arts Project, and he was working on a WPA mural when he died in 1939.

The ship that Hallowell chose to represent The New Republic was Walt Whitman’s ship. There are many ships in Whitman, of course; he is oceanic in more ways than one. “Are they not all the seas of God?” The ship in Hallowell’s engraving referred to the one in “Passage to India,” a long poem in thirteen sections that Whitman wrote (and pasted together) in the spring of 1870 and published a year later in a separate volume with other poems, until they were all absorbed into Leaves of Grass. Beneath his image of the ship Hallowell chose to cite some lines (along with some words that I cannot find in the poem) from Whitman’s poem—“Passage to you, to mastership of you, ye strangling problems!”—thereby transforming Whitman’s cosmic rhapsody into a prooftext for technocracy, which rather suited the spirit of the new progressive journal. Not much else in the poem did suit its spirit, though. Certainly not this: “Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?” In truth, “Passage to India” is a vatic mess. It is all exclamations and exclamation points, a flaccid mysticism in an athletic delirium. It is one of the works that announces the religiose post–Civil War Whitman who would make “no more attempts at smart sayings or scornful criticisms,” the histrionic white-bearded prophet whose visions sound increasingly like ravings and speak less for himself and more for the universe.

And yet the poem may still serve us whose calling it is to make sense of our moment. “Passage to India” begins with an ecstatic celebration of the wonders of modern engineering—the Suez Canal, the American railroad, the Atlantic cable. These revolutions in communication and transportation inspire some startlingly premonitory lines: “Lo, soul! Seest thou not God’s purpose from the first? / The earth to be spanned, connected by network, / The people to become brothers and sisters. / The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage, / The oceans to be crossed, the distant brought near, / The lands to be welded together.” Has technology, or globalization, ever been treated more lyrically? Connected by network! But then Whitman reveals his complete scale of values, and the engineers are demoted. They are heroes, but not the highest ones. “After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,) / After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work, / After the noble inventors— after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist / Finally shall come the Poet. ...” An age of scientific exploration is to be succeeded by an age of spiritual exploration. “India” stood for Columbus’s terrestrial goal, for all terrestrial goals, but the twelfth section of the poem proclaims a “passage to more than India!” (Hallowell included this line in his caption.) “Are thy wings plumed indeed for such far flights?” Whitman’s subject is finally the soul, which he addresses with mounting rapture; and the breakthroughs in convenience and comity made possible by science turn out to be insufficient to the soul’s needs, which are not terrestrial. The telegraph and the railroad can alter the world, but they cannot bestow an inward illumination. The soul seeks “primal thought” and “superior universes.” The lazy vagueness of such concepts does not quite vitiate the force of the poet’s claim that matter is not all there is, that the material is a highway to the immaterial. In its florid way, then, the poem enacts an ascent from the technological to the spiritual. Whitman’s affirmative abandon has the ironic consequence of providing a critical context. He “sings” technology and then he puts technology in a lesser place, and denies it an ultimate authority over human existence. This is the itinerary of the ship. May it also be our own.