Whitman: Ballots Like Snowflakes Falling

Walt Whitman

Tuesday – Election Day

Walt Whitman got it right: America’s “quadriennial choosing” is more impressive than Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, the great lakes and the Mississippi River. Using a nature metaphor, the poet describes our votes as “the final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,/ The countless snow-flakes falling.”

For Whitman, our democratic process comprises the macro and the micro. Seen in the aggregate, it is “this seething hemisphere’s humanity.” But because each voter is also an individual, it is “the still small voice vibrating.” If Biden wins and there is a seamless transfer of power, then Whitman will be once again proved right when he calls our system “the peaceful choice of all” and “a swordless conflict/ Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s.”

Whitman is himself prepared to accept the result of the 1884 election, a mudslinging affair in which Grover Cleveland’s illegitimate child attracted far more attention than his impressive corruption-fighting record. Even if “darker odds, the dross” prevail, the process itself will triumph, Whitman believes. The dross itself “foams and ferments the wine…[I]t serves to purify.” As long as “the heart pants, life glows.”

A turbulent election will not sink the ship of state, Whitman confidently asserts. After all,

stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.

We’re praying, of course, that our current gust doesn’t prove so stormy that it destroys democracy altogether. Trump would be more than willing to capsize the boat if it meant staying in power. He is no Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln.

All my life, going back to the Kennedy-Nixon contest, I have shared as a matter of faith Whitman’s confidence that our democratic institutions will hold. This has been the first election where I have had doubts.

Election Day, November, 1884

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
‘Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—nor Mississippi’s stream:
—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name—the still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland—Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.

Previous Election Day Posts
Nov. 2010 – Elections Got You Down? Read Samuel Johnson
Nov. 2012 – Lit Options for Election Day Defeat (Tom Jones, Beowulf)
Nov. 2014 – Election Day as Trollope Describes It
Nov. 2016 – Nussbaum: Lit Produces Good Voters
Nov. 2018 – Silko: Light and Darkness Wrestle for America’s Soul

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