Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 4. Segment 5
Creating a Culture

Back in 1790, when the first census measuring the nation's population was taken, ninety-five percent of Americans lived on farms. By 1850, it was eighty-five percent. By 1890 it would shrink to just sixty-five percent. Slowly, we were on our way to becoming an urban nation. City life was exciting. In 1790, only two cities—New York and Philadelphia—had 20,000 or more people. By 1860 there were forty-three cities at least that size See It Now - Chicago, Illinois. Poet Walt Whitman was a city boy. He wrote this poem:

This is the city and I am one of the citizens,
Whatever interest the rest interests me, politics, wars, markets, newspapers,
schools,
The mayor and councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories, stocks, stores,
real estate and personal estate Check The Source - Walt Whitman: "I Hear America Singing".

Walt Whitman See It Now - Walt Whitman grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and became a teacher, a newspaper reporter, an editor, and, during the Civil War, a nurse. A book he wrote, called Leaves of Grass, contains poems unlike any ever written before. They are roaring, rollicking poems all about America, and about Whitman, and about ordinary things and extraordinary things. They are about us. This is how one of the most famous begins:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of merchants, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the
steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The woodcutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon
intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the
girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else."

No one knew what to make of Whitman's long poetry, except another poet, New England's Ralph Waldo EmersonSee It Now - Ralph Waldo Emerson. He knew, right away, that Whitman was writing with a new kind of voice: an American voice. Here at last was an American poet, a poet of democracy. He called Leaves of Grass "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed Check The Source - Ralph Waldo Emerson: "I see all"."

Back in 1820, an Englishman, the Reverend Sydney Smith, had mocked America when he said: "Who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?" By 1850, people all over the world were beginning to read American books—and to look at American paintings and statues, too.




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