Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain

by Louis Simpson
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

“Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain” employs a travel or journey theme. Like the trip itself, the poem initially has no apparent order. The leaps at first seem illogical, but the sights along the way eventually bring meaning to the verse tour. Simpson moves the reader from New York, to “the Mississippi panorama,” to “[t]he Open Road,” to “the high Sierras,” to the “lonely road,” to the ruins of ancient societies that decayed from within before being destroyed from without, to crumbling structures, and finally to the bay, another allusion to Simpson’s “In California.”

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The statue of Whitman that introduces the poem actually exists; it is one that the American sculpture Jo Davidson (1883-1952) designed at the request of Averell Harriman. Harriman, U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, secretary of commerce under President Harry S. Truman, and governor of New York from 1954 to 1958—wanted to commemorate his mother’s gift of ten thousand acres and $1 million for the creation of Bear Mountain State Park and the adjacent Harriman State Park; he commissioned Davidson to design the statue. The first exhibit of the sculpture was at the 1939 New York World’s Fair; the formal dedication was in Bear Mountain on November 17, 1940.

Across from the statue and carved into a granite ledge are stanzas from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” The first line reads, “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road.” The statue depicts Whitman walking surely and confidently, as if down an open road. Simpson makes reference to the sculpture and to these lines of Whitman when he pessimistically tells his audience that “The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.” Simpson is suggesting that cars in American society in the post-World War II period are more than just a means of transportation; they are his symbols of the class system, of speed and motion, of the abandonment of the American Dream by many in the country, of the impermanence of material goods, and even of a person’s worth—by society’s faulty measure.

Simpson notes in the poem that American visitors usually do not wait to read the words of the bronze figure; he laments the fact that the people “neglect [Whitman]!/ Only a poet pauses to read the inscription.” This speed and lack of concern for ideals are abhorrent to him. The last four lines seem to call for slowing down the too-fast tempo of life and for appreciating the world.

Simpson seems to have three goals in this poem. He honors Whitman, clears the bard of charges that he was a false prophet, and cautions the nation to pause, to consider its path, and to return to the American Dream. Simpson effectively uses contrasts to stress the needed, significant changes. He suggests that the “sickness” and “death” of standards are rampant throughout the nation; for instance, Simpson uses the words “sick,” “contracted,” “deaf,” “grave,” and “used-car lot.” Even “cathedrals/ Unbuilding” implies the death and decay of the American Dream. The references to illness, imperfection, death, and spoils continue as one reads of Greece and Rome “in ruins”; this mention of past civilizations is reminiscent of Simpson’s poem “In California,” which mentions ancient Babylon and Tenochtitlán.

By contrast, rebirth and rejoicing are still possible, the poet reminds the reader. He urges the general public to find again the Garden of Eden with its “angel in the gate” and “flowering plum.” He suggests that his audience can enjoy the intellectual joy (“imagining red”) and dancing if they refocus their sights on something other than selfish concerns. Simpson offers to those who will listen his full vision: the promise, the betrayal, and all that is still possible.

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