Our American Virgil

As an uninformed but opinionated teenager working my way through both youth group and Honors World History, I grew obsessed with the Fall of the Roman Empire. I must confess that my interest in the subject did not drive me to any book beyond the text for my ninth grade social-studies course (and given my grade in that class, I doubt I read even that book very closely). No, I was interested in a sort of spiritual Roman Empire; I knew it was big, and evil, and anti-Christian, and I had the vague notion that its downfall was caused by orgies, human sacrifices, an influx of foreigners, and steep tax hikes. Naturally, I loudly declared the United States to be the “New Rome.” (My politics, let us say, have changed dramatically in the intervening decade and a half; to the degree that I see in my country a belligerent and doomed Colossus, it is for different reasons altogether.) A budding songwriter, I even wrote an alternative-rock number that made the case for the similarities. I can remember only the chorus:

Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome
Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome
Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome
Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome

With a silver tongue like that, how could I fail to convince everyone who heard me? Fortunately, no one did; I grew up before the ascent of the Internet and the availability of affordable home-recording software, so this song and the many others I wrote in high school are not living off in the ether somewhere. (Including, thank God, one called “Planet Dramamine”–and yes, the chorus was, “You all make me sick.”)

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the founders of this country very self-consciously looked to Rome as a model for their fledgling republic. And why not? Education in the eighteenth century followed the classical model, so future statesmen like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson learned Latin at an early age (an early age according to our lowered modern expectations) and took to heart the lessons of Cicero, Virgil, Horace, and the other giants of Roman letters. Madison and Jefferson–along with John Adams, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the other educated founding fathers–entered adulthood valorizing the heroes of the Roman Republic. When the American colonies revolted against their “tyrant” motherland in the 1760s and ’70s, the colonial leaders almost certainly saw themselves as contemporary Catos and Bruti, risking their lives for the good of the republic. America was indeed the “New Rome,” and not at all in the way I thought when I was fourteen.

All of this is well-documented elsewhere. What I’m interested in, for the sake of this post anyway, is the way the “New Rome” mentality translated itself into American cultural and literary life. For all of its mighty accomplishments in the realms of politics and imperial victories, Roman literature was doomed to lag behind the Greeks whom they so admired. Even the Roman gods were Greek deities with different names and (sometimes) a fresh coat of paint; it’s no wonder that the first important Roman literary figures are playwrights like Plautus and Terence, who borrow their plots wholesale from Greek dramatists. Likewise, the two most important Roman philosophers before the common era are Lucretius and Cicero, and even they are philosophers the way that Malcolm Gladwell is a sociologist–in other words, they’re far better at accumulating the thoughts of Epicurus and Plato than in coming up with their own.

Lucretius and Cicero both felt the Roman/Greek divide strongly. Lucretius in particular is wildly dissatisfied with Roman culture and with the Latin language; he can’t even satisfactorily present the ideas of Epicurus, he complains, because when compared to Greek, Latin is the language of a toddler:

Nor does it fail me that discoveries–obscure and dark–
Of Greeks are difficult to shed much light on with the spark
Of Latin poetry, chiefly since I must coin much new
Terminology, because of our tongue’s dearth and due
To the novelty of subject matter.
(The Nature of Things I.135-139)

Later, he will have to use a Greek term “Due to the dearth of our mother tongue” (I.831). Lucretius’ frustration with Latin as a language bubbles up from time to time in The Nature of Things–exacerbated, no doubt, by his admiration of Epicurus as a thinker.

Indeed, the Roman linguistic inferiority complex is inextricably linked to the Roman cultural inferiority complex. Rome was unsatisfactory as a producer of art and philosophy–or at least it seemed that way to its more high-minded citizens. Cicero, for example, who turned to philosophy after being repeatedly disappointed by politics, seems largely ashamed of the intellectual achievements of his countrymen. Even when he points to famous Romans like Cato or Laelius as examples of men to emulate, he praises them for their resemblance to the Greek model. Thus, in On Old Age, Cato admires Titus for his Greekness: “For I know you are a moderate, even-tempered man–who has imported more than just your surname from Athens! You have brought back a civilized, intelligent point of view as well.” Rome has become a cultural Third World, thirsty for colonists from Greece. (Cato also refers sneeringly to a man who is “for a Roman, very well read”; Cicero at this stage is clearly a man with little respect for his fellow citizens–and for good reason.)

And yet even in Cicero’s work we see the line of quality between Greek and Latin literature break down a bit. Less than a decade after Lucretius complained of having to import Greek words to cover the holes in Latin, Cicero has one of the speakers in The Nature of the Gods admit that

A number of people who were familiar with Greek culture could not previously communicate what they had learnt to their fellow-citizens because they did not feel able to express in Latin what they had studied in Greek. But in this field we now seem to have made such progress that in vocabulary at least we were on equal terms.

Latin had arrived as a language, and if Roman culture still lagged behind, it was at least on its way. Cicero wrote The Nature of the Gods in 45 B.C.E.; Rome was at that time only 26 years–a single generation–away from its greatest literary achievement. I speak, of course, of The Aeneid.

National literatures, according to the conventional wisdom, require national epics. These mixes of poetry, fiction, history, and mythology allow cultures to place themselves in a more global sense of time, purpose, and spirituality. Fittingly, The Aeneid, Rome’s great epic, feeds off The Iliad and The Odyssey the way Terence and Plautus feed off their Greek sources. But (largely) unlike Terence and Plautus, Virgil pushes things forward; his poem begins as a spinoff of Homer but becomes something dazzlingly original, something that (again, largely) kills Rome’s cultural inferiority complex.

Early American culture was defined, like Rome’s, by its anxiety standing next to that of other nations. I am speaking here of the early nineteenth century; the Puritans were less concerned with their literary output than with the state of their souls, and–excepting potboilers like Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple–the colonial and revolutionary eras mostly produced political tracts and poetry that has largely been forgotten. But once the fledgling nation had gained its political independence, its citizens began to crave a cultural independence.

Unlike the Romans of Cicero’s day, nineteenth-century Americans could not blame their cultural deficiencies on the weaknesses of the language. The British had, after all, produced Shakespeare and Milton using the English language; the former colonies had thus far come up only with Anne Bradstreet and Philip Freneu–neither writer without his or her charms, but nether even coming close to the achievements of the English Renaissance.

The canonical writers of the time tended to look across the Atlantic for inspiration. Many of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, for example, are set in Germany or France, and virtually none of his best and most famous tales explicitly take place in America. (One exception is “The Gold-Bug,” the first story one encounters when moving from those Poe stories known by all educated Americans to those known chiefly by scholars and specialists.) Or take Washington Irving’s Sketch-Book, fully half of which takes place in Great Britain. Even Irving’s stories that strike our ears as deeply and resonantly American–I refer, of course, to “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”–are virtual retellings of Dutch folktales, effectively transplanted into New York State.

The most unapologetically American of American writers in this era was James Fenimore Cooper–and his popularity outraced his actual talent exponentially. The literary journals of the time, especially the North American Review, issued periodic calls for an American literary messiah, a writer who could eliminate the qualitative distance between American and European letters.

Those calls continued into the period we know as the American Renaissance. Most famously, Ralph Waldo Emerson–a writer of skill and some originality but not, let us admit, of genius–called in 1843 for an American poet who would save American culture from the morass in which it found itself. “I look in vain,” he says, “for the poet whom I describe. We do not, with sufficient plainness, or sufficient profoundness, address ourselves to life, nor dare we chaunt our own times and social circumstance.” This new American poet, then, must break with the past; he must sing America in its glories and heartbreaks, and he must do so, if not in a new language, as Virgil did, then at least in a new diction.

America has never really had a national epic poem, largely because the novel had supplanted the most as the most popular and effective literary genre by the time the colonies became a nation. (Thus, one used to hear about the “Great American Novel” before it became unfashionable to speak of such things, but there’s no such thing as the “Great Greek Novel.”) Aside from culture-defining prose works like The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the closest thing we have to a traditional epic poem is Longfellow’s utterly tiresome Song of Hiawatha. But if Emerson is right about what the new American poet had to look like, we would expect him to define American culture in a radically new way–or, to put it more bluntly, to write an epic poem that is not, strictly speaking, an epic poem.

In the comment section of our most recent podcast, Chris Winn asks what I think of Harold Bloom’s positioning of Walt Whitman at the center of our canon–as the “Shakespeare of the American Canon,” to use Chris’s phrase. My answer is that the position is correct but that the author metaphor is off. The English epics are located on either side of Shakespeare: Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost (though of course the latter is not a national epic). Shakespeare is the most celebrated of all British authors, but Chaucer and Spenser did far more to establish the island as a cultural powerhouse. No, Whitman is our Virgil, not our Shakespeare: his thunderous Old Testament free verse simultaneously connects him to the cultural past and severs the connection, just as Virgil’s adaptation of Homer did for Rome.

Our national epic, then, is the seventy-plus page lyric poem Song of Myself, which, like all great national epics, is more often skimmed and praised than read. Here Whitman destroys the self/other dichotomy that ruled Western thought for centuries. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” he says in an act of staggering egotism. But in American democracy, to praise oneself is to praise all, and Whitman continues, “And what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Only our representative American could find in his every molecule the entire world–and vice versa.

Whitman, in Song of Myself, sets forth the American character the way Virgil sets forth the Roman character in The Aeneid–which is to say he talks about the myth of who we are (magnanimous, democratic, inclusive) rather than what we actually are most of the time (petty, oligarchic, snobbish). He positions our country historically and, even more, geographically. More importantly, his raving verses establish an American literary accent; it is safe to say that no British poet ever could have written Song of Myself. In this, Whitman asserts his nation’s cultural and literary independence. Calls for the American literary messiah ceased in the late nineteenth century, and our cultural inferiority complex eased substantially. (At least in the area of literature.)

Whitman, I should say, is by no means by favorite American poet. I seldom read him. But his social role in American history is nearly undeniable. One must love Whitman if one is to love American literature, if only because it was him who made us believe in ourselves as true producers of culture.

4 thoughts on “Our American Virgil

  1. Great post Michial, I must say I agree on most counts. I especially like your observation of Whitman as our Virgil and not our Shakespeare. I do agree he was the embodiment of what Emerson was looking for, as well as the creator of American literary culture. I too enjoy Whitman, but not to too great a degree, I would much rather read Pound, Crane, or Stevens among the Americans. I think an interesting aspect to observe when reading Whitman is the dichotomy that exists between the real Whitman, and the Whitman presented in Leaves of Grass (I believe Thomas Mann was the first to suggest this in a very direct fashion, a writer I love by the way:)) Perhaps this observation makes him even more of an American poet, that element of a certain degree of superficiality as it relates to prideful self-awareness. Anyways, thanks for the work, God bless


  2. Cicero as Malcolm Gladwell? Really? I prefer to think of him perhaps as a Thomas Jefferson relative to Plato’s John Locke or, at worst, a C.S. Lewis relative to a Boethius.

  3. This is really almost too good for a blog post, you know.

    There is, I think, even more about Whitman that makes him the preeminent poet of “the American character,” as you put it, and that makes him parallel in a very strange way with Vergil. Consider, for instance, his religious and spiritual syncretism: Whitman echoes, consciously or not, traditions as diverse as Hinduism, Native American religion, Roman Stoicism, and American Protestantism, ending up with nothing that any rigid adherent of any of those views could conceivably accept; Vergil attempts, perhaps more designedly, a synthesis of traditional Roman religion, the Greek poetic tradition, and Hellenistic philosophical thought that fails to embrace each fully by embracing each partially (the continuity of Vergilian epic and Greek poetry is usually overestimated — none of the great Greek poems were national epics in the same way that the Aeneid very clearly is). Fascinating, really: and I’d never made the connection at all.

    As for Cicero and Malcolm Gladwell, one thing to remember about Cicero is that even the work of translation alone required literary genius. No doubt anyone who knew Greek and Latin could have eventually coined the Latin ‘qualitas’ from the Greek ‘poiotes,’ but Cicero more or less gave Latin the ability to speak philosophically. I think neither Gladwell nor Jefferson nor Lewis can claim such an achievement.

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