Where does patriotism come from? The title for my quilt, “I Hear America Singing,” is from a poem by poet Walt Whitman. Today he might have been considered a type of patriotic American — one who saw and acknowledged the multitudes of regular Americans — and heard them sing their song of daily work (poem is at end of post).
“The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” said Whitman, and the poem, written in 1860 and published shortly before Lincoln’s inauguration, was a celebratory poem, lauding you and I — she and him, and those people over there. Karen Swallow Prior, in an article from The Atlantic, makes the observation that “Whitman’s claim stemmed from a belief that both poetry and democracy derive their power from their ability to create a unified whole out of disparate parts—a notion that is especially relevant at a time when America feels bitterly divided.” She goes on to say that:
“Notably, Whitman’s grammar (“the United States are”) signals his understanding of the country as a plural noun—not one uniform body, but a union of disparate parts. Whitman was centrally concerned with the American experiment in democracy and its power to produce “out of many, one,” even at as great a cost as the Civil War and the faltering Reconstruction. Whitman thus celebrates in his work the many kinds of individuals who make up a society as well as the tensions that bring individuals together in a variegated community.”
As Whitman asserts later in the preface to his Leaves of Grass:
The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors … but always most in the common people.
We often think that the ideal of “patriot” has an affiliation with war: the machines of war, the fighting and dying and the slogans and the confrontations, which leads in the end to the cemeteries of war, with honoring our war dead. We make that connection easily because we honor those who fought for our freedoms. I acknowledge them and am grateful for them. However, if it is defined only this way, it’s easy to feel separated from the idea of being a patriot, from patriotism, and make “them” responsible for the well-being of our country.
So on this Fourth of July, I wanted to emphasize a different sort of connection to patriot. That it is not found in going to war. It’s not in defined battles. It’s in us, the people. It’s in our going out of our way to take care of our neighbors, with their varied songs and carols and labor and daily work. It’s in going to that daily work, from the work of masons and shipbuilders and deckhands and mothering and washing and sewing: “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.”
Stephan Cushman noted, “Although we hear the words “patriot,” “patriotic,” and “patriotism” all around us … we do not have many useful public models for combining genuine celebration of the United States with constructive criticism of it.” Cushman gives a nod to the idea that “patriot” is a formal label that can be worn on one’s chest. But after noting that Whitman used that word sparingly in his volume of poetry Leaves of Grass, Cushman goes on to say:
“Different readers might offer different explanations for the paucity of direct references to patriotism in Whitman’s writing, but one that feels plausible to me is that someone so deeply engaged in celebrating various aspects of the United States, and in identifying himself with his image or images of an American ethos, had little need or ability to separate himself from that celebration and objectify it with an abstract term like “patriotism.” Or, to put the matter more bluntly and reductively, Whitman was too busy celebrating himself and his country, and insisting on the connections between them, to spend much time crowing self-righteously about how patriotic he was and how deeply he believed in the value of patriotism.”
Perhaps the greatest patriotism is in seeing each other, in realizing how alike we are and how dissimilar we are, making us figure out how to negotiate, how to keep the peace, how to be respectful. This is why one reason my husband and I photographed this quilt at our county’s 1903 Courthouse, a place administering and honoring those laws that are part of the the thousand daily comprises we make to keep our country stable and thriving. We also chose this place because it’s also really beautiful, with its craftmanship intact; this place generates in me that old-fashioned kind of feeling of pride, and yes, of patriotism.
As I have traveled around the world, I have found patriots in all countries, loyal to the carols they hear around them, fiercely proud of what makes their country the best one ever. It would indeed be a great world if we could all think like that, seeing this similarity as something that can unite.
Finally, Swallow Prior brings another gentle affirmation for this idea of America as a poem by mentioning Harvard professor Elaine Scarry, who “describes the importance of multiple viewpoints, arguments, and counterarguments to ‘political assembly,’ [and wonders] how ‘will one hear the nuances of even this debate unless one also makes oneself available to the songs of birds or poets?’ The basis of poetry is precisely those connections forged between different elements, different voices, and different perspectives. In envisioning the United States as “the greatest poem,” Whitman links the essence of poetry, which is unity within diversity, to the essence of democracy.”
I am a patriot of the singing kind, the poetry kind. I will always love America. And so I present to you my quilt, I Hear America Singing, a celebration of that great American poem that Whitman believed us to be.
I Hear America Singing
Many of the English paper-pieced blocks for this quilt are available free here on this blog. Other blocks and the finishing instructions are in my pattern shop.
The backing was a printed sateen cotton from the designers Minick and Simpson, using the prints from the front of the quilt. The label was attached later and is not visible.
Other posts about this quilt, and the blocks that I designed, are found above in the tab Shine: The Circles Quilt.
I Hear America Singing, by Walt Whitman
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, 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 singing 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 wood-cutter’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,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone!
The above Instagram post is from July 2020, when I began this journey.