I am always in favor of having a fellow do what he is strongly bent on doing,
What comes to him as a duty—what he feels he must do, that by all odds he is bound to do,
Going his own absolute road, let hell blaze all it chooses.
It need not argue an absolute miracle, if a man differ from the present dead uniformity of society and still retain his grace and morals.
To prune, gather, trim, conform, and ever cram and stuff, and be genteel and proper, is the pressure of our conventional, over-corpulent societies. The world insists on having its own way. It don’t want a man so much the way he looks as the way it is accustomed to having men look.
Everybody here is so like everybody else;
They all somehow allow themselves to be squeezed into the stereotype mould, easily, early, stung with that respectability bee.
Our young men have a sneaking hunger for loaves and fishes, they look for fat berths,
Get them, settle down, destined to the grind, the terrific strain,
They are under orders, they are to obey, obey,
And so they succeed in destroying all their individuality.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
A mob of fashionably dress’d speculators and vulgarians, smirking and skipping along,
Kept on the rack by the old idea of respectability—how the rest do, and what they will say,
Doing the most ridiculous things for fear of being called ridiculous,
The dread of saying or doing something not at all improper in itself,
But unconventional, and that may be laugh’d at.
See how orderly they conduct themselves,
Well dress’d by London and Paris modes, they receive what is received there,
Trim their hair, shave, touch not the earth barefoot,
And enter not the sea except in a complete bathing-dress,
No one behaving, dressing, writing, talking, loving, out of any natural and manly tastes of his own,
But each one looking cautiously to see how the rest behave, dress, write, talk, love,
Becoming stifled and rotten with polite conformity,
The perfect example of what culture may do for a man—
In the technical sense without a flaw, yet in vital quality empty to the very bottom.
There seem to be periods in the world harmonies when our native forces are cropped very close—where convention curbs all down—and this is one of them—the men of the times, a parcel of helpless dandies, some of them devout, some quite insane, some castrated. Conformity to all unnatural and tainted customs passes without remark, while perfect naturalness, health, faith, self-reliance, and all primal expressions of the manliest love and friendship, subject one to the stare and controversy of the world. Refinement and delicatesse, infinitesimals of parlors, threaten to eat us up, like a cancer
There is a line beyond which even real art, refinement, education, poetry, etc. do deadly harm to the individual character. We see, in every polite circle, a class of accomplish’d, good-natured persons, (“society,” in fact, could not get on without them,) fully eligible to mix eggnog, to mend the broken spectacles, to decide whether the stew’d eels shall precede the sherry or the sherry the stew’d eels. But for real crises, great needs moral or physical, they might as well have never been born.
I think our people are getting entirely too decent. They like nice white hands; they are too much disturbed by dirt. They need the open air, coarse work, physical tasks—something to do away from the washstand and the bathtub. God knows, I’m not opposed to clean hands. but clean hands, too, may be a disgrace—it was the disgraceful clean hands I had in mind.
The human critter has become too self-restrained. He thinks it isn’t manly to show his emotions, and so he tries to keep as hard and mum as a statue. I know the fires, emotions, love, egotisms, glow deep, perennial. But the façade hides them well—they give no sign.
This is all wrong. There are plenty of splendid specimens of men that, if they would let themselves be, and only make that better and finer, would beat the world.
Piety and conformity to them that like!
I want no more of these deferences to authority, this taking off of hats and saying “Sir,”
I like the outright person—the hater, the lover—the unmistakable yes or no—
Why should being thought foolish or unreasonable or coarse hold us back?
I am afraid of the man who apologized for his opposition—
We can go nowhere worthwhile if we submit to the scorners.
Mind you the timid models of the rest, the majority?
Long I minded them, but hence I will not—for I have adopted models for myself.
I have no desire to emulate the manners of the genteel, and I never was one to whom so-called refinement, or even orderliness, stood for much. I ventur’d from the beginning my own way, taking chances—and would keep on venturing.
It would be difficult for a fellow like me to conform to rules, impossible even,
You know I have a fancy for anything a little out of the usual style,
To be in the minority is the only safe place for me.
I use ruled paper, but I don’t write on the lines,
I was never made to live inside a fence!
I go my own way—not because I think it the only way, or even the right way,
But because it is my way.
My family look on me, I am sure, as untamed, stubborn, too much bent on my own ways,
But my old daddy used to say it’s some comfort to a man, if he must be an ass anyhow, to be his own kind of an ass!
Take me as I am or not at all—that’s the only final, logical position,
Take me as I am, my bad and good, my everything—just as I am.
I’m a peculiar critter mostly determined to have my own way,
Not to be unnecessarily interfered with even here, even in my incompetencies—
I am jealous of my right to fall down and break my neck if I choose.
I make audacious and native use of my own body and soul,
Every move of me has the free play of the muscle of one who never knew what it was to feel that he stood in the presence of a superior.
The rules of polite circles are dismissed with scorn,
I do not halt and make salaams,
I wear my hat as I please indoors or out.
I have no doubt I often offend—often horror-strike—people in parlors, in all ways;
Not youth pertains to me, nor delicatesse,
I cannot beguile the time with talk.
Awkward in the parlor, neither a dancer nor elegant,
No sniveller or tea-drinking poet, no puny clawback or prude,
I am a confirmed enemy to gentility,
Respectability has no use for me,
I am so opposed to respectability, they think I’m not respectable!
I suppose the distaste is mutual—
So I please myself I don’t care a damn what the public thinks of me.
I wouldn’t know what to do, how to comport myself, if I lived long enough to become accepted, to get in demand, to ride the crest of the wave. I would have to go questioning, to see if Walt Whitman had not suffered a destructive transformation—reconciled to the conventions, subdued from the old independence.
Uniformity! Why it’s the taste of the vulgar,
Nature hath nought of it,
The skies, the earth, the waters, and the woods laugh in your face at such tediousness.
Shall a man lose himself in countless masses of adjustments,
And be so shaped with reference to this, that, and the other,
That the simply good and healthy and brave parts of him are reduced and clipp’d away,
Like the bordering of box in a garden?
You can cultivate corn and roses and orchards,
But who shall cultivate the mountain peaks, the ocean, and the tumbling gorgeousness of the clouds?
Come, now, I will give the first lesson for a young man:
Learn of the elements and animals,
Become one that dress and the criticisms of others and the usages of parlors cannot master,
One who does not condemn civilization and refinement but grows through them to be superior to them;
A heroic person walks at his ease through and out of that custom or precedent or authority that suits him not.
The friendly and flowing savage, who is he?
Is he waiting for civilization, or past it and mastering it?
We are some ways a dyspeptic, nervous set,
Anything which will repair such losses may be regarded as a blessing to the race,
Provision for a little healthy rudeness, savage virtue, justification of what one has in one’s self, is demanded;
Negative qualities, even deficiencies, would be a relief.
O something pernicious and dread!
Something far away from a puny and pious life!
We want to go out and howl, swear, run, jump, wrestle, even fight,
If only by so doing we may improve the guts of the people—
The guts, vile as guts are, divine as guts are!
The first inspiration of real wisdom in our souls lets us know that the self-will and wickedness we thought so unsightly in our race are by no means what we were told, but something far different, and not amiss, except to the spirit of the feeble and the shorn.
To the real artist in humanity, what are called bad manners are often the most picturesque and significant of all, as the freckles and bristley beard of Jupiter—to be removed by washes and razors under the judgment of genteel squirts, but in the sight of the great master, proportionate and essential and sublime.
I was initiated to all the mysteries of city life—populations, perturbations,
Knew the rough elements—what they stood for, what might be apprehended from them.
As the turbulence of the expressions of the earth, as the great heat and the great cold,
As the soiledness of animals and the bareness of vegetables and minerals,
No more than these were the roughs among men shocking to me—
So-called brutal customs, after all, tend to habituate people to a necessary physical stoicism.
I have always been taken for a great quarreler—almost a brawler— rather than a bower and scraper,
One of the roughs, large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking, and breeding,
Costume manly and free, face sunburnt and bearded,
My face not refined or intellectual, but calm and wholesome—
A face of an unaffected animal,
A face of one who eats and drinks and is a brawny lover and embracer,
A face that absorbs the sunshine and meets savage or gentleman on equal terms.
I like the men of elements, oxygenated men,
Who come and go like storms come and go, who grow up out of honest roots,
The roughs, the sunburnt, the unshaved, the huge paws,
The friendliness, combativeness, the soul loves—
Not the titillated gentlemen of boudoir amours and parlor fripperies.
O you coarse and wilful!
I at any rate include you all with perfect love!
Particularly in our time, when everything is toned down, veneered, hidden, lied about, pruded away,
It is well to have the giants make free with life, giving in to the hour,
Steering clear of the botheration how to be good and all that.
I generally side with the rough of the streets, full of muscular and excessively virile energy, full of animal blood, masterful, striding to the front rank, allowing none to walk before him, full of rudeness and recklessness, talking and acting his own way, utterly regardless of other people’s ways, who may underneath his coarse skin possess the saving graces of sympathy, service, and—the first of all, the last of all, the heart of all—personal excellence.
I pick out some low person for my dearest friend, lawless, rude, illiterate. Coarse, wild, sensual, and strong was this young man’s nature, for coarse, wild, and strong had been his life. I never met a man that seemed to me more open, coarse, self-willed, strong, and free from the sickly desire to be on society’s lines and points. He seemed to feel a perfect independence, dashed with a little resentment, toward the world in general. The castrated goodness of schools and churches he knew nothing of.
Man of strong self-will, powerful coarse feelings and appetites, a thoughtless, strong, generous animal nature—large and ugly qualities enough, but self-complete, refreshing, wicked, real. I liked his refreshing wickedness, as it would be called by the orthodox—wicked rather than virtuous out of conformity or fear, his very grossness and dishonesty noble from their candor.
But we should not take too much for granted,
Not too hastily discard a man on appearance.
The shaved, blanch’d faces of orthodox citizens—
These men are used for their emptiness, if nothing else; they are part of the scheme.
And it is well to allow a liberal margin to the dudes, dandies, dawdlers;
I know the probabilities are against you,
The average is likely, almost certain, to disappoint you,
Yet your man may be there—
The ideal, however overlaid, lies folded latent, hidden, in perhaps every character.