Walt Whitman at the Coffee Shop
Published on Wednesday, September 14, 2011 - 4:15pm
I was relaxing at the well-known coffee shop in Adam’s Morgan on a day off when I began to reflect upon how useful and how American the institution of the coffee shop can be. The coffee shop is a very open type of establishment where anyone can come in without a reservation and enjoy a cup of coffee, sit anywhere they want and enjoy reading, people-watching or conversation with others. There are no strict rules, and one stays as long as one wishes.
I was thinking how similar the ways of the coffee shop are to the spirit of Walt Whitman’s poetry, especially the spirit found in the poem “Song of Myself” in his classic work Leaves of Grass. The voice addressing us in this poem is the direct poetic voice of Whitman, who offers a warm greeting to all humanity on the basis of common equality and respect. Whitman states his assumption of equality and connection to others in the opening of his poem: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself. And what I assume you shall assume. For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” This statement is a kind of welcome to anyone he encounters based on our similar essential nature.
In a similar way, going into a coffee house, we enter into a realm where we meet anyone there on a basis of equality and also feel a diffuse sense of comradeship with others based on our common humanity. In the course of our stay, we smile at those nearby, view others with a benign regard, and read our paper or book. Behind this tolerant observation of others is an implied acceptance of the motives and actions of others, who appear to be part of the eager activity of the world. They may come from other worlds of experience from ours, but they seem to be doing good.
This openess is an attitude that is very American. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman offers a kind of spiritual “social contract” that connects him to his fellow Americans with a casual bond of togetherness. Surveying the crowd in the coffee shop, I could casually observe in a Whitman-like way college students studying text books, young people discussing common affairs settled at the couches, and business men taking a break from the office. Like Whitman, I tend to give each person or group a friendly notice that draws their ambitions and activities into my world.
Following Whitman’s mysticism, I connect with them on the level of being. Whitman, too, in “Song of Myself” embraces the everyday activities of carpenters, drivers and loafers as they all express the reality of a common Oversoul at the heart of everyone. Whitman invites his readers to loaf with him on the grass and share the common ordinariness of life symbolized by the green leaves of common grasses.
In a similar way, my friendly glance passes over the multitude of movements of the pedestrians walking by on the sidewalk and the bustle of the patrons near my table. I contemplate the world in a mellow mood, strengthened by the pleasant buzz of the caffeine in the coffee I am sipping. I also observe how the activities of the patrons of the coffee shop illustrate Whitman’s ideal of freedom and democracy: everyone freely chooses their spot in the coffee house, yet by freely combining their movements, their activity seems to merge into a greater order of the coffee house scene.
Thus there is spontaneous order that seems to rise from the free choices of those who come to the coffee shop. There is also an anarchic self-organizing quality to the coffee house crowd that reflects the American reality Whitman celebrates. He sees how the varied creative activities of common persons pursuing their individual goals move toward a common goal of spiritual and material fulfillment. These economic and social activities are expressed by Whitman in the image of how the various songs of the states combine to form a chorus performing the symphony of the Union.
Visiting a coffee shop is like taking a bath in the mileu Whitman describes. We enjoy the atmosphere created by the multitude of different persons pursuing varied human goals and activities such as creating a business, reading philosophy and chatting about everyday affairs tend to harmonize effortlessly in that open space. It is a situation that reflects the democratic spirit of America Whitman proclaims in his great poem. There are two other books I could recommend on the subject of Walt Whitman: There is an excellent biography by David Reynolds called Walt Whitman and another study called Critical Companion to Walt Whitman by Charles M. Oliver.