Walt Whitman: The Spanish Element in Our Nationality Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the summer of 1883, the citizens of Santa Fe, New Mexico, celebrated the 333rd anniversary of the city's settlement (based on a presumed settlement date of 1550, although 1610 is now used as the accepted year). City leaders invited prominent American poet Walt Whitman to deliver a commemorative poem on the occasion. Whitman instead penned a letter—published in papers throughout the country—that criticized the popular notion of a predominantly Anglo-Saxon heritage in the United States and spoke of the need to take into consideration Hispanic contributions to American culture as the United States continued to develop its national identity.

Summary Overview

In the summer of 1883, the citizens of Santa Fe, New Mexico, celebrated the 333rd anniversary of the city's settlement (based on a presumed settlement date of 1550, although 1610 is now used as the accepted year). City leaders invited prominent American poet Walt Whitman to deliver a commemorative poem on the occasion. Whitman instead penned a letter—published in papers throughout the country—that criticized the popular notion of a predominantly Anglo-Saxon heritage in the United States and spoke of the need to take into consideration Hispanic contributions to American culture as the United States continued to develop its national identity.

Defining Moment

By the mid-nineteenth century, many Americans held strongly negative views of Hispanic Americans. Much of this sentiment stemmed from the Texas War of Independence against Mexico (1835–36) and the subsequent Mexican-American War (1846–48). The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought an end to the Mexican-American War, established the Rio Grande as the border between the United States and Mexico, giving the United States ownership of California, Nevada, Utah, and large portions of present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming, which had formerly been under Mexican control. The approximately eighty-five thousand Mexican citizens living in these areas were given the option to move south of the new border or remain on their property for one year and become US citizens. The strong patriotic fervor stirred by the US victory over Mexico and the surge of American settlers into the newly conquered southwestern territories led to widespread discrimination against individuals of Hispanic descent.

As a result of this “Hispanophobia,” many of the legal and social institutions established by Spain during the colonial years and by Mexico in the years following the country's independence in 1821 were replaced with white Anglo-Saxon practices by the mid- to late 1800s. Spanish names were removed from institutions and cities and replaced with anglicized versions. Mexicans living in the Southwest and in the Rio Grande Valley faced significant legal harassment, land seizures, and violence. It was in this context that Walt Whitman penned his letter to the people of Santa Fe on the occasion of the anniversary of the city's settlement. Whitman was unable to attend the celebrations, but instead published his letter in several national newspapers, so that people across the country could read his thoughts on the importance of Hispanic influences on American culture.

Author Biography

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, New York. He later moved with his family to Brooklyn. He received a basic education, but at the age of eleven, he began to educate himself on such topics as literature, history, and art. He became an apprentice at a local newspaper and developed a talent for typesetting, a practice that supported him throughout his career. As a young adult, Whitman began to travel throughout the United States, composing poetry based on inspiring scenes and individuals he saw. He also developed an interest in political issues; for example, one of his seminal works, Leaves of Grass (1855), includes a harsh indictment of slavery. Whitman had a successful career combining writing and publishing, and he is among the most influential American poets of all time. After volunteering as a nurse during the Civil War and working as a government clerk in Washington, DC, Whitman moved to Camden, New Jersey, where he continued to produce poetry, publishing several revised editions of Leaves of Grass, despite ailing from a stroke. Whitman died on March 26, 1892, at his home in Camden.

Historical Document

CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY,

July 20, 1883.

To Messrs. Griffin, Martinez, Prince, and other Gentlemen at Santa Fé:

DEAR SIRS:—Your kind invitation to visit you and deliver a poem for the 333d Anniversary of founding Santa Fé has reach'd me so late that I have to decline, with sincere regret. But I will say a few words off hand.

We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources. Thus far, impress'd by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion'd from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake. Many leading traits for our future national personality, and some of the best ones, will certainly prove to have originated from other than British stock. As it is, the British and German, valuable as they are in the concrete, already threaten excess. Or rather, I should say, they have certainly reach'd that excess. To-day, something outside of them, and to counterbalance them, is seriously needed.

The seething materialistic and business vortices of the United States, in their present devouring relations, controlling and belittling everything else, are, in my opinion, but a vast and indispensable stage in the new world's development, and are certainly to be follow'd by something entirely different—at least by immense modifications. Character, literature, a society worthy the name, are yet to be establish'd, through a nationality of noblest spiritual, heroic and democratic attributes—not one of which at present definitely exists—entirely different from the past, though unerringly founded on it, and to justify it. To that composite American identity of the future, Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts. No stock shows a grander historic retrospect—grander in religiousness and loyalty, or for patriotism, courage, decorum, gravity and honor. (It is time to dismiss utterly the illusion-compound, half raw-head-and-bloody-bones and half Mysteries-of-Udolpho, inherited from the English writers of the past 200 years. It is time to realize—for it is certainly true—that there will not be found any more cruelty, tyranny, superstition, &c., in the résumé of past Spanish history than in the corresponding résumé of Anglo-Norman history. Nay, I think there will not be found so much.)

Then another point, relating to American ethnology, past and to come, I will here touch upon at a venture. As to our aboriginal or Indian population—the Aztec in the South, and many a tribe in the North and West—I know it seems to be agreed that they must gradually dwindle as time rolls on, and in a few generations more leave only a reminiscence, a blank. But I am not at all clear about that. As America, from its many far-back sources and current supplies, develops, adapts, entwines, faithfully identifies its own—are we to see it cheerfully accepting and using all the contributions of foreign lands from the whole outside globe—and then rejecting the only ones distinctively its own—the autochthonic ones?

As to the Spanish stock of our Southwest, it is certain to me that we do not begin to appreciate the splendor and sterling value of its race element. Who knows but that element, like the course of some subterranean river, dipping invisibly for a hundred or two years, is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action?

If I might assume to do so, I would like to send you the most cordial, heartfelt congratulations of your American fellow-countrymen here. You have more friends in the Northern and Atlantic regions than you suppose, and they are deeply interested in the development of the great Southwestern interior, and in what your festival would arouse to public attention.

Very respectfully, &c.,

WALT WHITMAN.

Glossary

autochthonic: indigenous; originating where found

Mysteries of Udolpho: a reference to a 1794 Gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe

Document Analysis

Whitman's comments, part of a congratulatory message to the people of Santa Fe, offer a reminder that US society is born of a much more complex ancestral tapestry than most Americans at the time were willing to acknowledge. Whitman opens his letter by noting that “we Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources.” Although Americans, particularly in the Northeast, were often led to believe that their cultural heritage was predominantly British in origin, Whitman suggests that Americans should take into account the Hispanic culture and traditions that have influenced the nation, particularly in the Southwest and West, in a deep and positive manner.

Whitman's first point is that Americans are largely blinded by a common misperception that Americans are descended from northern European stock. In particular, he argues, Americans are taught that their culture and way of life have been fashioned solely in the British manner. In essence, he suggests that Americans have been led to see their nation as a “second England,” an idea that he derides as a “very great mistake.” Rather, Whitman states that many of the outstanding traits that have helped to form the unique American national character have undoubtedly been derived from countries and cultures outside of the British Isles and territories.

This choice of words is significant, as he is suggesting that American society was still a work in progress. Even the trends that he finds most troubling—such as the United States' growing economic power, which he terms “the seething materialistic and business vortices of the United States”—are likely to change as the nation continues to develop its sense of self. He explains, “As it is, the British and German, valuable as they are in the concrete, already threaten excess.… To-day, something outside of them, and to counterbalance them, is seriously needed.”

Hispanic influences, Whitman argues, can help supply some of the “most needed parts” to establishing a national identity, citing elements of the “Spanish character,” such as religious piety, loyalty, courage, honor, and patriotism, that are worthy of emulation. He quickly dismisses prevailing notions of Spain as a bastion of aggression and tyranny—centuries-old beliefs that helped to fuel long-standing feuds between England and Spain prior to and throughout the colonization of the Americas. Whitman even suggests that Anglo-Saxon practices of the time could easily be compared to the tyranny and cruelty of Spain in the past. Whitman then turns his attention to the “Spanish stock of our Southwest,” suggesting that Americans “do not begin to appreciate the splendor and sterling value of its race element.” He suggests that appreciation of Hispanic culture comes in and out fashion, similar to the course of an underground river. He expresses hope that such appreciation “is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action.”

Finally, Whitman also takes a moment to honor the indigenous peoples of North America and their unique cultural contributions. He states that many of these tribes are dwindling in number and threatening to disappear from the nation's memory. Whitman cautions that, if the United States is to look outside its borders for inspiration on how to define itself as a nation, it must not ignore the unique native influences that have long existed within its borders. He pointedly asks, “Are we to see [America] cheerfully accepting and using all the contributions of foreign lands from the whole outside globe—and then rejecting the only ones distinctively its own?”

Essential Themes

The United States, Whitman argued, was by the late nineteenth century still developing its own character and identity. In his letter, Whitman expresses his hope that many of the trends that he and others abhorred—such as the country's increasingly aggressive business practices—were likely to change over time once the country's national character was fully established. Whitman suggests that Americans were, therefore, standing on the threshold of an important turning point in their country's history.

In this vein, Whitman urges the American people to take note of the many non-British influences that helped to shape the unique national identity of the United States. It was time to discard old notions of Spanish tyranny, he argues, for that nation shared with the people of the United States many exceptional qualities, such as patriotism, loyalty, and religious dedication. Hispanic culture, emanating from Mexico and other Latin American countries, had already significantly influenced the American Southwest and California, and Whitman argues that such influences should not be ignored or replaced.

Furthermore, Whitman urges his fellow Americans to see the cultural contributions of American Indians as an essential component of American identity and culture. If Americans were to draw on Western European culture to develop their national character, Whitman argues, they should also look inward to the tribes of the Southwest and Midwest, whose cultural contributions to the United States are “the only ones distinctively its own.” Whitman's letter also speaks to the idea of American exceptionalism, suggesting that, as the national identity of the United States developed, Americans had the option of drawing on the best influences of a number of different cultures and turning them into something distinctively American; Whitman's letter strongly cautions Americans against ignoring these positive cultural influences merely due to prejudice.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Blake, David Haven, & Michael Robertson. Walt Whitman, Where the Future becomes Present. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2008. Print.
  • Folsom, Ed, & Kenneth M. Price, eds. Walt Whitman Archive. Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
  • Jaksic, Ivan. The Hispanic World and American Intellectual Life, 1820–1880. Hampshire: Palgrave, 2012. Print.
  • Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. London: Vintage, 1996. Print.
  • Weber, David J. Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Print.
  • Whitman, Walt. November Boughs. Philadelphia: McKay, 1888. Print.
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