Study Guide

Song of the Open Road Community

By Walt Whitman


Here the profound lesson of reception, neither preference or denial;
The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas'd, the illiterate person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar's tramp, the drunkard's stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,
The escaped youth, the rich person's carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,
The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,
They pass—I also pass—anything passes—none can be interdicted;
None but are accepted—none but are dear to me. (17-23)

Here the speaker's message is clear: he's looking forward to meeting everyone out on the open road. By our modern sensibilities, we get a pretty cringeworthy moment when he lumps a black person in with a diseased and illiterate person. Of course, there is no excuse for this, but it might help to remember that this was written during the Civil War era, when slavery was still on the books in many places. And that shouldn't overshadow the main idea of this passage: everyone he meets out there is dear to him. He's after an inclusive community on the open road.

I will recruit for myself and you as I go;
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go;
I will toss the new gladness and roughness among them;
Whoever denies me, it shall not trouble me;
Whoever accepts me, he or she shall be blessed, and shall bless me. (65-68)

Don't want the speaker to join your community? No sweat—he won't hold it against you. That's just what an easygoing fella he is. All the same, he's up for meeting folks—men and women both. If he does find someone to connect with, he'll be blessed and he'll bless them right back. We bet he's fun at parties.

What is it I interchange so suddenly with strangers?
What with some driver, as I ride on the seat by his side?
What with some fisherman, drawing his seine by the shore, as I walk by, and pause?
What gives me to be free to a woman's or man's good-will? What gives them to be free to mine? (102-105)

Here the speaker dumps some rhetorical questions on us. Usually, a rhetorical question is just a sentence in disguise, like "What are you, stupid?" But here it seems that he's actually puzzled by his own behavior. What is it about him that lends himself to be so open to people on the open road? Why are they so open to him in return? We never get an answer, but we're sure it has something to do with the nature of life on the road, and the way it fosters a sense of community among fellow travelers.

Allons! after the GREAT COMPANIONS! and to belong to them!
They too are on the road! they are the swift and majestic men; they are the greatest women. (151-152)

The great companions—complete with all caps—sounds like a pretty cool community to belong to, if you ask us. We didn't list them all here, but the poem itself goes on for another dozen plus lines to tell you just who's included in this community. The short version? Lots of folks are, from every walk of life. The open road gives the speaker access to a diverse community.

Allons! the road is before us! (221)

"Allons!" is French for "Let's get going!" This poem busts out this expression to start out nearly every one of the last nine sections. It reminds us that there's another kind of community at work here: the one that includes both Whitman and his readers. Through his speaker, he's encouraging all of us to head out onto the open road and encounter the same kind of community he describes in his poem.

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