Culture

City with No Neighbors

Subway station in New York City, 2014 (Reuters photo: Lucas Jackson)
Walt Whitman reminds us to see the buried humanity in that stranger on the subway.

In a curious twist of history, Andrew Carnegie, that titan of industry, once called Walt Whitman the greatest poet America has ever produced. The steel magnate whose mills powered an industrial revolution saw the genius in the man who dressed like a hobo and wrote Leaves of Grass. Whitman wrote many poems chronicling the effects, good and ill, of industrial change. Perhaps none is as poignant as “To a Stranger.”

Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,

You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me, as of a dream,)

I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,

All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,

You grew up with me, were a boy with me, or a girl with me,

I ate with you, and slept with you  —  your body has become not yours only, nor left my body mine only,

You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass — you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,

I am not to speak to you  —  I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone,

I am to wait  —  I do not doubt I am to meet you again,

I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

The poem is Whitman’s redefinition of the very concept of “stranger.” He achieves this, first and foremost, by applying the language of warmth, intimacy, and closeness toward persons we typically ignore. Whitman speaks of the passing stranger as though he or she (the poem does not reveal) were a lifelong friend. What gives Whitman this sense of connection?

The poem is structured around the following possibility: If life had been different, the stranger would have been a neighbor. Observing the stranger, Whitman overlooks the distance society has placed between them. Instead, he contemplates having lived a life in close proximity with him or her  —  as neighbors, as friends, as lovers, even. Whitman suggests that society is ordered in such a way that some people appear to us as strangers — it’s the social order that determines who is near or far.

When he wrote the poem, large-scale urbanization was well under way, obliterating the relational categories that had characterized communal life since the country’s founding. One of the effects of mass movement away from rural America and into dense urban environments was a shift in how Americans related to one another as fellow residents. Over time, the demands of city living made it hard to know those with whom one shared a space.

The new inhabitants of our country’s emerging urban centers learned that it was not possible to know the inhabitants of their city with the kind of depth they’d experienced in rural environments. There are just too many people — a city of strangers, but where are the neighbors?

Whitman realized that a stranger appears as such only because of the circumstances of city life. In another context, the person who is now a stranger would have been a friend, a neighbor, a lover. This is the force of Whitman’s line: “I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you.” Had Whitman and his stranger lived near each other in the country or in a small town, the two probably would have been involved in a far more significant way.

Had Whitman and his stranger lived near each other in the country or in a small town, the two probably would have been involved in a far more significant way.

Whitman’s point is that the fact of living in a densely populated city altered the age-old dynamics of how human beings relate to one another. Human nature has not changed, but our changing and increasingly urban external circumstances have transformed how we relate.

This is why, according to Whitman, it’s a mistake to treat strangers as fundamentally distant and unfamiliar. For linguistic and conceptual purposes, we need a distinction between a neighbor and stranger, sure, but if we perceive strangers as fundamentally other, we have misconstrued an extrinsic change (living in a big city) as an intrinsic one (human nature).

If city-dwellers are used to being unknown by most people they encounter, this is because of external circumstances, not because of an internal psychological shift. Our burden is to see through this newly generated indifference and peer into people’s still-intact humanity. Is a stranger really a neighbor deep down, or a part of the faceless, nameless mass of people for whom one never spares a thought? Whitman feels a need to humanize the stranger. In doing so he is a herald, warning us to hold on to our capacity to see the buried humanity in the passers-by. We are to look at strangers in the same way we would a neighbor in an era before the great sprawl of urban centers rearranged our ways of living.

But even though the change is extrinsic, we nevertheless have internalized it. An upheaval of such magnitude at the environmental level will of course affect how we conceptualize one another at the personal level. If we go from seeing a handful of strangers a year to hundreds per day, we’ll probably find it hard to conceive of these unknown persons as neighbors.

Is Whitman in the poem urging us to change our behavior toward strangers? It’s unclear. As a poet, he aims to express truths deeply important to the human experience. In “To a Stranger,” he notices a change — the intimate associate who is now called a stranger — and subverts it through reflection.

That said, he is not writing Walden, and we shouldn’t understand this poem as a critique of the city. His “Song of the Broad-Axe” extols the grandeur of cities, and he himself became one of Brooklyn’s most famous residents. (Then again, perhaps he was of two minds on the topic of urban living. After all, Whitman famously declared, “I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”) “To a Stranger” is less an indictment than a reminder to preserve our sense of the fundamental knowability of human beings, even in the face of increasing urbanization. The key is that Whitman places that responsibility on the individual, and the lesson is to shift our perspective, not to alter our behavior.

The city, of course, is here to stay. Whitman loved Brooklyn and Manhattan, but he did foresee that fewer and fewer Americans would have the experience of being country or small-town neighbors, as cities attracted more and more people. Whitman saw that one of the defining features of city life — sharing a communal space with someone yet remaining a stranger to him  —  was becoming a common sociological reality. He writes:

I am not to speak to you  —  I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone,

I am to wait  —  I do not doubt I am to meet you again,

I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

I don’t think Whitman here is necessarily referring to one individual. Rather, for Whitman, the notion of “the stranger” encompasses a type of person. He is not expressing certainty that he will see this particular person again; instead, he is declaring that the city will continue to create encounters between many people who do not know anything about one another.

Years later, the essayist, farmer, and environmentalist Wendell Berry echoed Whitman while also demurring from him. Berry also saw the humanity-effacing effects of urbanization, yet, unlike Whitman, he did not believe that we could recover this lost humanity through reflection, through a change in perspective. In “The Loss of the Future,” written in 1969, he laments the “shameful wasting of the land,” the breakup of small communities, and the frequent migrations of people from place to place. As a restorative, he sets forth the irreplaceable sanctity of the physical place and the value of staying in one place over many years, even a lifetime:

A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.

This definition of community seems incompatible with Whitman’s humanization of the stranger, but there is an important similarity: Where we live affects how we live , in terms of the very categories we use for understanding fellow human beings.

Both Whitman and Berry beckon us to remain vigilant: Forces of dehumanization are at work all around us, and we should work very hard to resist them.

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