Professor Larochelle’s Question:
How do Whitman and Bello (and Thoreau as well) view the importance of direct experience? How do Whitman and Bello’s poetic texts view the relationship between humans and non-humans? According to Whitman, Bello and Thoreau, what are the possible benefits of direct, first-hand connection with the non-human world?
First, We need a definition of “direct experience”, as it pertains to the natural world. Based on the works of Thoreau, Whitman, and Bello, I think that direct experience can be defined as interaction between a person and nature. Direct experience occurs when Thoreau ‘Walks’, or when Whitman not just experiences but also observes life. Bello, the odd one out, isn’t really into direct experience like Whitman and Thoreau are. Thoreau describes the appreciation of every aspect of nature and isolation on his walks, and Whitman takes note of every man and woman, observing and admiring the daily activities he sees. However, Bello, who talks about the glory and wonder of working the Earth and bringing from it sweet fruits and clean labor, does not directly participate in the activities that he describes. According to the “Selected Writings of Andres Bello”, supplied to us by our professor, Bello was the first son of a spanish government official, and received an “Extraordinary education by the standards of the time,” meaning that Bello was not exposed to much of the labor that he romanticizes in his works. In addition, Bello spent much of his life in England and Europe rather than in the fields of Latin America, meaning that Bello does not get much direct experience with nature. Instead, he inspires others to find direct experience, producing social and economic change in Latin America.
Whereas Bello does not experience the subject matter of his works directly, Thoreau and Whitman do get this direct experience. Thoreau receive the direct experience most of all: In “Walking”, Thoreau describes his daily walks and gives advice on how best a walk should be done. Thoreau actually does the walking that he writes about. Because of Thoreau’s hands-on attitude with his subject matter, I would say that he gets the most direct experience. Whitman gets slightly less- he does not write about his daily activities as much as Thoreau does. Instead, Whitman tends to describe the activities and lives of others- those that live within his town and community, such as blacksmiths, store owners, boys and girls engaging in recreation, and others. However, unlike Thoreau, Whitman makes more assumptions: he assumes that, “Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great grandsons around them, …” and “The old husband sleeps by his wife and the new husband sleeps by his wife…” etc. Whitman makes a lot of claims like this that are more based on stereotypes and assumption than actual, personal direct experience. In this way, Whitman differs from Thoreau by creating works that are less based in direct experience than Thoreau: However, Whitman’s works are grounded in known assumptions, compared with Bello’s romantic fantasies about farm work, which are mostly conjecture and fiction.
According to Thoreau, the direct experience of Walking calms the mind and spurs intelligence. It is the truest way of living. Whitman is more vague, alluding to the idea that direct experience of observing neighbors and community produces mental awareness and peace. Bello is much more descriptive. Bello professes that working the land and living as a laborer creates a peace, fulfillment, simplicity, glory, and pride. Much of Bello’s proposed motivation for would-be laborers to take up hand tools and till the Earth consists of the glory and the positive emotions that one would feel after taking part in this profession.
Bello, Thoreau, and Whitman all encourage direct, hands-on experience, Thoreau and Whitman take their own advice more than Bello does. Thoreau takes direct experience seriously not only in his writing but also in his own life, and Whitman takes direct experience in the form of observing his environment and his community. However, Bello does not take as much direct experience in his own subject of writing, but he instead inspires others to make these experiences in his place. Bello’s main point is to encourage Latin Americans to become farmers, and Whitman tells his audience to ground themselves in the moment, and experience things for themselves as direct experience. As Whitman says at the end of Section 15, “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand . . . . nor look through the eyes of the dead . . . . nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them for yourself.”
This quote meets the heart of the matter in direct experience: learning and understanding for yourself, questioning everything, and living for yourself instead of living from the page of a book.