Webisode 4. Segment 5
Creating a Culture
Back in 1790, when the first census measuring the nation's population was taken, ninety-five percent of Americans lived on farms. By 1850, it was eighty-five percent. By 1890 it would shrink to just sixty-five percent. Slowly, we were on our way to becoming an urban nation. City life was exciting. In 1790, only two citiesNew York and Philadelphiahad 20,000 or more people. By 1860 there were forty-three cities at least that size . Poet Walt Whitman was a city boy. He wrote this poem:
This is the city and I am one of the citizens,
Walt Whitman grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and became a teacher, a newspaper reporter, an editor, and, during the Civil War, a nurse. A book he wrote, called Leaves of Grass, contains poems unlike any ever written before. They are roaring, rollicking poems all about America, and about Whitman, and about ordinary things and extraordinary things. They are about us. This is how one of the most famous begins:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
No one knew what to make of Whitman's long poetry, except another poet, New England's Ralph Waldo Emerson. He knew, right away, that Whitman was writing with a new kind of voice: an American voice. Here at last was an American poet, a poet of democracy. He called Leaves of Grass "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed ."
Back in 1820, an Englishman, the Reverend Sydney Smith, had mocked America when he said: "Who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?" By 1850, people all over the world were beginning to read American booksand to look at American paintings and statues, too.
learn more at: www.pbs.org/historyofus
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