Nov. 2, 2004

I Sit and Look Out

by Walt Whitman

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Poem: "I Sit and Look Out" by Walt Whitman, from Whitman: Poetry and Prose © Viking Press. Reprinted with permission.

I Sit and Look Out

I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and
      upon all oppression and shame,
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men at anguish
      with themselves, remorseful after deeds done,
I see in low life the mother misused by her children, dying,
      neglected, gaunt, desperate,
I see the wife misused by her husband, I see the treacherous
      seducer of young women
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love
      attempted to be hid, I see these sights on the earth,
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny, I see martyrs
      and prisoners,
I observe a famine at sea, I observe the sailors casting lots
      who shall be kill'd to preserve the lives of the rest,
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons
      upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these - all the meanness and agony without end I sitting
      look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Election Day. Millions of people across the country will be going to the polls today to elect new legislators, judges, sheriffs, school board members, and of course, the President. Generally between fifty and fifty-five percent of eligible voters actually vote in each presidential election year. There have only been four presidential elections in the last seventy years that inspired more than sixty percent of eligible Americans to vote: 1952, 1960, 1964, and 1968. The lowest turn out in the last seventy years was in 1924, with 48%. Turn out in 1996 was the second lowest, with 49%.

But the lowest turn out in the history of American elections was the first federal election under the US Constitution, held in 1788. Only eleven percent of eligible voters voted in that first election. To be eligible to vote at the time, you had to be a white male property owner. But different states had trouble defining what a property owner was.

In Pennsylvania, you just had to prove that you paid taxes. In New York, you had to prove that your estate was worth a certain amount of money. If your estate was greater than 20 pounds, you could vote for state assembly, but your estate had to be worth more than 100 pounds to vote for senator or governor. In Connecticut, you had to be a white male property owner "of a quiet and peaceable behavior and civil conversation."

In order to vote in that first election, voters had to travel many miles to the nearest polling place, which was often a tavern. There they met the candidates for their district's seat on the state assembly. In many precincts, there were no ballots. Voters announced their votes to the sheriff in loud, clear voices, and then stood by the candidate they had voted for, who usually offered them something to drink.

It wasn't until 1820 that American voters from every state were able to vote in the presidential election. Before that, many states let the state legislators choose presidential electors who cast votes for president. Even after voters began choosing presidential electors, different states held Election Day on different dates. The first uniform Election Day took place on November 4, 1845.

For the first fifty years of American elections, fifteen percent of the adult population was eligible to vote. Thomas Dorr was one of the first politicians to argue that poor people should be given voting rights. As a member of the Rhode Island legislature, Dorr argued that all white adult men should have the vote, regardless of their wealth. He incited a riot to protest the governor's election of 1842 and went to prison for treason, but most states began to let poor white men vote soon after. Women were given the right to vote in 1920, and many African Americans were prevented from voting in the South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

George Bernard Shaw said, "Democracy is a form of government that substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few."

W.C. Fields said, "I never vote for anyone. I always vote against."

Gore Vidal said, "Half of the American people never read a newspaper. Half never vote for President. One hopes it is the same half."

Ambrose Bierce said, "[A] vote [is] the instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country."

Mark Twain said, "If there is any valuable difference between a monarchist and an American, it lies in the theory that the American can decide for himself what is patriotic and what isn't. I claim that difference. I am the only person in the sixty millions that is privileged to dictate my patriotism."

It's the birthday of Marie Antoinette, born in Vienna (1755). She was the queen of France at the time of the French Revolution, and became a symbol of everything corrupt and villainous about the French monarchy. She was married to the son of King Louis the fifteenth when she was fourteen years old. She arrived in France in 1770, and was greeted by cheering crowds, church bells, and fireworks. Her marriage to the King's heir was supposed to create an alliance between Austria and France. The French press referred to her as a goddess of beauty and purity.

Marie Antoinette was beautiful, blond, and a good dancer. She played the harp and the clavichord and could speak French, German, Italian and Latin. She loved theater, balls, gambling, dresses and jewelry. Unfortunately, her husband was painfully shy and spent all his time hunting or designing locks. They were a terrible match. She scandalized the public by frequently going out on the town without him. It didn't help that she and her husband failed to have any children. They became the subject of all kinds of dirty jokes in political pamphlets and satirical poetry. When she finally did become pregnant after eight years of marriage, no one believed her husband to be the father.

Her husband became the king at a time when France was suffering under a huge debt, and many people were living in extreme poverty. Her political opponents accused her of racking up the debt by spending money on clothes, jewelry, and entertainment. People called her "Madame Deficit." A fabricated story circulated that she had been told of French peasants starving without bread to eat, and she had replied, "Let them eat cake." That same line had been attributed to many aristocrats before her, but for some reason, people still believe she said it. By 1786, she was so universally hated that she couldn't visit the Notre Dame cathedral because the police feared they wouldn't be able to protect her from an angry riot.

In 1789, revolution swept through France, and the royal family was forcibly removed from the Palace of Versailles and sent to Paris. For a while, she was allowed to roam about the city, but whenever she was seen on the street, passersby shouted curses at her and people deliberately splashed her with their carriages.

Marie Antoinette and the king were eventually placed in the prison tower. Her husband was convicted of treason and executed. In his will, he wrote to her, "Forgive me all the ills [you] have suffered for my sake and for any grief that I may have caused [you] in the course of our marriage."

She was brought to trial on October 14, 1793. She was thirty-seven years old, but her hair had already turned white, and people there that day said she looked about twice her actual age. She was charged with numerous crimes, including the abuse of her own eight-year-old son. When asked to answer for the charges, she said, "If I have not replied, it is because Nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother."

She was guillotined at 12:15 PM on October 15, 1793. She was buried in a graveyard for common peasants.

The Irish journalist Edmund Burke, who covered the French Revolution for English newspapers, wrote, "I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever."

It's the birthday of critic and novelist Thomas Mallon, born in Glen Cove, New York (1951). He's the author of several novels, including Henry and Clara (1994) and Dewey Defeats Truman (1997). He said, "[I had] the kind of happy childhood that is so damaging to a writer... where our fathers were all World War II veterans and our mothers were always at home."

He was the first member of his family to go to college, and he became a professor of literature. He had been teaching for several years, writing academic essays on the side, when he decided to write a book about diaries. He assumed it would be an academic work, with a small audience, but as he read the personal diaries of many important writers, he began to develop his own personal writing voice. The book he wrote, called A Book of One's Own (1984) included diary entries from Virginia Woolf, Dostoyevsky, pioneer farmers, and even Thomas Mallon himself. It became a big success, and Mallon was suddenly able to quit teaching and become a literary journalist.

Mallon also began to write fiction. Because he loved doing research, he wrote novels about fictional characters on the cusp of actual historical events. His novel Aurora 7 (1997) is about a boy who runs away from school on May 24, 1962, the day that astronaut Scott Carpenter survived a near-disastrous splashdown after orbiting earth three times. Mallon said, "The main thing that has led me to write historical fiction is that it is such a relief from the self. It is like getting out of the house."

His most recent novel Bandbox, about a 1920's men's magazine, came out this year.

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