American poet Walt Whitman celebrates the act of voting in “Election Day, November, 1884.”  He emphasizes that the “heart of it” is not the actual election of a president, but instead “the act itself … the quadrennial choosing” that honors American democracy.
 
Election Day, November 1884
 
If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
‘Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—nor Mississippi’s stream:
—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name—the still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland—Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.
 
Instructional Ideas
 
English Language Arts
Consult Common Core ELA Literacy Standard 5.5A: Interpret figurative language, including similes and metaphors, in context.
  • Discuss the water metaphors Whitman uses in “Election Day, November 1884.”
    • Discussion questions about how Whitman might have interpreted “stormy gusts” and “precious ships” of state are presented in Questions 1-2 in the Questions tab.
 
Social Studies
Consult National Geography Standard 17.2: Describe and analyze the change in the number of states in the United States and their boundaries.
  • Analyze how the geography of the United States has changed since Whitman wrote “Election Day, November 1884.”
    • How has the physical geography of the United States changed since 1884? Discussion questions about states and territories are presented in Questions 3-4 in the Questions tab.
    • How has the cultural geography of the United States changed since 1884? Discussion questions about voting rights and representation are presented in Questions 5-6 in the Questions tab. 
  1. Walt Whitman uses water imagery and metaphors throughout “Election Day, November 1884.” What are some examples of water or nautical imagery in the poem? What are some water-based metaphors?

  2. Despite its patriotism, former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky thinks “Election Day, November 1884” is “not wet or glibly sunny.” He says Whitman presents voting as “not beautiful or sacred, but as powerful.” What language in the poem supports this interpretation?

  3. Take a look at the list above, of new states and territories added to the United States since Walt Whitman wrote “Election Day, November 1884.” What geographic features in these states and territories would you include if the poem was written today? Consider Whitman’s preference for active, energetic imagery.

  4. Consider the voting population of 1884. How have the demographics of voters and candidates changed since “Election Day, November 1884”?

  5. Briefly consider presidential leadership since Walt Whitman wrote “Election Day, November 1884.” What presidents endured particularly “stormy gusts and winds”—who would you recognize if the poem was written today?

  • Read through these poems on election season in the U.S.: “On Election Day” by Charles Bernstein or “Election Year” by Donald Revell. How does their language and outlook differ from Whitman’s robust, optimistic verse?
  • “Election Day, November 1884” is not the only Walt Whitman poem that uses a nautical theme to evoke presidential leadership. Whitman’s breathtaking “O Captain! My Captain” uses nautical metaphors to mourn the death of Abraham Lincoln.
  • The actual presidential election of 1884 pitted New York Governor Grover Cleveland (D) against Speaker of the House James G. Blaine (R-Maine). (The incumbent president, Chester A. Arthur, was not nominated for a second term.) The race was very close and very ugly. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, while his opponent earned the nickname “James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.” Blaine’s camp also made notoriously anti-Catholic statements. Cleveland eventually won the election, and is the only U.S. president to have served two non-consecutive terms. (He was defeated for re-election by William McKinley in 1888, but voted into office again in 1892.)
  • Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is among the most influential poets in American history. His monumental work, Leaves of Grass, was self-published in 1855 and Whitman continued to update it for the rest of his life. “Election Day, November 1884” is from the final edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1892.
Noun

deep, narrow valley with steep sides.

democracy
Noun

system of organization or government where the people decide policies or elect representatives to do so.

dross
Noun
material of little or no value.
election
Noun

selection of people to public office by vote.

ferment
Verb

to undergo the natural or artificial process of fermentation, or changing a food's sugars into alcohols.

Noun

natural hot spring that sometimes erupts with water or steam.

gust
Noun

sudden, strong wind.

metaphor
Noun

word or phrase used to represent something else, or an understanding of one concept in terms of another concept. 

nautical
Adjective

having to do with oceans and sailing or navigation.

paradox
Noun
contradiction, or a statement that seems contradictory.
Noun

large grassland; usually associated with the Mississippi River Valley in the United States.

purify
Verb

to cleanse thoroughly.

quadrennial
Adjective
happening every four years.
waft
Verb

to carry or convey lightly and smoothly, usually through air.