In (belated) honor of Independence Day, two visions of what it is to be American. I first read Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in college, in a class called “The American Epic,” about American epic poetry. The section I’m including here stuck with me in particular. In The Atlantic, Mark Edmundson writes that “the grass is the sign of equality, equality within democratic America… We are all—light-hued and dark-hued, everyday people and distinguished statespersons—blades of grass, nothing more, nothing less.” It’s a symbol of both the individualism and unity that could be possible in this country: “Sometimes you may not feel that you are much in yourself, but the effect that you help create overall is grand and quite formidable. You have the comfort of unity, and you have the pride and focus that come from individuality.”
In the story, this concept is played out in the real world, America as it is. The protagonist, Marie, labors for decades as a motel maid. There’s no storied ascension to prosperity for her. The work takes a substantial toll on her body; she sees awful things and loses a friend and a lover. But through her relationship to her work, her co-workers, and her faith, she seems to achieve grace.
Flag (Moratorium), Jasper Johns, 1969
Song of Myself, 6
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Who is this guy?
Born in 1819, Whitman may be the ur-American poet. Late bloomers, take note: Edmundson writes in the Atlantic essay that Whitman had no formal education and was a bit of a layabout well into his 35th year (although he did edit an abolitionist newspaper and worked as a carpenter.) He was inspired to take up poetry by a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay calling for “a genuinely American bard,” and Leaves of Grass, which Whitman self-published (and, hilariously, gave a glowing review to), was the result. During his lifetime, critical reception of his work in the U.S. was mixed, though the Poetry Foundation notes that 1,000 people attended his funeral.
Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest (excerpt)
In the beginning, there was Marie, Agnes, Rosa, and the other Rosa. Agnes was a drunk. She got fired for stealing from the guests. Rosa No. 1 married her high-school sweetheart and moved away; Rosa No. 2 was undocumented and quit after she heard rumors about an immigration sweep of local businesses. The sweep didn’t happen. Not that time.
Then there was Olga, who’d come from Russia to marry an American. He’d claimed to be a millionaire, but it turned out he’d had only enough money to pay for Olga’s visa and her plane tickets. She’d married him anyway, because she believed that American lies were a little better than Russian lies. But she had to take a job, any job, to help with expenses. She got pregnant. They couldn’t afford to pay rent and take care of a baby, so they moved to Oregon to live with his parents.
Then there was Evie, who worked hard, was Marie’s friend for many years, and vanished over the horizon.
There was a black woman and a white woman, their names lost to time, who started on the same day and both quit immediately after walking into a room and finding a dead bull snake sliced into thick pieces and arranged in weird patterns on the carpet.
There’d been five animal sacrifices in the motel over the years.
Seven people had died at the motel. Four from heart attacks, two from overdoses, and one when a woman drunkenly fell over the second-floor railing and landed head first on somebody else’s minivan.
There had been ten or twelve or fifteen or twenty-three college students who’d worked there over the years. Most of them lasted only a few weeks. Some lasted a few months, and then quit the job and school at the same time, and walked away into sad lives. But two girls, Karen and Christine, kept working while they earned their bachelor’s degrees—Karen in 1991 and Christine in 2000—and then moved on to better jobs in better cities. Marie had attended both of their graduation ceremonies. She never saw Karen again, but she’d bumped into Christine—home for Christmas with her parents—in the local mall one day, and they’d had a long visit over coffee. Christine had married a man, divorced him, and then married a woman named Ariel.
“She’s my soul mate,” Christine said.
Marie was somewhat uncomfortable with Christine’s new lesbian life. But she shrugged it off and congratulated her old friend. Marie believed that her own sins were exactly the same as everybody else’s sins.
One of the maids was a man. Hector. He sang loudly and cleaned the rooms more slowly than any maid ever. He lasted for six years, then called one morning and quit without warning.
But at least he called.
Over the years, thirty or forty women had quit without saying a word. Many of them never bothered to return their maid uniforms or pick up their last paychecks. Marie feared that some of those women might have been disappeared by the men in their lives. But most of them just didn’t care about being responsible. Some of those women were as nocturnal and untrustworthy as rats. Marie had been slapped, punched, kicked, and bitten by former maids. Her purse had been stolen three times. And her car stolen once.
One of the crazier maids had robbed Naseem at gunpoint. She went to prison for four years.
One of the saddest maids had been assaulted and strangled by a serial killer. He was caught after thirty years of killing poor women and led police to undiscovered bodies so they wouldn’t lethally inject him.
There were drug addicts and alcoholics and women who dowsed their cleaning rags with disinfectant and huffed those poisonous and intoxicating fumes into their lungs.
There were illegal and legal immigrants, though Marie didn’t care about their status. Every refugee is a precious child, she thought.
There were maids of every race. Of every color. Of every religion.
At least a dozen women, Muslims, had worn head scarves while they worked.
Marie suspected that one maid, an Italian woman who had to be taught how to use a vacuum, was in the federal witness-protection program.
There were women who cried often but would never explain their tears.
There were women who never stopped talking about their aches and pains.
Over the decades, Marie had worked with two or three hundred women. She’d liked half of them, had hated at least fifty of them, and had truly loved maybe a dozen.
And then there was Evie, the most beloved, who had transubstantiated into a postcard from Reno. How does a friend, maybe your best friend, leave you like that?
“Father James,” Marie had once confessed, “God is mysterious, sure, but sometimes I feel like people are even more mysterious.”
—Sherman Alexie (read the rest here)
Who is this guy?
Born in 1966, Sherman Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribal member and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He left the reservation to attend high school, where he was a basketball star and class president. In college, he began writing poetry and fiction; today he is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet with 26 books to his name. His most recent book is the memoir You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. Of his first poetry collection, Leslie Ullman in the Kenyon Review wrote that Alexie “weaves a curiously soft-blended tapestry of humor, humility, pride and metaphysical provocation out of the hard realities…the tin-shack lives, the alcohol dreams, the bad luck and burlesque disasters, and the self-destructive courage of his characters.”
Write a story, essay, or poem in which work—a character’s job, or your own—figures prominently.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org