Listening through the decades for the American tongue

— United States National Archives

The March on Washington in 1963 brought 250,000 people to the National Mall and is famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream.”

Fearing he would soon die, the great American writer John Steinbeck packed his poodle Charley into a souped-up camper-truck — named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse — and started out to, as the Paul Simon song goes, “look for America.” It was 1960 and Steinbeck was 58.

Two years later, Viking came out with “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” in which Steinbeck shared with America the nation he and Charley saw. It became a best-seller; America was looking for a mirror to see herself in.

I like to believe Steinbeck’s trip was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which appeared three years before. Kerouac said he had been engaged in the same kind of activity; he too was looking for America.

In that truly American classic, Kerouac says he and traveling companion Dean Moriarity (Neal Cassady in real life), “embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to FIND that America and FIND the inherent goodness in American man.”

They were looking for the America of dreams, the America in which neighbor offered succor to neighbor, mutual-aid-America, payment an insult.

In terms of genres, “On the Road” is part of the Beat literature generation, a movement that began two years earlier when Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” blew through America like a whirlwind.

His jeremiad begins: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/ dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,/ angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”

Ginsberg said his poem was “a lament for the Lamb in America,” the tender-hearted lambs America was feeding on like an angry Moloch. Like an Old Testament prophet, he said America needed to retrieve her tender heart, she needed to retrieve the tongue she was born with.

You can see why the Beats ruffled America’s feathers. They kept reminding America she was more or less than who she was but not who she was. As Paul Simon says, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

The great American poet William Carlos Williams became, shall I say, obsessed with America too. He wanted to find America’s tongue, her idiom, he wanted to hear how she spoke, he wanted to see how her tongue was connected to her heart.

A small-town doctor for 40 years, Williams listened intently to his patients as they told about their pains and joys and daily peccadillos. Were they speaking American?

In 1950, New Directions came out with “In the American Grain” a book of essays where Williams described the lives of Daniel Boone, George Washington, Edgar Allan Poe, Abraham Lincoln, and others. wondering if each spoke American.

Williams wanted his work to serve as a mirror in which America could look at herself from time to time and assess whether she was being true to her dreams.

Some people have a hard time grasping the concept of an “American tongue”; they’re more familiar with Democrat-ese, Republican-ese, Socialist-ese, and all the other ese’s that are not American.

Some think the American tongue means the way New Englanders talk or families along the Bayou, not seeing that those are regional idiomatic linguistic patois derivatives, not the American tongue.

Some cynics say why worry about the American tongue, America is dead; you can’t hear someone who doesn’t exist.

The poets say there is something out there, something that looks like America but she — as Ginsberg would say — is howling because her tongue has been severed from her heart, a symptom of breakdown.

In 1831, the French government sent 26-year-old Alexis de Tocqueville to the United States to study American prisons with penologist Gustave de Beaumont; the pair took notes on the assigned institutions but de Tocqueville, like a socio-cardiologist, kept tapping into the American tongue.

He published his notes in a grand two-volume ethnography, “Democracy in America,” which he gifted to America as a mirror for her to look into.

At the very beginning of the work, de Tocqueville says, “Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions among the people.”

General equality of conditions. I assume that means equality was at the heart of the American tongue. He said it was having a “prodigious influence ... on the whole course of society.”

He added, “There is no class of persons who do not exercise the elective franchise, and who do not indirectly contribute to make the laws” except, he admitted, those called “slaves, servants, and paupers in the receipt of relief from the townships.”

A generation later, America sought to right those wrongs. Some still say the wrong wrongs were righted or not righted at all. Former United States attorney Joseph diGenova says we need a second civil war to finish the job.

“The suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future in this country” he said on a radio show, “is over. It’s not going to be. It’s going to be total war. And as I say to my friends, I do two things — I vote and I buy guns.”

In an essay on the ways people are connected in real life, the great British psychoanalyst Joan Riviere said we all have a tendency to view each other in “isolation.” It’s a “convenient fiction.”

She said, when one of her patients came to see her in “the analytic room; in two minutes we find that he has brought his world in with him.” She added, “There is no such thing as a single human being, pure and simple, unmixed with other human beings.”

Riviere said, from the day we’re born, we’re all “formed and built up ... out of countless never-ending influences and exchanges between ourselves and others.” Personality appears to be nothing more than an osmotic piece of skin because “other persons are in fact ... parts of ourselves … . We are members one of another.”

A few days ago, as reports of the spread of the coronavirus came in, the President of the United States took $37 million from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program — a safety net to help those in need pay their heating bills — to help pay to contain the viral epidemic.

He stole the money because the budget he created had cut funds designed to deal with such medical crises. And the temperature in Sinclair, Maine last night was forecast to drop down to 11. A mockery of the “general equality of conditions.”

In July 1854, the 12th President of the United States reasoned to the nation, “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities.”

Abraham Lincoln was speaking the American tongue long before Riviere discovered that her patients spoke similarly. The president was saying that Americans are “formed and built up since the day of our birth out of countless never-ending influences and exchanges between ourselves and others ... We are members one of another.”

The American idiom says, “Crown thy good with brotherhood/From sea to shining sea.”