The Crockers, India and Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Aimée Crocker’s voyages took numerous, dramatic and unexpected turns. Aimée was equal parts adventuress and pilgrim. She went on an existential journeys to foreign and untamed lands of the world in a quest for adventures and a search for Self. Her desire was to plunge deep into the mysteries of life head first. When exploring new lands, Crocker would eagerly seek out the local religious leader and house of worship and participate in the spiritual practices of the culture. Her yearning to be both truth seeker and trailblazer climaxed in India in the 1890s.

The major work of Walt Whitman’s later years, “Passage to India” (first published in 1871) takes as its starting point three achievements of the age: the laying of the Atlantic cable, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the linking of the Union and Central Pacific railroads, achievements that could be said to complete what Columbus had begun. But on another level, as one critic observed, the poem is about the “human soul’s triumph over Time, Space, and Death.” In explaining “Passage to India,” this great poem praising the work of the Crockers and the Central Pacific, Walt Whitman wrote, “The earth had been spanned by the efforts of engineers and technicians. And now it is for the poet to bring about the unity of East and West in the realm of the spirit.”

No one benefited more from E.B. Crocker’s accomplishment than his youngest daughter. Aimée explored the world, from Borneo to Pigalle, from Lake Como to Singapore to the Sandwich Islands, not just in search of new experiences, and not just wanting liberation from conformity, but in a sincere search for spiritual peaks. In Whitman’s poem, India is the cradle of mankind, an ancient land of history and legend, morals and religion, adventure and challenge. Brahma, Buddha, Alexander, Tamerlane, Marco Polo and other traders, rulers and explorers all shared in India’s history. The return of the poet and his soul to the East is envisaged as a journey “back to wisdom’s birth, to innocent intuitions.” The poet seeks the mystical experience of union with the Divine. The trek to India would be an important transcendental journey in the life of heiress Aimée Crocker.

The 23-page manuscript held in the Oscar Lion Collection at the New York Public Library is a working draft of the poem and shows copious revisions.

Whether Aimée read the American Bard’s great poem about her family’s monumental achievement is not known, though very likely. She did somewhere find the inspiration to make a sojourn to the hallowed grounds of the “land of budding bibles,” at the end of the 19th century. It would be a “middle-path” journey filled with both Dionysian delights and deep soul searching, the Occident merging with the Orient… Visiting the cave of a holy Bodhisattva and the harem of a maharaja… She wrote in her travel book And I’d Do It Again:

Oh, India! Perhaps the years that I spent in that never-to-be-understood land were the best of my life. I have told stories of it here, and stories of people, but I never can tell the poetry, the rich beauty of it. It was the last strand of truly free adventure and romance in my life. I returned once more to America and Europe, never to go back there, never to follow that curious call, that strangely beckoning and invisible finger. I have often regretted it, but I was never to return… India is and always will be a kind of Eden. I could find it in my heart to urge that every girl be sent, not to Europe for that veneer called “finishing,” but to India to have an understanding of the meaning of life poured into her and distilled in the sunshine of that agonizing, pulsating, suffering, beautiful country

A Passage to India

by Walt Whitman – 1819-1892

Passage to India!
Lo soul for thee of tableaus twain,
I see in one the Suez canal initiated, open’d,
I see the procession of steamships, the Empress Eugenie’s leading the van,
I mark, from on deck the strange landscape, the pure sky, the level sand in the distance, I pass swiftly the picturesque groups, the workmen gather’d,
The gigantic dredging machines.
In one again, different, (yet thine, all thine, O soul, the same,)
I see over my own continent the Pacific Railroad, surmounting every barrier,
I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte, carrying freight and passengers,
I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle,
I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world,
I cross the Laramie plains, I note the rocks in grotesque shapes, the buttes,
I see the plentiful larkspur and wild onions, the barren, colorless, sage-deserts,
I see in glimpses afar or towering immediately above me the great mountains,
I see the Wind River and the Wahsatch mountains,
I see the Monument mountain and the Eagle’s Nest, I pass the Promontory, I ascend the Nevadas,
I scan the noble Elk mountain and wind around its base,
I see the Humboldt range, I thread the valley and cross the river,
I see the clear waters of Lake Tahoe, I see forests of majestic pines,
Or crossing the great desert, the alkaline plains, I behold enchanting mirages of waters and meadows,
Marking through these and after all, in duplicate slender lines,
Bridging the three or four thousand miles of land travel,
Tying the Eastern to the Western sea,
The road between Europe and Asia.
This poem is in the public domain.

Read Passage to India

from Leaves of Grass