Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: American Individualism Then and Now By Hannah Denham

 

Nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman is heralded as one of the first truly American poets, but for me, he was my first. I’m a little sheepish to admit this, but I discovered Whitman during my middle school days of obsession with Nicholas Sparks novels: in The Notebook, Noah always read his poetry to Allie. In ninth grade, I transferred schools and one of the highlights was a new library to explore. I found an 1890 copy of Leaves of Grass. It smelled old and musky and like America. I checked it out every two weeks for the rest of the school year.

Known as a literary trailblazer, Whitman “broke the new wood,” as Ezra Pound phrases it, of stylistic technique. His lack of conformation reflects the greater inclusiveness of the content of his writing. I found this to be especially evident in his poem “Song of Myself,” first published in 1855 and later under this title in 1881. Its fifty-two sections delve into life during the era between the War of 1812 and the 1850s, known as the antebellum period. Whitman accomplishes this by elevating the sense of self through the speaker of the poem’s first-person narration and by providing a “poetic identity” for American culture.

This level of explicit boldness is a call to action for the modern American. Whitman connects himself to reality — the actual and the potential — through an indirect, biographical statement that expresses his speaker, “I,” does not direct his energies toward superficiality but toward the truth of existence. Its urgent tension provides a foundation of friction upon which the society can progress forward. The all-inclusive “I” relates the speaker’s narration to all Americans and serves as the personification of America as a nation during an era of social, political and economic growth, then and now.

Victorian-era values infiltrated American etiquette and social interaction during this time period. The merit placed on this social impression was often denounced by critics who claimed its superficiality over its value. Whitman delves into this influence on social status in the first stanza of the fourth section. “Trippers and askers surround me, / The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new, / My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues /… But they are not the Me myself.” The speaker’s recognition of the social ladder and its classist implications provides the opportunity as a spokesperson for the American voice: one that views certain values that still exist as inhibitors of the American ideal of leveled equality. Furthermore, a deeper analysis of the speaker’s voice shows that the antagonist of this section is not wealth but a unified goal for the social status that comes with it. His argument here is that those who romanticize the latest and greatest trends due to a desire for status will be swept up by a collective loss of identity. After establishing this foundation, the speaker expresses his own individuality by keeping his own values intact. The second stanza of the fourth section concludes with, “Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.” An omnipresent critic, the speaker acknowledges the importance of developing understanding through immersing himself in the culture without compromising his own individuality. His distance communicates the standard by which he regards the American people: the individuals who can claim the benchmark identity of “Me myself” are able to do so by employing a wider perspective.

Immigration in America steadily increased during the 1850s as the country gained popularity as a destination for people from all over the world seeking opportunity. A common mindset during this time was the strength in numbers: success measured by reproducing and expanding towards the brim. Whitman reflects this growing sense of urgency for growth as a nation with the speaker’s commentary in the third stanza of the third section: “Always the procreant urge of the world /…Always a knit of identity.” Here, Whitman uses anaphora by repeating, and subsequently emphasizing, the word “always.” This enables the speaker to express the exponential nature of American population growth during this time period. Furthermore, the speaker provides an ironic connection between these two actions: in an ever-expanding nation with increasing numbers, its people are united as one by their individualism as a whole. In the fifth stanza of the third section, Whitman elaborates on this irony by using deliberate diction by referring to it as a “mystery,” one that the speaker stands alongside, blindly confident in the effect it projects to have on the future of the nation. Furthermore, Whitman personifies this relationship between the speaker and the subject of the mystery as one that rests “in the beams” of the institution, and the word “braced” hints at the lack of clarity of what will ensue. This relationship serves as supporting evidence for the speaker’s ability to mold himself to unify himself with the cultural applications of America during this period. Today, in an age of xenophobia, bans on certain religions and threats to build a wall, I think we could all learn a little from Whitman’s idea that it is our diversity as Americans that makes us strong.

Sixty years before Walt Whitman wrote “Song of Myself,” the constitutional rights to freedom of speech were established. In the fourth stanza of the first section of the poem, the speaker asserts this right: “I permit to speak at every hazard.” While legal boundaries were set to prevent these potential hazards, the speaker acknowledges the cultural ramifications that could ensue. Whitman symbolizes the speaker as an orator “without check with original energy,” a comparison that reflects a metaphorical thunderstorm that has no agenda but to exist as it is. This comparison of the speaker’s sense of self establishes the expectation for American individuals to use their own voice. This ultimately asserts the true nature of individualism: not just without external consequences, but more importantly one that exists without self-imposed constraint.

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