Whitman’s Poetry and American Identity

Born on 31st May, 1819, Walt Whitman is an iconic figure in the history of American literature. His lifetime’s work, especially his poetry, has come to define the sentiments, aspirations and experiences of American citizens in the nineteenth century. Although Whitman was not active politically, he expressed his political views through his poetry. Having lived through the turbulence of the Civil War, he developed passionate views on the nature and complexion of American polity. Whitman envisioned America to be a vibrant multicultural society. This vision he expressed in many of his poems. The poem Passage to India is a good example of this idealism, which perhaps waned a little during the excesses of the Gilded Age. (Pannapacker, 2004, p.45) Through the medium of this art form, Whitman synthesized his notion of the American identity, encompassing within it concepts such as national sovereignty, individual freedom and democratic polity. For example,

“During this American Renaissance, as it came to be known, authors and philosophers such as Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Emerson assessed the nation’s brief history in their writings and summarily expressed a national identity. Of all of them, it was Whitman, who, with his barbaric yawp, was the most radical in avowing that American identity was inextricable from the nation’s central premise of self-governance and equality. In poems such as “Song of Myself,” he stressed to his readers how their individual lives constituted the very circumference of democracy. “[T] he genius of the United States,” he pronounced, “is … in the common people.”” (Schramm, 2005, p.24)

Whitman’s early years were chaotic, as circumstances forced him to seek employment at the tender age of 11. At first he worked as an office boy for a lawyer and later served as an apprentice and printer’s devil for the newspaper Patriot (published in Long Island). But these early experiences had a profound influence on Whitman’s formative mind, as he absorbed the essence of good journalism and good writing here. Looking back in retrospect, many of the issues raised by Whitman in his seminal work Leaves of Grass have their origins in these early experiences. Under Editor Samuel Clements’ mentorship, Whitman learned about the technical aspects of the printing press, which would help him later in his efforts to self-publish his poems. It was here that he developed his views on American identity. (Barrett, 2005, p.67)

Consistent with the thought of Ralph Emerson, Whitman too believed that an American poet must be “indivisible from the people about whom he wrote…the proof of the poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he absorbed it”. (Barrett, 2005, p.67) This symbolic unity of the poet and his compatriots is most evident in the very first poem of Leaves of Grass titled Song of Myself. Through the generous use of “I” “me,” and “you,” that the “myself” he was singing about comes to represent all Americans. Whitman’s also wrote poems covering sexuality and sexual freedom. In poems such as ‘A Woman Waits for Me’, he famously observed that “Sex contains all, bodies, souls.” (Barrett, 2005, p.67) Although Whitman’s references to homosexuality and overt sexuality was controversial during his time (which is the why his collections were self-published), his views on the subject only reflected the emerging liberal tradition of nineteenth century United States.

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