Walt Whitman

Especially in Preface, I was struck by the way Whitman glorified American citizenship as well as what it meant to be a ‘good poet.’ He is very passionate about the nation’s spirit as one that is defined by its ‘live,’ and active citizens, which he uses to distinguish the United States as the best. He mentions the ‘nation’s soul’ several times in Preface, and goes on to say that the soul of the United States is satisfied by truth – and it is a poet’s job to deliver this ‘truth.’ Whitman Writes:

“Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most needed poets will doutless have the greatest and use them the greatest…the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”

Here, it seems as though any well-known poet around the globe would get recognition from Whitman, but if he were American he would automatically be the most respected. How do we interpret this implied elitism? What is Whitman saying about himself as a poet? How does his understanding of what a poet should do differ from others?

At first, I interpreted these quotes as very ethnocentric. However, in the historical context of the U.S.’s identity struggle, I later read his work as establishing what makes America a unique country worthy of recognition. Furthermore, I find it interesting that Whitman places such an importance upon not only being able to capture the spirit of his nation, but in gaining recognition and communication with its citizens. This is especially perplexing since Whitman was not particularly well known during the time he was writing. His sentiments seem to be in opposition to Melville’s, who doesn’t place any value on recognition from the culture.

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One Response to Walt Whitman

  1. enthomas says:

    I read Whitman’s strong nationalism (especially in regards to American Poets) to be heavily influenced by the writings of Emerson. His biography mentions that on his first edition of ‘Leaves of Grass,’ the cover depicts him wearing working clothes rather than the traditional formal attire found in photo-shoots, and thus “aligning the poet with the working classes rather than the educated classes (993).” Furthermore, poem 15 in ‘Songs of Myself,’ lists a number of American occupations and characters, ranging from the working machinist who “rolls up his sleeves (1020)” to the President who is “surrounded by the great Secretaries (1021).” Yet Whitman concludes this catalogue of American individuals with “And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,/And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,/ And of these one and all I weave the song of myself (1022).” I found these two mentions noteworthy, for they indicated how Whitman felt America didn’t need to separate an educated class from a working class, or in that case, separate the poet as an occupation all its own. A poet could then just as easily be a working class member, which I found similar to Emerson’s idea of ‘man thinking.’ Because the poet can be anything, in America he/she will be that much more successful in absorbing their own country and all the experiences which come with it.

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