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.