June 8, 2020 | Brian Chappell

On Whitman

In Moby-Dick, Melville wants to give us the cosmos, covering significant philosophical and theological ground in his “disorderly” story of a man’s obsession with killing a whale. If Melville wanted to account for everything under the sun (and beyond), his contemporary Walt Whitman is primarily and consistently preoccupied with one subject: himself. One need consider the opening line of “Song of Myself,” one of the most recognizable in American literature: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” 

My students struggle with this stance, especially when I ask them to write their own “Song of Myself.” They are inculturated not to “celebrate” oneself, but rather to be “humble.” Fair enough. But what is Whitman really doing, not only in “Song of Myself” but also in the selections from Specimen Days and Democratic Vistas that we have here? What makes Whitman’s explorations of himself so transcendent (and we can use that word mindful of the Transcendentalist context with which he is often associated) is that by exploring himself he is exploring The Self, selfhood as broadly construed as possible. So, like Melville, he is ultimately interested in the cosmos, inasmuch as we “contain multitudes,” to use another famous line from “Song of Myself.” 

There is much to be discussed about the cosmic sources of the self, which posits a self as foundationally relational. From this “spiritual” insight Whitman builds his philosophy of democracy. This vision of the embedded self runs counter to much of the individualistic rhetoric of American-ness emerging during the same time period. 

Each selection here provides a different angle on Whitman’s exploration of self. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman wants to make deep and vast connections, between quotidian life and the life of the universe. In Specimen Days Whitman recounts his own life as one swept up, inevitably, in the tides of history and progress, particularly regarding the Civil War (during which he worked as a nurse for the wounded at a field hospital in Washington, D.C.). Finally, Democratic Vistas gives us Whitman at his most “external” and academic, providing a lyrical encomium of and issuing an urgent challenge to American democracy, particularly calling for a literary art which is commensurate to its world-shaping vision. But in doing so he of course imagines himself as integral to the success of that democratic vision, in turn urging us to think of ourselves in a similar light.

As you read, then, think of yourself. Think of your Self. Think of yourself in the grand terms in which Whitman thinks of himself. And then think of your position within American democracy, or, if you don’t live in America, democracy globally considered. You are integral to it. Celebrate.