On Whitman

Walt Whitman was born on May 31st, 1819. To celebrate the bicentennial of his birth, Mouse presents a range of texts from his large body of work. Overall we see Whitman’s deep fascination with selfhood, which is inextricable from the body politic. His work here is one large declaration of faith in American democracy.

Letter from our editor

Whitman and the Celebration on “Self”

Brian Chappell – Editor, Mouse Book Club

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. 

Associated Posts

Democratic Vistas Blog

“Song of Myself” brought forth Whitman’s vision of variety. Not only does he depict multiple ways of life and of making a living, but he also offers insight into the fabric of reality on an almost subatomic level. This is the crux of his poetry. How to theorize about such variety? This is the stated aim of Democratic Vistas, presented in its opening. Making reference to John Stuart Mill, Whitman outlines two conditions for true liberty: 1st, a large variety of character -- and 2d, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions -- (seems to be for general humanity much like the influences that make up, in their limitless field, that perennial health-action of the air we call the weather -- an infinite number of currents and forces, and contributions, and temperatures, and cross purposes, whose ceaseless play of counterpart upon counterpart brings constant restoration and vitality.) From here Whitman begins his exploration, in lyrical prose, of the manifestations of such variety in American history, with an eye in particular, most especially, towards possibility: “For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.” In this context Whitman’s “New World” connotes far more than the newly discovered land of explorers. Rather it connotes a world that is continually under construction, whose status as being under construction is a constitutive feature of its makeup: the work of building America is never finished, precisely because of the endless variety that its commitment to liberty allows (or should allow). In other words, the world of America is one that is closely aligned to Whitman’s (correct) vision of cosmic reality: everything participating in inter-relation with everything else, with creation perpetually ongoing. But there are counter-forces, as Whitman and, to our lament, we well know. If we are able to perceive reality as an endless “full play for human nature to expand itself,” what other realities are being presented? Realities in which conformity, alignment, rigidity, and control dominate our affairs. Even modalities that pass for “liberty” nonetheless require a certain degree of control as an entry point (e.g., participation in the market economy as a non-negotiable requirement for your very survival). In my kitchen hangs a copy of an old flier from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, featuring a young John Lewis kneeling in prayer. The headline reads: “Come, let us build a new world together.” Perhaps that world can be predicated upon precisely the “democratic vista” that Whitman countenances, a vista that evinces that endless variety of human life, which can not be controlled.

Specimen Days Blog

The syllabus questions for Specimen Days are as follows: 1. Whitman is still writing about his “self,” but in a different format. How does this change in genre, from poetry to fragmentary prose, affect your overall impression of Whitman? 2.Whitman is more interested here in history, both personal and collective. How does he present a “self” that is situated in these histories? What stories does he tell? 3. If you were to tell stories of your “self” in this kind of a mode, what fragments would appear, both in terms of your personal history, and your situatedness in collective history? You can perhaps glean that these questions are interested primarily in form, especially in teasing out the differences between Whitman’s achievements in “Song of Myself” and here in Specimen Days. Indeed the differences are in kind rather than in degree, and that is the main exercise. How does a complete shift in genre facilitate new forms of meaning, especially surrounding the same set of questions about self, other, society, history, etc.? As I prepared to write this blog post, one main thought I couldn’t escape. While there is much to work with here in terms of form, style, etc., one key thing that we should not lose sight of is this: Whitman lived through the Civil War. The Civil War. I am left imagining what that could have been like, particularly for a non-combatant participant like Whitman, who tended the wounded of both sides in Washington, D.C. field hospitals not far from where I live. If his stanzas in “Song of Myself” aim for lyrical profundity, Whitman’s prose here is characterized by tenderness . While he describes harrowing battle scenes and heart-wrenching hospital visits, he also takes time to express his admiration for American democracy, a preview of our installment from Democratic Vistas. Here is a striking description of the White House, whose inhabitant at the time, Abraham Lincoln, was a personal hero of Whitman’s: THE WHITE HOUSE BY MOONLIGHT February 24th.—A spell of fine soft weather. I wander about a good deal, sometimes at night under the moon. Tonight took a long look at the President's house. The white portico—the palace-like, tall, round columns, spotless as snow—the walls also—the tender and soft moonlight, flooding the pale marble, and making peculiar faint languishing shades, not shadows—everywhere a soft transparent hazy, thin, blue moon-lace, hanging in the air—the brilliant and extra-plentiful clusters of gas, on and around the façade, columns, portico, &c.—everything so white, so marbly pure and dazzling, yet soft—the White House of future poems, and of dreams and dramas, there in the soft and copious moon—the gorgeous front, in the trees, under the lustrous flooding moon, full of realty, full of illusion—the forms of the trees, leafless, silent, in trunk and myriad—angles of branches, under the stars and sky—the White House of the land, and of beauty and night—sentries at the gates, and by the portico, silent, pacing there in blue overcoats—stopping you not at all, but eyeing you with sharp eyes, whichever way you move. Amid a tumultuous milieu, The White House stands for Whitman as a beacon, and for many today it retains the regality that Whitman invests in it. And so I’m left wondering how I would create a Specimen Days about the tumult of my own age. Could I muster the tenderness and vision that Whitman is able to muster here? For now, when I pass The White House, as I do rather frequently, I am reminded of so much else, so much that Whitman and Lincoln his hero wished to oppose in their own time. Is it even desirable to regain an almost innocent love of symbols? Whitman stared war directly in the face, in the broken faces and spirits of his fellow citizens. Into what are we gazing today, and how do we record what we see?

“Song of Myself” Blog

When I teach “Song of Myself,” I refer to The Cambridge Introduction to Walt Whitman, by M. Jimmie Killingsworth. In particular, I refer to what Killingsworth identifies as the five major features of the poem. For my students I further identify these features as “breakthroughs” that would come to largely characterize the modern poetry that followed. They are as follows: Breakthrough #1: The poem conducts a radical experiment in poetic form (Killingsworth 26). Breakthrough #2: The poem embodies the ideals of personality within the context of political democracy (Killingsworth 28). Breakthrough #3: The poem spiritualizes the body and materializes the soul in an effort to reinvigorate the religious experience (Killingsworth 30). Breakthrough #4: The poem uses catalogues of images and vignettes to suggest the open-ended and endlessly varied range of experience within modern life (Killingsworth 34). Breakthrough #5: The poem pushes the limits of human knowledge and language (Killingsworth 36). As my students work through the “Songs,” I ask them to identify how a particular song manifests one or more of these breakthroughs. I also ask them to consider which of these breakthroughs is the most significant and why. I encourage you to undertake a similar exercise here. Though we want “Song of Myself” to wash over us, even overwhelm us, using these breakthroughs as a frame of reference will nonetheless enhance our engagement. Then, I encourage you to identify a favorite song, or even a favorite line or moment. I will share mine. It is the concluding couplet of Song #6: All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier. I love it for personal reasons, particularly Whitman’s attitude towards death, which is the general subject of Song #6. One can take this attitude as a personal consolation, and others can investigate the possibility, as many have, of Whitman’s engagement with Eastern religions. Either way, it is an act of defiance, especially in our culture, to say, when all seems to point to the finality of death, that “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.” What would it mean for you to say, when you consider your beloved dead, that they are “alive and well somewhere”? It is possible that to utter these phrases and believe them, we must reframe our perception of what life and death really are, beyond what our cultural messaging continually conveys. “Song of Myself” is up to nothing less.

Featured Podcasts

MBC-DEMOCRATIC VISTAS

Guest: ED FOLSOM Professor of English, University of Iowa, Editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, and the Co-Director of the online Walt Whitman Archive.

LINK TO PODCAST

MBC-SPECIMEN DAYS

Guest: GEORGE HUTCHINSON Professor of American Culture, Cornell University and Author of The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism and the Crisis of the Union.

LINK TO PODCAST

MBC-SONG OF MYSELF

Guest: MARK EDMUNDSON University Professor, University of Virginia and Author of the forthcoming Song of Ourselves: Walt Whitman and the Fight for Democracy.

LINK TO PODCAST