Walt Whitman is considered to be one of the most influential and significant 19th century American authors. He was born on Long Island in 1819 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York, receiving a limited education. His family was poor and he had to stop going to school when he was eleven to help earn money for his large family of nine children of which he was the second oldest. Because of this, Walt was largely self taught. One of Whitman’s first jobs was working as an apprentice for a Long Island newspaper called the Patriot. This is where he was introduced to the printing press and typesetting. From there, he worked various jobs such as a printer, school teacher, reporter, and editor across the country.
Eventually he settled into writing poetry and self-published his work Leaves of Grass, which was inspired by his travels across America and his admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson and his writing. Whitman sent a copy of the first edition of his poetry to Emerson who said that it was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Leaves of Grass had eight different editions during Whitman’s lifetime. The poem that is now known as “Song of Myself” did not get its current title until 1881. It had no name in the first edition, then it was changed to “A Poem of Walt Whitman, an American,” then to simply “Walt Whitman.” Although Emerson loved Whitman’s work, it was not that well received by the public or literary critics of the time. There were a few reasons as to why that was.
The first was that his poetry had an openness to it when discussing sex; this was a problem because people in this time period were still conservative. The second reason was Whitman’s pride and presentation of representing himself as a working man. The third and most significant issue was that people did not appreciate his writing style. He wrote free verse poetry which was initially part of the transcendentalist movement. Writing in free verse went against the strict rhyme and meter that especially Europeans considered to be high and academic poetry (remember this is the same time period as Lord Alfred Tennyson and the Victorian Era over in England). Free verse poetry helped to separate American literature from British literature. It helped to shape America’s literary identity. Whitman helped to form that identity with his free verse poetry along with the themes this poems contained.
One of the main themes Whitman’s poetry held was democracy. His philosophy of equality amongst all men is demonstrated his poetry. In the poem, “Song of Myself,” he writes, “Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic, / And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones, / Growing among black folks as among white, / Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same” (Whitman section 6). In this passage, Whitman is contemplating the purpose of grass and how he thinks that it might be a type of universal language (hieroglyphic) that represents equality for everyone, growing everywhere and amongst everyone. He says that grass grows amid Canadiens (Kanucks), Native Americans (Tuckahoes), Congressmen, and Cuff (which is a name of an African American man born on a Friday) equally. Whitman’s democratic philosophy helps to paint his ideal picture of what America is and should strive to be.
Whitman also advocated heavily for individualism, and within that realm of individualism sits the concept of freedom of speech. It had only been about sixty years before he wrote “Song of Myself” that freedom of speech had been established, and it shows in his writing. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman (or the speaker) says “I permit to speak at every hazard,” validating his right to these words both in his own eyes and in the eyes of his readers (Whitman section 1). More often than not, Whitman establishes this right in one form or another in all of his writing, while simultaneously emphasizing what a big role freedom of speech plays in a person’s individuality.
Another significant theme that can be found in the poem is friendship. Whitman is truly an optimistic and happy person, and his love for all humanity is demonstrated throughout the text. He speaks to his readers directly by urging them to “Undrape… you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded, / I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no, / I am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless… and can never be shaken away” (Whitman section 7). Whitman is talking about how he wants people (Americans specifically) to “undrape” or expose themselves in an emotional sense. He writes that he will not judge them for what he sees. However, he goes on to say that he will see through to the core of a person regardless of whether or not they “undress” but that he will always be there for the reader. It sparks a message of kinship between Whitman and his audience. He is advocating for a brotherhood amongst Americans and he’s saying that he loves and supports them all.
While there were countless poets before him, and possibly even more after, Whitman stands alone in his own category when it comes to establishing a place in American literature. His unique ideals and way of commanding the words of his poems has a certain rough elegance that is rare among poets, let alone other poets of his time. His fearlessness when it came to expressing certain more “taboo” themes (such as sex) gives his writing an unmistakable and unmatchable edge, pushing him through the decades to persevere as one of America’s most talented and unique poets. It is because of Whitman’s contributions to helping to define American literature as its own separate entity that he should undoubtedly be anthologized in American literature textbooks. “Song of Myself” is canonical because it reflects the same ideals as the great thinkers of the time period. The themes of democracy, individualism, and friendship are some of the concrete philosophies that America has stood on since it was established.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Dover Thrift Editions, 2001.
“Walt Whitman.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/walt-whitman.