Individualism and Community (American History Through Literature)
The terms "individualism" and "community" are open to shifting, sometimes contradictory interpretations. Henry David Thoreau's (1817862) individualism, for example, is at odds with the dominant economic individualism of his period, just as the individualism of Herman Melville's (1819891) Captain Ahab is different from Ishmael's in Moby-Dick (1851). Thoreau's and Ishmael's oppositional versions are attractive, but most Americans nonetheless recognize the central importance of the practices and values of economic individualism or possessive individualism. It may be difficult to reconcile these often-divisive values and practices, which include private ownership, capitalist enterprise, and the division of labor, with the cooperation, cohesion, and inevitable conflict usually associated with the ideal of community.
Alternatively, however, in American usage the "and" in "individualism and community" often means "versus," reflecting a sense that far from being a positive ideal, communal involvement will stifle or absorb or homogenize that which is most uniquely individual, a view animating the transcendentalist individualism of Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882). Community, a sense of shared values and practices linking people together, can also be achieved at the expense of devalued Otherslacks, Jews, gayshose culturally sanctioned inferiority constitutes a contrasting community of the righteous united by their shared sense of racial, sexual, or religious superiority. In a more neutral sense, "community" can refer to a more or less compatible group, ranging from the village communities of the early nineteenth century to constructs like "the black community." Within this range of possibilities, in the immediacy of their fiction, essays, and poems, mid-nineteenth-century writers bring alive the historically grounded energies of American individualism and community.
In Moby-Dick (1851), Melville goes deep into American culture and returns with conflicting and challenging insights. He creates that ungodly, godlike man, Captain Ahab, whose version of American individualism has the same implacable energy as his merchant contemporaries but directed toward metaphysical, not material, goals. In The Protestant Temperament (1977), Philip Greven has shown that evangelical Protestants, for all their subordination to God's will, can also act fearlessly, independently, and ruthlessly in the face of all the powers of the earth. Greven, that is, has shown that the evangelical discipline of the self, the punitive suppression of a person's will and desire, generates anger and hatred. This suppressed anger and hatred are often turned outward against enemies and demonized Othersndians, foreigners, the unrighteous, all of the White Whales of American culturentagonists who are then ferociously attacked and punished. As Melville's Father Mapple puts it less pejoratively, "delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges" (p. 54).
In Father Mapple's account of the the self, empowered but subordinated to God, the anger and hatred are concealed. For Ahab, however, they are central and openly acknowledged. Ahab has directed against the White Whale all of the anger and hatred he himself has experienced, most immediately from the emasculating loss of his leg. Instead of recognizing and accepting the loss as a painful personal tragedy, however, Ahab elevates his experience into a metaphysical drama. For him the White Whale embodies all the torments and dilemmas,
all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it. (P. 156)
In Melville's remarkable metaphor, the heart, the seat of the cohesive emotions of love and sympathy, becomes instead an instrument of hate, rage, and military violence. Ahab as titanic individual, in his eyes the representative of his redeemer nation and of all mankind, assaults "all evil" in an archetypal attack that illuminates whole swaths of American culture, including American foreign policy.
Closer to home, Melville uses Ahab to expose the danger of tyranny latent in American political culture. For Ahab there is room for only one individual. He defies the powers above even as he "sometimes think[s] there's naught beyond" (p. 140). Just as he would "strike the sun if it insulted me," he uses the authority of his office combined with the force of his personality and will to dominate those below him (p. 140). In a ship populated by "isolatos" and reminiscent of an immigrant culture lacking the cohesion of established traditions, Ahab supplies the unifying, emotionally charged ritualshe black rites on the quarterdecknd the compelling, underground motiveevenge on Moby-Dick motive that goes deeper even than the lure of cash. Ahab is the unifying "long central keel" that makes the fragmentary crew into something like a community (p. 415).
Drawing energy from and illuminating the contradictory tendencies of evangelical Protestantism, Ahab's overpowering individualism fills the need for community with an authoritarian dominance. Like others in his tradition, he oscillates between a sense that he is nothing and that he is everything, that he is totally insignificant and all-powerful, that he is an instrument of Fate in a predetermined drama and the willful power who determines action and compels obedience. In either mode, as subordinated or expanded self, Ahab reveals that the unstable individualism of evangelical Protestantism bears on authoritarian politics in America. As insignificant subordinateI am the Fates' lieutenant" (p. 418)e reveals a counterintuitive American propensity to be dominated and to follow orders. As the controlling force, where the boundary between Ahab and God disappearsis it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?" (p. 406)hab reveals the authoritarian consequences of a God-empowered individual in command of the levers of official power.
Through Ahab and his assault on the White Whale, Melville has created an archetypal narrative that, inseparable from its metaphysical and epistemological probing, illuminates the complex uses of the antagonist coded as "evil" as well as the related potential for tyranny in America. The fear of tyranny has recurred periodically in U.S. history. At the very outset of the nation Patrick Henry (1736799) and Melancton Smith (1744798), articulate antifederalists, opposed adopting the Constitution because they believed that despotism could too easily result from giving the president control of the military as commander in chief. During the Civil War, Lincoln reactivated these concerns when he silenced the opposition press and abolished the right of habeas corpus. In 2004, critics such as Chalmers Johnson and Chris Hedges drew a link between a White Whale war on evil and the accompanying threat of an American dictatorship. As with Ahab, here are individualism and community in their most disturbing and distorted forms.
More persistent and recognizable is the American economic individualism Melville powerfully satirizes, nowhere more effectively than in Fleece's inverted Sermon on the Mount. Melville has the negro cook, Fleece, expose the gap between the values of "love thy neighbor" and the practices of a sharkish capitalism in which the strongest sharks do not help "de small fry ob sharks" but instead fill their own bellies to the full (p. 238). For Fleece, civility is impossible in this individualistic world of shark against shark. In contrast to theories establishing the supportive link between capitalism and Protestant religion, Melville uses Fleece to expose the realities of economic individualism as totally at odds with the values of Christianity. "Cussed fellow-critters," Fleece concludes in a despairing indictment Melville shares, "kick up de damndest row as ever you can; fill your dam' bellies till dey bustnd den die" (p. 239).
In opposition to both Ahab and the economic individualism of Fleece's sermon, Melville's narrator, Ishmael, comes to embody another recognizably American form of individualism: open, independent, freethinking, and challenging of orthodoxy. Ishmael has all of Ahab's philosophic depth and intensity but, unlike Ahab, he has the ability to sustain uncertainty without pressing for an absolute resolution. As a pioneering cultural anthropologist, moreover, Ishmael gradually goes against the grain of dominant American views about sexuality, religion, and race. Ishmael forms an intimate relation with Queequeg, a South Sea "savage" who takes Ishmael beyond the limits of American culture. His "stiff prejudices" loosened by a night in bed with this "comely looking," multicolored "cannibal," Ishmael experiences the "strange feelings" and the "melting in me" that link him to Queequeg and redeem Ishmael's "splintered heart" (pp. 58, 36, 56). The love between Ishmael and Queequeg is in part a tribute to Ishmael's individualism, which allows him to participate in Queequeg's non-Christian religious ceremonies, to marry Queequeg in a ritual that is a custom of Queequeg's country, and to come to an unprecedented insight about race, namely that black, not white, is the normative color, "as though a white man were anything more dignified than a whitewashed Negro" (p. 62).
Their unsublimated, culturally taboo sexuality gives their love added significance. The love between Ishamel and Queequeg does not constitute a community, but it does suggest the cohesive ties that are a necessary if not sufficient condition for a genuine community. The relation between Ishmael and Queequeg also dramatizes the sexual, religious, and racial barriers to community in America. In contrast to the mutuality between Ishmael and Queequeg, Melville further renders these barriers in his treatment of Ahab and Fedallah's relation of ambiguous domination and subordination. His handling of this relation also reinforces rather than subverts American racial and religious biases, in the case of Fedallah, deep biases against the "the tiger-yellow," demonic, non-Christian "Oriental" (pp. 181, 191). Combined with Ahab's force and Fleece's exposure of the divisive power of economic individualism, from Melville's perspective the barriers to community in America are daunting.
In Whiteness of a Different Color, Matthew Jacobson regards the racial antagonisms Melville both criticized and reinforced as central to the constitution of Irish, Polish, Slavic, Jewish, and Italian immigrants as Americans. From Jacobson's point of view, that is, these immigrant Americans achieved their sense of community as Americans by defining themselves as "white" against "dark" or "yellow" denigrated Others. In contrast to the Ishmael-Queequeg relation, the early-twenty-first-century appeal to homophobia functions to make gays the reviled Other, constituting by their despised difference the dominant community of the righteous.
In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Frederick Douglass (1818895), like Melville, brings alive a sense of American individualism, highlights the racial and religious obstacles to community, and goes beyond the confines of America to convey a sense of community. At the center of his narrative Douglass celebrates the power of love, "the loving hearts" and the special feeling he and his fellow slaves had for each other. "We were linked and interlinked with each other," he stresses. "I loved them with a love stronger than any thing I have experienced since." Not only "would we have died for each other" but also, further specifying the qualities of community, Douglass goes on to emphasize that "we never undertook to do any thing, of any importance, without a mutual consultation. We never moved separately. We were one, and as much so by our tempers and dispositions, as by the mutual hardships to which we were necessarily subjected by our condition as slaves" (p. 89).
In calling attention to "our tempers and dispositions" as distinct from the oppression of slavery, Douglass is saying he and his fellows were by nature loving and cooperative. He shares but inverts the racial essentialism of his period. For those who reject this essentialism, Douglass allows his readers to realize that the values and practices of African tribal, agrarian culture are the source of the ties he responds to. On this view Douglass fuses African practices and values with the Christian language of love to convey a unique blend, an African American slave culture as a positive model for the New World.
In his account of his crucial fight with the slave breaker Covey, Douglass achieves the same blend of the African and Christian but with redemptive violence substituting for the loving hearts of the African American slave community. As a Christian who believes that in a previous episode God has directly intervened to protect him, Douglass is reserved about the power of the root a conjure man has given him to ward off Covey's attacks. Douglass nonetheless strongly implies that the spirit that inspires him to fight back comes from the root, which is to say, from the world of African religious values and practices. This spirit reinforces and is reinforced by the imperatives of American manhood and American individualism. To live up to the prescribed code, American men must assert themselves violently against those they believe have wronged them. In Douglass's case, his action transforms him from "a brute" and "revived within me a sense of my own manhood" (p. 80). He breaks radically with his mentor, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805879), who was committed to nonviolence, just as Douglass rejects the opportunity to "turn the other cheek." Douglass instead stresses that "he only can understand the deep satisfaction I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I had never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom" (p. 81). Douglass draws on the Christian narrative of resurrection and rebirth but not here on the values of meekness and love. He combines this militant Christianity with the animating spirit of the African root and the vitalizing energy of American individualism to create a compelling and to some a threatening theology of liberation. The threat is not only the militant Christianity but also that a black man should assert his manhood through a violence typically reserved for white men.
THOREAU, TRANSCENDENTALISM, AND "RESISTANCE TO CIVIL GOVERNMENT"
From the perspective of a white New Englander who articulates the best of the values and assumptions of transcendentalist individualism, in "Civil Disobedience" or "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849), Thoreau gives his radical, nonviolent response to slavery and the related Mexican-American War. The transcendentalist movement Thoreau epitomizes was not a tightly organized group, but during the 1830s and 1840s it did bring like-minded New Englanders together, beginning in 1836 around Emerson and Frederic Henry Hedge (1805890) in the Transcendental Club and later around The Dial (1840844), which Margaret Fuller (1810850) and then Emerson edited. The Dial gave writers as different as George Ripley (1802880), Amos Bronson Alcott (1799888), and Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813892) an outlet and audience, however limitedt had three hundred subscribers. Most of those loosely associated with the movement were Harvard-trained, many of them at the Divinity School, and were in rebellion against the decorum and intellectual and emotional restraints of a Unitarianism they wanted to transform into a more spiritually and emotionally vital force. Like Emerson, they had to balance their criticism of American economic individualism and materialism with their own reliance not only on God but also on the economic system that supported them, however meagerly in the cases of, for example, Jones Very (1813880) and Amos Bronson Alcott. Their version of a divinely animated individualism led Emerson and Thoreau to keep at arm's length the communal Brook Farm experiment George Ripley conducted between 1842 and 1847 as an alternative to the economic individualism of the preivil War period. For our purposes of illuminating individualism and community in mid-century America, Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" and Orestes Augustus Brownson's (1803876) neglected "The Laboring Classes" (1840) show the movement at its most revealing and provocative.
As he explains in "Resistance to Civil Government," Thoreau withdraws his allegiance to the state and refuses to pay taxes to support a Constitution that enshrines slavery and a government that has found excuses to wage the Mexican-American War to extend slavery. He acts on his principles by going to jail and then, even more significantly, by dramatizing and deepening his protest through the play of mind, language, and values in "Resistance to Civil Government." For Thoreau, who reverses commonsense views of freedom, the prison house is "the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor" (p. 235). Thoreau celebrates "the individual as a higher and independent power" (p. 245) than the state. Along with Emerson and other transcendentalists, Thoreau assumes that "it is not so important that many should be as good as you, as there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump" (p. 230). He also assumes that through principled action, the individual can bring alive in the world versions of this transcendental "absolute goodness."
Behind Thoreau's ethical language of "goodness," "principle," and "right," he assumes that a transcendental divinity runs like a life-giving stream through every person and through all of existence. This divine principle is the source of and is inseparable from the ethical principle he articulates when he declares that
action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with any thing which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; aye, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine. (Pp. 23233)
"It is essentially revolutionary" because through the act of the inspired individual the divinehe essentialnters into and transforms both the individual and the world of ordinary affairs. On this view, moreover, the individual can defy community consensus and the numerical majority and constitute "a majority of one" because divinity is morally and spiritually greater than the "mass of men" who only become fully human, fully "men," when they are in touch with the divinity within (pp. 234, 228). Although not doctrinally Protestant, Thoreau and other transcendentalists nonetheless reveal the familiar paradox of Protestant individualismor them, too, the radical independence of the inspired individual is inseparable from reliance on divinity.
Although his transcendentalist version of individualism leads him in practice and theory to be wary of the group involvement associated with community, Thoreau recognizes and is the beneficiary of his grounding in the small, relatively cohesive community of Concord, Massachusetts. He relies heavily on the value-charged word "neighbor" as a check on arbitrary, inhumane action and as imposing on the Thoreauvian individual the duty to treat others in the community "as a neighbor and well-disposed man," a duty and set of obligations not easy to fulfill (p. 234). If they fulfill these obligations, however, Thoreau argues for the right of a few to live apart from society as responsible, morally and spiritually questing individuals. At the same time, Thoreau, like Melville, satirizes the economic individualism that prevails in his society of merchants and landowners. Thoreau uses his wit and eye for the telling detail and phrase to expose the contradiction between the moral, religious, and democratic values he shares with his contemporaries and the values and practices of the possessive individualism that leads people to ignore the wounds to their conscience and to "postpone the question of freedom to the question of free trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both" (p. 230).
ORESTES BROWNSON'S "THE LABORING CLASSES"
Although works like "Resistance to Civil Government," Walden, and Emerson's essays are famous for awakening the reader, Orestes Brownson's lesser-known "The Laboring Classes" is the most politically radical statement of the American transcendental movement. Brownson stays true to his origins on a poverty-stricken Vermont farm, or as he puts it, he was "born and reared in the class of proletaries; and . . . [has] merely given utterance to their views and feelings" (p. 443). In a transcendentalist discourse that knows about money, merchants, and farmers but avoids class, Brownson's class awareness is as remarkable as his speaking from the inside, for those who do the hard manual work of society. He sees society as a system in impending crisis, a society unequally divided between, in his words, owners and operatives, between businessmen and labor, between "Merchants and Manufacturers,anded capital and commercial capital" and "labor" (p. 437).
For Brownson, class strugglehe "struggle between the operative and his employer, between wealth and labor"s inevitable in the system of possessive individualism. Brownson is clear that reform will not work, that the "evil we speak of is inherent in all our social arrangements, and cannot be cured without a radical change of those arrangements" (p. 439). In what he calls the prevailing "system," "the whole class of simple laborers are poor, and in general unable to procure anything beyond the bare necessities of life" (p. 438). Changing managers, he points out, will not change the system. Addressing the usual argument of American individualism, that the talented individual will rise on his own, Brownson admits it but stresses that, although individual laborers can rise above their fellows, the laboring class as a whole will continue to exist, the inadequate price of labor will continue to be set by the employers, and the resulting inequality will continue to thwart "that equality between man and man, which God has established between the rights of one and those of another" (p. 438).
He calls specifically for legislation "which shall free government, whether State or Federal, from the control of the Banks" because the banks always favor "the business community" and "are the natural enemies of the laboring class" (p. 441). Brownson also insists on getting rid of "the hereditary descent of property" to correct the anomaly that some are born rich and some poor (p. 441). Whereas other transcendentalists eventually came to support the emancipation of the slave, Brownson is committed "to emancipate the proletaries" (p. 439). Although he "recoils with horror" at the prospect, he recognizes that this emancipation will not come peacefully, that "the rich, the business community, will never voluntarily consent to it," and that "it will be effected only by the strong arm of physical force" (p. 442). No wonder Brownson's "The Laboring Classes" has been marginalized.
WHITMAN'S "SONG OF MYSELF"
Instead of focusing on divisive class conflict, the threat of violent change, and the economic inequity built into the system of possessive individualism, in his signature poem, "Song of Myself " (1855), Walt Whitman (1819892) celebrates the individualI celebrate myself"nd brings alive a democratic America and a vital universe (p. 675). For Whitman, the "I" of his poem embodies possibilities that may be shared and realized by all who are liberated by his free-verse rhythms and his vision of a diverse America and an expanding universe. Like Thoreau and Emerson, Whitman believes in an energizing spirit running through individuals and all of existence. Unlike Thoreau and Emerson, however, for Whitman what resolves the paradox of the one and the many and establishes that "there was never any more inception than there is now, . . . And will never be any more perfection that there is now, Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now"he guarantee is the "urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world," the animating, sexualized energy that is both like and shockingly unlike the unifying spirit premised by his great contemporaries (p. 676).
For the Whitman of "Song of Myself," it is not logic or even Thoreau's "action from principle" but instead the existential experience of sexual communion that validates his belief that there is "Always a knit of identity . . . always distinction . . . always a breed of life," such that the individual is at once distinct and merged, the "knit of identity" experienced in sexual consummation (p. 676). To develop the insight, Whitman presents a strikingly rendered love scene, probably between two men, on the summer grass, a scene during which
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.
At the climax, "swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth" (p. 678). The experience leads Whitman to affirm that for him an unsublimated love is the central unifying keel of existence, connecting him as brother and lover to all the men and women ever born (p. 679). This is a unique version of American individualism, a culturally radical celebration of the individual connected to the rest of humanity. Whitman's unorthodox vision of cohesion is a crucial alternative to the loneliness and isolation often resulting from America's unfettered individualism, a view Jay Grossman extends to Whitman's 1860 "Calamus" poems.
In the more public, less personal sections of "Song of Myself," Whitman celebrates the ordinary people and activities of preindustrial America. His generally egalitarian America of small landowners, fur traders, carpenters, journeymen, sailors, fancymen, and housewives is not marked by the class conflict Brownson highlights, by the conflicts about race and slavery Douglass addresses, or by the regional, economic, and racial conflicts of the impending Civil War. Whitman instead draws on and brings America to the test of its egalitarian ideals and the democratic possibilities available in his period. Implicitly and explicitly he calls on the reader to bring alive what he sees as the real America. He recognizes but rejects the tight, competitive individualism of those who "feed the greed of the belly" in a process of "many sweating and ploughing and thrashing, and then the chaff for payment receiving, / A few idly owning, and they the wheat continually claiming" (p. 725). In contrast, for Whitman "whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral, dressed in his shroud" (p. 734).
For Whitman a degree of economic and social inequality exists but it is not systemic. He more often uses parallel structure to give a grammatical basis to his belief in an underlying equality, to his view that, as in one of his many remarkable sequences, the bride, the opium eater, the prostitute, and the president are of equal value (p. 689). This sequence and others like it play on and subvert the conventional social hierarchy in the service of Whitman's egalitarian vision. If anything, Whitman inclines to the ordinarily rejected and despised, to "the democracy" in the old sense of the unwashed and the ungrammatical:
I speak the password primeval. . . . I give the sign of democracy;
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
Through me many long dumb voices, . . .
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs, . . .
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised,
Of fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of dung.
Although his panoramas and catalogues are often based on nineteenth-century genre paintings and are both vivid and nonthreatening, as he does with the prostitute and the balls of dung, Whitman also enacts a defiant nonconformity that repeatedly offends conventional religious, sexual, and social orthodoxy. Cumulatively in the course of "Song of Myself," as in lines like "You sea, . . . / Cushion me soft . . . rock me in billowy drowse, / Dash me with amorous wet. . . . I can repay you" or "Thruster holding me tight and that I hold tight! / We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other," Whitman succeeds in conveying an unintimidated individualism in touch with ordinarily repressed sexuality, frequently conventionally suspect male-to-male sexuality (p. 696). He does the same with bodily processes typically excluded from polite discourse and major poetry, as in such controversial passages as
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
. . . Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
Although his defiant individualism can be disruptive, in the absence of acknowledged or rendered institutional ties, in the world of "Song of Myself," as bard, as the creator of the narratives and images that unify the nation, the "I" of the poem also holds together the diverse individuals, activities, occupations, and regions Whitman lovingly, precisely records. They flow into him and out to the abundance, subtlety, and extremity of the poem. Whitman appeals to the reader to complete the poem and to bring into full existence the vibrant self, country, and universe he presents. His legacy is the energy, the unchastened individualism, and the unifying power he attributes to the cohesive, unorthodox, sexualized love at the center of "Song of Myself."
See also Democracy; Labor; Moby-Dick; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; Reform; "Resistance to Civil Government"; "Song of Myself"; Transcendentalism
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Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. 1845. New York: Signet, 1997.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851. Edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2002.
Thoreau, Henry David. "Resistance to Civil Government." 1849. In Walden and Resistance to Civil Government: Authoritative texts, Thoreau's Journal, Reviews, and Essays in Criticism. 2nd ed. Edited by William Rossi, pp. 22645. New York: Norton, 1992.
Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself." 1855. In The Complete Poems. Edited by Francis Murphy, pp. 67538. New York: Penguin, 1977. Quotations are from the original untitled 1855 version of the poem Whitman later revised, somewhat tamed, and titled "Song of Myself."
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