What is characteristically American about the speaker of the poem "I Celebrate Myself, and Sing Myself" by Walt Whitman?

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Generally, Whitman is identified as projecting a specifically American persona, here and throughout his oeuvre, because of his "individualism." Though this is a valid perception, it's also something of a truism, because it's been repeated enough that the reader now wishes to find some different quality about Whitman that has not been cited or popularized to such an extent, or one that describes the essence of his aesthetic more directly.

Whitman's emphasis on the physical, especially in an era usually seen as exemplifying reticence and prudery, is one thing that sets him off from most of his contemporaries. Is this an especially American characteristic? Yes, in the sense that people who live on a frontier are closer to the soil than others. They haven't yet had the chance to become entrenched in the "finer things" of civilization. Even today many Europeans tend to view Americans as relative rustics, unpolished and unknowing. Whitman gives an impression of uninhibited physicality and even rudeness:

The sound of the belch'd words of my voice loos'd to the eddies of the wind...

Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical, I and this mystery here we stand...

Whitman gives the impression of not caring about how his words might be received—just as Americans are often thought not to care about what the rest of the world thinks of them. He is all-encompassing, embracing opposites as Blake had done, but in an even more unconventional manner than Blake's.

This antithetical quality is apparent not so much in Whitman's ideas as in his presentation of them. "Free verse" is a kind of literary analogue to the New World. In Whitman's view nearly anything can be poetry, regardless of its format. He defiantly rejects metrical structure and rhyme and sets a new course in which lack of formal constraint is now a virtue. This, too, is like the unimpeded American charge westward across the continent. Though, paradoxically, Whitman's expansive verse is also read as emblematic of American democratic and progressive values, for his verse embraces all people. In his progressivism he represents the opposite of the destructive factors that resulted from his countrymen's disregard of Native Americans and African Americans—a disregard (the word is an understatement) that unfortunately has been at the center of the concept of Americanism as well.

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The poem that begins Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself opens with the line “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” This poem seems characteristically American in a number of ways, including the following:

  • By stating, “I celebrate myself,” Whitman seems to express a typically American sense of personal optimism. The United States was a country associated with individual liberty and with the freedom to achieve as much in one’s life as one possibly could. Immigrants flooded to America in search of personal liberty and opportunity, and Whitman’s poem seems to give voice to this characteristically American optimism and desire.
  • Politically, the United States had been established as a republic, in which the importance of the individual as a source of power was stressed. By celebrating himself in this poem, Whitman doesn’t simply celebrate Walt Whitman. Instead, he celebrates the right to free expression of all persons in the United States. The United States was founded as a country in which the right to free individual expression was guaranteed by the first amendment to the Constitution. Whitman’s poem takes for granted his right to free speech.
  • The next two lines of the poem affirm a kind of spiritual equality among all individual Americans. The “self-evident truths” that all persons were created equal and that they all had the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental to the American founding and are assumed by Whitman in this poem.
  • Later Whitman speaks of himself as having been

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their 
parents the same . . .

Here he expresses a typically American pride in the American nation, which was often seen as something radically new in human history. If he went far enough back in his family tree, his ancestors could be traced to Europe, but he has no interest in tracing them to Europe. Instead, he wants to associate them with America.

  • This poem implies that Whitman himself has the right to decide how to spend his time, what to do with his life, and what “Creeds and schools” (if any) to follow. There is no sense here that he is the “subject” of any greater political power, such as a monarch, nor is there any sense that he has been born into a particular and inflexible social station from which he can never escape.
  • Finally, Whitman proclaims that he will

. . . permit to speak at every hazard, 
Nature without check with original energy.

America was often thought of as a young nation, full of energy, enthusiasm, and nearly unlimited prospects. Although the “Nature” that Whitman mentions here is probably “human nature,” the fact remains that physical “Nature” is also a major theme of Whitman’s Song, as his references to the land have already indicated. The United States was often associated with vast physical riches, such as huge geographical size, “great” lakes, vast rivers, thick forests, unending plains, and gigantic mountains. Thus it is not surprising that Whitman may already be alluding to the important role that physical nature will play in his poem.

In all these ways, then, the opening poem of Song of Myself might arguably be seen as “characteristically American.”

 

 

 

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