In Whitman's poem "Song of Myself," what are the two types of identity for an American democracy, with an example of each from the poem?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Published in his volume Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is widely regarded as the most American poem to have been written. Because he edited some of the poem after the Civil War, I am going to refer exclusively to the 1855 original.

There is no obvious, direct answer to your question because Whitman never explicitly states who these two types of people are. However, one can infer that Whitman divides people according to two major classifications: the good and the bad. Whitman’s definitions for these two categories are unique: the good are those that society values and cherishes and the bad are those upon which society looks down. An example of the good is the President, while an example of the bad is a prostitute.

Whitman believes that America’s greatest strength is its diversity. In fact, Section 15 of the poem lists innumerable types of jobs or roles that exist in America, with multiple in either the “good” or “bad” category. He suggests that each person is important in a community, regardless of his or her profession or identity. At the end of this section, Whitman asserts:

And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,

And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,

And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.

Whitman believes that the key to forming a unique American identity is to glorify the self above all and to recognize that the self contains “multitudes,” as he so famously states later in the poem.

Whitman is careful not to criticize any type of American person—even the clergy, which he dislikes for their pedantic nature. He cautions people not to hate the wealthy nor the poor, not the slave nor the slaveowner. In Whitman’s imagination, America is an ideal that should strive for perfect equality, harmony, and love among its citizens.

Of course, considering that the Civil War was just around the bend, historically speaking, Whitman was trying to express the need for unity in the face of forces that were trying to turn Americans against one another.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Two types" would be far too limiting for Whitman, who sought to contain "multitudes." In "Song of Myself," he uses himself and the wonders of his own body as a focal point from which he casts his gaze outward to explore the diversity of nature, starting with the smallest blades, or "leaves," of grass, the beauty of men and women, then moving on to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the United States and the unique character of each region.

If you insist on pursuing two representations of identity in the lengthy poem, you could argue that Whitman encourages the view of a self as the base from which one approaches and identifies with others ("I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you"). So, democracy requires the recognition of a self, but a self that is connected to a communal whole.

Notable Whitman scholar, Ed Folsom, also explores American identity as a form of being that hovered between the "savage"--an agglomeration of Native American and pioneer instincts--and civilization, as represented in Eastern coastal cities and even in the hierarchical Southern slave societies, which were attempted to model Ancient Greece and Rome.

In section 16 of "Song of Myself," Whitman explores both this notion of the self in relation to the other, as well as the presences of both the "wilderness" and civilization in the American character:

One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,

A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,

A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,

A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,

A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;

At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,

At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,

At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch,

Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their big proportions,)

Whitman valorizes the United States, but in declaring it "one of the Nations of many nations," he is not elevating it above any other country, but his use of capitalization does suggest that he gives it primacy, for, he is an American with a unique love for his own country. In Whitman's view, the smallest is of equal value to the largest, which could be read as an early anti-Imperialist sentiment.

Then, he looks more closely at the nation's regional idiosyncrasies, but roots each representative--the Southern planter, the Yankee trader, the deerskin-wearing Kentuckian, the bayou boatman, and the Northern fisherman--to his particular connection to and dependency on nature, which he has adapted to meet the ends of civilization, particularly commerce, and survival.

Posted on

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial