Walt Whitman: The Center of the American Literary Canon
Through his work in poetry, literature, and other media, Walt Whitman is often considered one of the most significant American writers and theorists. He arguably popularized all-American literature with his work, injecting American writing into an era where only genteel and European-traditionist literature was taught in college. As evident by his epic from Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself,” in which the speaker is not the voice of one man but of the common people as a whole, Whitman believed in the sameness of all men, in the natural right of diversity, in the power and strength of the democratic process, and in deism. Furthermore, Whitman’s writing style thereof successfully created an unique American character who represented people of all castes, religions, and backgrounds. Because of his captivating social expositions on the dream of “freedom” in American society and his ability through his literature to give the common American people a “voice,” Walt Whitman is considered the center of the American literary canon and the poet of democracy.
Many might say that Walt Whitman was ideologically “ahead” of his time; a progressive in an era that preceeded the progressive movement of the early twentieth century. Unlike the influential oligarchs of the Gilded Age, who bought and sold audiences and politicians at will with their massive amounts of industrial wealth, Whitman was a proponent of the power of the common man and of his influence in the democratic process; he effectively gave new meaning to the common man, through his literary works, empowering them to recognize their own significance in society. He preached confidence and individuality to his readers, “[Inculcating] the lesson of ennobling self-esteem. He [taught] the negro that ‘there is no sweeter fat than sticks to his own bones.’ He [urged] him to accept nothing that ‘insults his own soul.’ This sort of self-esteem would lead ultimately to the voicing of new literary modalities, distinctively black in origin” (56, Whitman and the Black Poet). Whitman attempted to show Afro-Americans, who at the time were living in the shackles of both racism and slavery, that their plight mattered and that although their bodies were in chains, their souls were free.
Furthermore, he elevated American literature above the ignorance of the prevalent African-American aesthetic. In modern American literature, blacks were portrayed as either helpless, heavily stereotyped, brutish, or as victims of their own fate and suffering. Whitman, however, exalted his work to a more free and open level, disregarding this common “black aesthetic” in American literature and choosing instead to portray blacks in his work as mere equals to everyone else, be it the worker, the businessman, or the curious woman. For example, in “Song of Myself”, the speaker harbors and cares for a dedicated runaway slave on a journey northwood, sitting together at the dinner table as equals while “[his] fire-lock lean’d in the corner,” (Whitman, section 10), as it would when any amicable guest was visiting. This denial of racial exclusion in his work, which Whitman was famous for and which further contrasted heavily with the blatant ignorance and racism in nineteenth-century America, is what elevated Whitman to the center of the American literature scene. He defied the literary norms of his time, subsequently inspiring blacks with his voice to find one of their own, helping create the vital genre of black American literature, which would eventually resonate with the thinkers, artists, and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Overall, Whitman overcame the literary pretensions established by the American elite by writing from the perspective of the common man, thrusting him into the spotlight as his poems inspired a new subgenre of black authors and reformed the American literary scene.
As the “poet of democracy”, Whitman wrote not as a single speaker or representation of any caste or group, but as the collective cry of all American people for the sake of their own social advancement. He embraced the very essence of American democracy – a government comprised of the people responsible for the protection of our “nation of nations” – by congregating what he believed were the woes, troubles, suffers, and desires of common Americans into a singular, uplifting, and inspirational voice. As an American epic, “Song of Myself” personifies the very structure and foundation of America and her ideals of the representation of all men. “Song of Myself” is not solely about Whitman himself, therein he follows the stories and the lives and the dreams and the struggles of many Americans, from the raving lunatic, to the lonely and lustful woman, to the farmer, the trapper, the officer, the butcher, the lawyer, the performer and the singer, the actor, the slave, the machinist, and many, many other common American people.
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