Fern’s defense of Whitman

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One of the ideas I encountered in writing my second essay was the difficulty emerging female writers, especially those with controversial opinions, must encounter upon confronting the fact that female silence is immortalized in the literary tradition. Though there would have been many notable women writers in the canon by the time Fern published her work (loved reading her, by the way!), I imagine that the historical predominance of male writers would have been heavily on her mind in writing ‘“Leaves of Grass.”’ I found it notable that, in the opening lines of the piece, Fern tells Whitman that the “effeminate world needed [him]” (896). In reading “Song of Myself,” I was similarly impressed with the degree to which Whitman transcends patriarchal norms, calling himself “maternal as well as paternal” and claiming that “his] voice is the wife’s voice” (1323, 1339). In his willingness to claim the personas of wife and mother as part of his masculine self, Whitman subverts the assumption that men are entirely separate from and superior to women. Fern celebrates this equalization by quoting a similar, if more blatant, excerpt taken from Whitman’s “A Woman Waits for Me”  as her conclusion to her piece.

Though the backlash Whitman faced from critics for “Leaves of Grass” was (as far as I am aware) consciously responding to its overt sexual themes and descriptions of the body, as well as its homosexual undertones, I wonder if Whitman’s embrace of femininity may have influenced the collection’s negative reception. Fern seems to think so. In her repeated invocation of “sensuality?,” Fern seems to argue that critics are unduly attributing lasciviousness to descriptions of human physicality and intimacy in “Leaves of Grass.” Importantly, however, by comparing the condemnation of “Leaves of Grass” to “[shrouding] the eyes of the nursing babe lest it should see its mother’s breast,” Fern faults critics, not for their sexualization of the work as a whole, but for the sexualization of women in particular (897). This idea is furthered by Fern’s insistence that critics recognize Whitman’s view of women as “the bearer of the great fruit” (897). By responding to critic’s claims of the work’s “vulgarity” with a  reassertion of the non-sexual value of women, Fern again suggests that critics condemn “Leaves of Grass” on the basis of the work’s embrace of specifically female sexuality. I’m not quite sure what to make of this given that I interpreted many of the more sexual passages from “Song of Myself” as reflective of Whitman’s own sexuality rather than female sexuality, but I suppose it is unsurprising that the public would have been more uncomfortable with women’s sexuality than men’s sexuality, and this discomfort would have been reflected in the critical reception of “Leaves of Grass.” 

Men in Fanny Fern

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Fanny Fern’s extremely feminist works were refreshing to read, especially as the first work we’ve read this semester written by a woman. While she spends a lot of time exploring how women can and should act within a patriarchal system in order to earn some agency for themselves, I found particularly interesting how she discusses sexism, specifically the attitudes and beliefs that she claims men hold about women.

At the very end of “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony,” Fern addresses the thanklessness of the labor women did in the home, saying that regardless of what they do, “your husband will marry again, and take what you have saved to dress his second wife with” (895). The husband, according to Fern, views the wife as interchangeable. No amount of her hard work will save her from that fate, but rather allow him to perpetuate the cycle with slightly more comfort when he inevitably finds a new wife. She at once highlights and rebukes the way that men take advantage of and discredit women’s labor through her incisive commentary.

She discusses in “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books” how fickle men’s opinions of women are. She spends the first paragraph describing a number of trivial reasons the male reviewer would have chosen to discredit women’s writing overall, including that he “has come up without the refining influence of mother, or sister, or reputable female friends” or that “he has been refused by some pretty girl, as he deserved to be,” and she explicitly calls his response “shallow criticism (?)” (899). Fern discredits the reviewer’s reaction by asserting that he bases his opinion on irrelevant and extraneous details, but details that nonetheless make up his opinion of “a woman’s thoughts.” His perspective means he can inherently make only “shallow criticisms” of women, and Fern incisively calls attention to that fact, thus undermining not just the credibility of this reviewer, but all reviewers who make similar comments about women’s novels.

Critiques on American Society

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Under the pseudonym Fanny Fern, Sarah Willis Parton used a “light touch to explore such difficult issues as gender inequalities in marriage, divorce law, prison reform, woman’s suffrage, and the struggles of the working poor” (892). Particularly in “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony,” “Hungry Husband,” “Fresh Leaves, by Fanny Fern,” and “A Law More Than Just,” we can notice how Fern criticizes the social construct built against women in America.

As I was reading, I found “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony” and “Hungry Husband” quite interesting to read as Fern was able to criticize issues on marriage. Her writing on marriage was significant during this period, where marriage was an expectation women had to fulfill. In “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony,” Fern criticizes marriage and warns women of the future consequences they may face from their marriage. She describes matrimony as a “humbug” and that “its the hardest way on earth of getting a living. You never know when you work is done” (894-895). She effectively argues the cons of marriage through examples of how the husband would behave after marriage and the lack of freedom one has. In addition, “Hungry Husband” aids in the fact that the husband within the marriage holds a lot of power within the household. Hence, the only way to propose something is by cooking. As Fern states, “the straightest road to a man’s heart is through his palate” (895). She advocates for married women to use their cooking skills to obtain what they want and skillfully portrays a solution to outsmart their husbands. Hence, reading “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony” and “Hungry Husband,” we can notice gender inequalities in marriage and how women must fight for a say through self-reliance.

In addition to how Fern wrote about the issues of marriage, there were a couple of quotes that I found interesting as they explicitly stated the stigma and problems women had to face. In “Fresh Leaves, by Fanny Fern,” “Woman never was intended for an irritant: she should be oil upon the troubled waters of manhood—soft and amalgamating, a necessary but unobtrusive ingredient;—never challenging attention—never throwing the gauntlet of defiance to a beard, but softly purring beside it lest it bristle and scratch” (900). This statement reinforces traditional gender roles where people expect women to be passive and submissive. But despite so, Fern goes against the general lady style of writing and remains popular amongst her readers, indicating the power to go against social construct. In “A Law More Nice Than Just,” she states “What a fool I was not to think of it—not to remember that men who make the laws, make them to meet all these little emergencies” (901). She criticizes the laws created by men and argues that women can change the laws while promoting awareness of unfair, gender-biased laws. She states that the only thing that women from doing what they want is their gender, portraying discrimination against gender.

Throughout her writings, she primarily focuses on women’s rights and is skillful at addressing her perspective while critiquing American society. As a result, her ability to explicitly mention prevalent and sensitive issues that women faced rather than mentioning them roundaboutly could be one of the reasons why she was popular amongst her readers.

Fanny Fern

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I really enjoyed reading all the pieces by Sarah Willis Parton or her pseudonym Fanny Fern. She has a really unique style and tone that I was not expecting, especially given the time period she is writing in. She writes about critical social issues of her time, especially in regard to feminism. The first two pieces we read by Fern, “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony” and Hungry Husbands,” I actually found pretty comical because she writes in a very satirical way. What makes it funny, though, is what she is saying is true. In “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony,” she gives a long speech to these girls about marriage only to acknowledge at the end that there was really no need for her to give the speech in the first place because the girls were going to get married regardless. I think this piece serves as a warning to young women about issues with love and marriage. I also think it serves as a critique of how marriage functions at the time. It is clear from her advice that women are a part of the marriage merely to serve their husbands, and even when they think they might get something in return from the man, they are ignored. 

This idea continues in “Hungry Husbands.” This piece is also comical and continues to comment on the husband-wife dynamic in marriage at the time. In this piece, I think it is interesting how Fern portrays husbands. Fern paints the man as childlike until he is fed and that he will be a savage until he is no longer hungry. She also gives advice to women in this piece, starting with the first line, “the straightest road to a man’s heart is through his palate” (895). She is suggesting that women can then outsmart their husbands by asking for things once they are eating and to “strike while the iron is hot” (895). While Fern is commenting on the unbalanced marriage power dynamic that is stereotypically in the man’s favor, she is advising women to use their roles to their advantage in any way they can. 

The collective unconscious

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In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman focuses more narrowly on that interconnectedness between people that is so central to “Song of Myself,” using the continual passage of the ferry to reflect the patterned, unchanging nature of experience. The narrator refers to the “impalpable substance” of himself, describing this self as “disintegrated” among “all things” (1364). Like Emerson, Whitman seems to decentralize the concept of self, instead illuminating some innate intertwining of his experience with the experience of all other people and things. Though Whitman’s work in part defines the new American poetic tradition, it strikes me that his philosophy of the self aligns less with that overtly Western individualism and more with that Eastern conception of the self, which denies the existence of one independent entity. 

Much of Whitman’s understanding of the interconnectedness of human experience, as exhibited in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” reminded me of the psychological theory of Carl Jung, who was heavily influenced by Eastern religions (if anyone knows more about Jung and wants to add anything to this, please elaborate!– This is based on what I’ve learned in my counseling psychology class). Jung’s analytic psychology describes an aspect of the psyche he terms the “collective unconscious.” According to Jung, as the human body contains a biological record of the evolutionary past, the mind is also unknowingly privy to a store of historical understanding. Jung viewed this shared unconsciousness as responsible for similar themes and interpretations that arise in different cultures across the world and across time. Whitman seems to acknowledge a universal experience similar to Jung’s collective unconscious, proclaiming that everything he has seen, felt, and thought “were to [him] the same as they are to you” (1365). I wonder how this collective mentality, which given the popularity of Whitman’s (and Emerson’s) work, seems to resonate with American readers, has become so lost from our modern culture. Why did Whitman feel this oneness so strongly?

Though the poem feels very un-American in its esteem for collectivism, the tone of authority, and even sanctity, with which Whitman describes this shared experience imbues the work with an element of individual pride. He seems to have a prophetic, God-like vision of his ability to connect with readers “scores or hundreds of years” in the future, revealing an assumption that his work will continue to be read and interpreted. One could argue that Whitman’s usage of the second-person “you” is intended to more metaphorically address other people as a collective, including those who preceded him. However, Whitman’s assertion that he “consider’d long and seriously of [us] before [we] were born” supports the idea that Whitman is addressing future readers (1366). There is a certain arrogance to this assumption that suggests that Whitman recognized the power of his writing and predicted its importance (and that also feels quite American).

An intriguingly arrogant bird poem

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Birds and poems from the nineteenth century are no strangers to each other, but “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” still managed to surprise me. I’m used to Whitman breaking all of the era’s poetic rules when it comes to form and topic, but it was still interesting to see him lean into a common, almost trope-y topic — birds and birdsong — and then write almost the exact opposite of what the bulk of his predecessors did. I write “bulk” in order to not be too exclusionary, since I haven’t read every pre-Whitman poem, but I can’t think of a single counterexample right now.

Every other bird poem I’ve read has been a celebration of the wild, raw beauty of birds and birdsong, standing in for nature itself. So many of the Romantics wrote poems in which they went out into the woods, listened to the birds sing, and contemplated it as a sort of poetry beyond our understanding. Some are overtly metaphorical; others seem to actually involve the poet crawling around in bushes and admiring birds; but Whitman devotes nearly a hundred lines to directly quoting what he thinks the birds are saying, which I believe to be unprecedented. It isn’t merely that he’s conveying the topic of the bird’s song — he’s putting direct, first-person words into the bird’s beak, implying that he is capable of fully understanding that sublime beauty of nature. Then, even more striking, he insists that the bird’s singing inspired within him “a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours”. He places his own poetic abilities above the bird, which might be true, but is also definitely novel. I suspect that the likes of Percy Shelley would have found this poem evidence of Whitman’s conceit and arrogance.

Sex and Sexuality in Whitman’s Writing

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I really enjoyed Walt Whitman’s poem “From Pent-Up Aching Rivers” because of the sort of double entendre it proposes. From the start, the imagery of “aching rivers,/ From that of myself” (2) juxtaposes the similarities between the water that flows in nature and the blood that courses in human veins. In all of Whitman’s work, he seems very interested in the human condition and experience. This is evident in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where Whitman reflects joyfully on the ways in which all generations of humans are connected.

It seems to me that he thought often and deeply about the interconnectedness of humanity, especially through reproduction. Whitman is aware of the need to reproduce: after all, he is “singing the song of procreation/ singing the need of superb children and therein superb grown people” (7). Whitman was condemned for his open discussion of the pleasures of sex, so I believe he hoped that, going forward, parents would raise their children not to believe that sex is taboo or unnatural. I wonder what Whitman would have thought about the dull romance of The Last of the Mohicans, which was written only about 35 years before Children of Adam. While there certainly is a lot of love and romance in Cooper’s novel, the author alludes to all the passion. Perhaps the novel would’ve benefited from Whitman’s elegant description.

The river in and of itself is a great image to convey sex. Rivers can be fertile and rich, feeding animals and allowing things to grow. They can move quickly or slowly. They are passageways to new destinations and opportunities. Readers would not shame this description of nature without knowing its erotic undertones.

Since we talked a lot in class about how Whitman might have been gay, I was interested in how gendered his description of love and sex is in the poem. He writes, “the female form approaching, I pensive, love-flesh tremulous aching/ the divine list for myself or you or for any one making” (24). While of course Whitman might not be the speaker in this poem, it struck me as the first Whitman poem I had read that is not open for interpretation on the basis of sexuality. I think his description is beautiful: “the oath of the inseparableness of two together, of the woman that loves/ me and whom I love more than my life, that oath swearing, (O I willingly stake all for you” (33). His language is intense and emotional.

Similarity with Emerson and Contradictions

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Whitman’s central idea in Song of Myself include the objective of the idea of the self. From the very beginning in sections 1-3 he provides the idea that the reader has an active participation in the poetic experience. Introduced into the ambience of the poem it must be something distinguishably alive and take its own flow. In today’s modern reading and literature we would say that the one who reads must have criteria, that reading is feeling and thinking. The book is only the record of an act of creation that in our hands must be transformed into a second act of creation by the force of our own spirit. From this thinking, we can see that Whitman has similar thoughts as Emerson. 

Emerson in “The American Scholar” and in “Self-Reliance” explains that the individual must not always rely on the content from the books, but the ideas that are generated by the reader when experiencing the lecture. Whitman in Song of Myself , continues this by letting the reader have the freedom to take in what they want to learn as he continues the poem, although at the start he begins by saying “what I assume, you shall assume”, which we can observe a contradiction here. Towards the end, in section 51, Whitman asks the reader to create, to argue, to develop their own ideas when reading. The most powerful quote is when he says “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes.” 

Whitman is the very example of how he evolved himself and his individualistic ideas. For Whitman, as we have seen, he is evolving and expanding himself, and new experiences will always expand and defy what one believed earlier. Like I mentioned with the contradiction in the beginning of Song of Myself, he believed the readers should assume what he assumes, but later presets the idea of freedom of ideas and experiences. As he writes, he develops more his own ideas and thinking, and some previous ideas might have contradictions. The contradictions are opportunities that allows us to debate and defy what our older self was, and this is the idea of evolving as a thinker. We can also observe how Whitman fits the criteria of bringing his own ideas into writing although it can be filled with criticism from others. In this poem, the verse is free, without metrical rhyme, and it recalled the original structure of biblical texts, it is also filled with sex suggesting reading, and other complex ideas. Whitman created new writing and further developed new rising ideas that started to create the American identity and also American literature. 

Emerson, Whitman, and God

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It is fairly self-evident that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman are two very different kinds of authors.  One thing they seem to agree on is that there is a certain divine nature to all things.  However, what they take away from that belief is very different for the two men.

Ralph Waldo Emerson focuses on the self.  To find God, even when he is all around us, is a task taken alone, and often at the expense of your relationship with others.  It is a task taken almost entirely within the internal world.  Thoughts matter more than reality.  Ultimately, it is every man for himself in this life, so any time spent worrying about what other people think of your actions or providing service for people other than yourself with no gain is time wasted.  At least, this is how Emerson sees it.

Walt Whitman, on the other hand, focuses on others.  God is not just in everything but in everyone.  While “Song of Myself” appears very self-centered on the surface, Whitman repeatedly emphasizes that all people are connected.  It is no small leap to assume that Whitman is simply using himself as an example and that the same broad understanding could be achieved by everyone if they tried.  Additionally, the divine experience is rooted in the physical world.  Using your senses of taste, touch, smell, and even pain gives you a better understanding of God.  There is as much divinity in death as there is in sex.  All experiences, good or bad, are part of the universal human experience.  In Whitman’s estimation, anyways.

The differences between the two men comes across not just in what they are writing about but how they are writing it, as well.  An essay like Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” reads very differently from a poem like Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”  Emerson is writing to convince you that he is right.  He wants you to believe in what he believes and follow how he thinks people should live.  While Whitman also wants you to agree with him, he is far less forceful, nor is he trying to argue the point.  He is simply positing how he feels, and it is up to you if you wish to join him in exploring it.

I wonder which of them arrived at the belief first.  Certainly, Emerson’s appears in print first, but that tells us little since Whitman had been alive for quite some time before publishing Leaves of Grass.  Maybe Whitman read “Self-Reliance,” but the form that the idea takes with him is so radically different that it may as well be new.  It is entirely possible they both came to the conclusion separately.  The Great Awakening was in full effect at this time, bringing with it many new ideas about religion to the forefront.  This radical reinterpretation of God makes a lot of sense for this time period.

Sudden specificity in books 35 and 36

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For most of Whitman’s Song of Myself, he sings only partially of himself; the character of “I” flits through countless figures across the country, observing and experiencing but never fully committing. His characters are defined by their occupations, their relationships, their situations, but rarely anything more specific: never a name, never a concrete tie to a real world that exists outside of the poem.

In books 35 and 36, though, Whitman adopts the voice of the great-grandchild of a sailor under John Paul Jones, during the battle in which the Bon-Homme Richard captured HMS Serapis in 1779. That battle really happened, John Paul Jones really lived, and there are a finite number of figures that are great-grandchildren of sailors under his command during that fight. I don’t know whether or not Whitman is on that list, but it is a firm, objective list. A dedicated genealogist could probably innumerate all of possible speakers for those two books.

That battle was, of course, a seminal moment in the shaping of American identity — the disadvantaged but plucky fighter who will win by sheer force of will. By distancing his speaker from the actual sailor by means of three generations, Whitman also muddies his identity; the genealogist who manages to establish an exhaustive list of candidates must be really dedicated. The whole storyline is therefore heavily metaphorical — can’t every true-hearted American look up to John Paul Jones as a sort of father? I can see why this idea would occur to Whitman. It simply surprises me that it survived all of his revisions, given how widely it deviates from the established tone.

Whitman as a Teacher

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In “Song of Myself,” I see Whitman’s value and focus of collectivism, but described in an individualist sense. Throughout the poem, Whitman writes of many observations of nature, people, religion, and more, and how they personally relate to them. He describes these things through his own eyes and perspective and how they look to him, which gives an air of individuality. However, he also emphasizes the fleeting nature of life, how we should care for others, and the collectivity of history, culture, pain, and joy. These combined themes make for an interesting reading experience, but help sell the reader and seem to synthesize a modern tension between collectivity and individualism. 

In many instances, Whitman describes long lists of observations, and ends with how they relate to him. When discussing arctic ice, he writes “the enormous masses of ice pass me and I pass them, the scenery is plain in all directions” (1338). Here, there does not seem to be any relation or connection, but more a sense of objects/organisms fulfilling their own destinies in passing. This emphasizes the individuality of Whitman’s story and life in relation to what he sees. Towards the end of the poem, he reiterates this sentiment when he writes “not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself” (1352). This line struck me as showing how every life is unique and a journey for that person. 

Whitman also writes a lot about painful and difficult experiences for others and explains how sympathy creates a collective society. Several instances, Whitman writes of the pain of Native Americans and slaves and tries to sympathize with them. For example, he writes “I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs” (1339). Later, I understand why Whitman writes this, but I think it is a little unaware to say that you feel the pain of someone’s struggle of a life that is very hard and different from a white writer. Later, Whitman better articulates his message when he writes “I know every one of you, I know the sea of torment, doubt, despair and unbelief” (1349). From this, we see the meaning behind all of Whitman’s individual observations of life and how they relate to him. He seems to see the world in a collective sense–like a group of individuals with separate lives but feeling the same things. 

I see Whitman as a teacher in the sense that his poem is trying to promote the idea of sympathy and the fleetingness of life. I read “Song of Myself” as a message of how beautiful is it to be human, but it only becomes human when you can realize your existence alongside others. He writes “I am he bringing help for the sick as they pant on their backs, And for strong upright men I bring yet more needed help” (1346). Here, I believe he is suggesting that while he helps those who need physical help, his poem works to help enlighten those who are able to help others, and that is how I see him as a teacher. I especially see him as a teacher when he writes “But as soon as you sleep and renew yourself in sweet clothes, I kiss you with a good-by kiss and open the gate for your egress hence” (1352). I take this phrase to point towards how as soon as his readers are enlightened, he sends them on their new journey with blessing. I really enjoyed reading the second half of “Song of Myself” and how all of his pieces worked together to become somewhat of a sermon or prophetic speech.

The Soul in “Song of Myself”

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I want to take a deeper look at two of the characters that Whitman includes in his poem “Song of Myself.” The first entity that Whitman introduces is his soul on line four. He writes, “I loafe and invite my Soul;” The use of the word “invite” sticks out to me in this line as it implies that the soul is something separate from the entity writing this poem. The idea that the soul is “invited in” contributes to Whitman’s construction of this entity as something that is not a part of any one individual, but something that connects individuals to each other and to the natural world. Another entity that Emerson introduces in his poem is the “Me myself.” The “Me myself” is described as Whitman’s most fundamental character. It is an entity that is not concerned with day-do-day societal concerns but is very individual and subjective. The “Me myself” is a part of Whitman that he believes to be very important. This entity, along with the soul, is what allows Whitman to disengage from the worldly concerns and stresses of day-to-day life and feel at peace with the universe around him. In section 5 of the piece, Whitman asks the soul to provide him, “Not words, not music or rhyme I want—not custom or lecture, not even the best; Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.” (lines 77-78.) These lines present the image that the “hum” of the soul is something that allows Whitman to truly appreciate his connection to others and the natural world. The following lines depict an erotic engagement between Whitman and his own soul. This engagement furthers the idea that one’s soul is something that exists outside of oneself and that the relationship to one’s soul is something can yield peace and understanding in the universe. Whitman uses the characters of “the soul” and “me myself” to articulate aspects of his personality and how they connect to his notion of the universe. Though he doesn’t clearly define many of these entities in the poem, they are essential to understanding “Song of Myself” and are interesting concepts to think about.

To See the Forest for the Trees

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I was sixteen years old the first time I read the opening words of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself:” “I celebrate myself” (1, pp. 1312). What I remember about sixteen, which was just two years ago, is the feeling of some awakened consciousness. It was a year that felt singularly transitional, like a line drawing that begins to take form amidst careful shading and pressure. I started to gain awareness of my own, unique identity’s presence in a broader world, and thus amidst sixteen’s doubt, hesitance, and growth, the lines ‘I celebrate myself’ lingered.
Whitman finds liberty in his contradictions. He establishes multidimensionality as fact in lines like, “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, / Regardless of others, ever regardful of others” (330-331, pp. 1323). We are endlessly faceted and complex; a collective defines the individual as the individual defines the collective. The one is many, and the many is one. Whitman’s contradictions grant freedom from the concept that one figure or form can contain pressingly the entirety of one’s being. In inconsistencies, I saw a means to create new and varied meaning for myself rather than succumb to an already written narrative, for no solitary summary of one’s personhood exists.
In class, my teacher discussed Whitman’s ego, and the kind of vanity, narcissism, and all-consuming love it revealed. As a narrator, he emanates content and security in that which stems from his own self. His thoughts nourish him, keeping his steps sure and his aim true. My friend Rebekah and I traded Whitman’s words like gifts. She repeated to me – across her desk, sitting beneath an oak tree, in the parking lot – “I exist as I am, that is enough, / If no other in the world be aware I sit content, And if each and all be aware I sit content” (413-415, pp. 1326). In a new world of uncertain individuality and constant perception, Whitman’s poem offered peacefulness in gentle acceptance.
Throughout “Song of Myself,” Whitman takes deep breaths of all that is green: “I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven” (101-102, pp. 1316). Green is life and growth, a shaded glen and emerald eyes. Green is young and naive and aflame with spirit. In multitudes of shades and hues, it defies stagnancy; green is something alive, changing with light and season. While my friend Rebekah loves Whitman’s words, she also loves green. I think of her and I think of life, of the dancing vibrancy and sunlit glow that radiates from her in every second. I remember the vivacity to life Whitman’s work introduced to us at sixteen, and as I read Whitman now, I still think of that hopefulness. In green I see optimism and unrestricted being. I see strength in possibility, and I hold it close.

Emerson and Whitman

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We were asked to think about what passages stood out to us, and I think one of my favorite quotes from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman makes me think about Emerson. In general, I see a lot of Emerson in Whitman’s work with strains of “Nature” and “Self-Reliance.” Whitman’s work seems very focused on the present, nature, and contemporary social issues, which Emerson also wrote about. At the beginning of the poem, Whitman writes “there was never any more inception than there is now, Nor any more youth or age than there is now, And will never be any more perfection than there is now, Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now” (1314). This phrase is beautiful to me because it reminded me the value of the present. In connection to Emerson, this phrase highlights hi removal from past history and culture and emphasis on a new present culture and humanitarian connection. Whitman goes on to talk about the urges of the world, which I interpreted in present day as how fast our world is. I like Emerson and Whitman’s work a lot because they remind me to slow down and consider how beautiful it is to be human. I believe this quote by Whitman also helps to set up the rest of the poem, where he describes the world around him in relation to his life. As I was reading, I appreciated the frankness and honesty that was glaring through the pages, as if Whitman was writing with such a clear connection to himself and how he related to the world. 

We were also asked to think about how the discussion of societal issues changes throughout time and their relevance, if any, today. I was especially struck by the words that Whitman used to discuss Native Americans and people of color. I am not going to quote him, but he used words that we would deem hurtful and inappropriate to call people today. They made me think about what it means to be racist in different ages. Whitman was against slavery and deemed it abhorrent, but that does not mean he necessarily deems people of other races as his equal. Thinking slavery is bad is the bare minimum, but at Whitman’s time, the “minimum” was radical. The words Whitman used would deem him a racist today, but what does that even mean? At one point Whitman discusses a runaway slave and describes how he “went where he sat on a log and led him in and reassured him” (1319). To bestow that kindness and generosity should be lauded at a time when Whitman could get in a lot of trouble, but it is also the humane thing to do. In discussion of how issues evolve over time, maybe it is better to consider Emerson’s dislike of history and culture and start our discussion over. At the same time, it is wrong to remove past immoral acts from our discussion because that would be erasing the hurt societies have caused. In reading Whitman, I am torn between the value of the present, but I fear to completely erase the past. 

Limitations of perspective in Benito Cereno and Melville’s style

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I want to first begin looking at the main conflict and the race theme presented in this story. The narrative, “Benito Cereno” by Melville, presents an intention of ideological disassembly in relation to a critique of the protestant white North American worldview, about the capabilities and possibilities of slaves and Hispanics. Melville uses the narrative to talk about real events in different perspectives, showing the way in which a white protestant American conscience cannot understand a slave insurrection. Throughout the narrative, Captain Delano has this “white supremacy conscience” by talking about the insufficient capabilities of Benito and often describing him as weak. The same thing happens when describing the slaves, he often talks about them as inferior and in his “nature” he sees nothing wrong, or in matter of fact perceives slavery as a natural thing

With these thoughts, Captain Delano is characterize as the order and hierarchy, and cannot imagine a revolt of slaves, which limits his perspectives of slavery and strengthens his view of white hierarchy. The captain is unable to realize his real situation, his inability to detect the slave mutiny inside the ship is reflected, which is tied to an unconscious and involuntary racism, constitutive of his personality. We can also observe the perception of Captain Delano when he thinks about the slaves as animals and inferior beings, “In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to Negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs” (pg. 1542). We can observe that he thinks he has a good opinion of black people, but this is just an insane thought how he describes the people. He may have this opinion of how he is good in nature and “kind” because during the time of the narrative, a lot of slaves were abused and mistreated. This shows the constant natural thinking of Delano showing he is good, kind and better, which further enforces this idea of how Captain Delano is the embodiment of white order and supremacy. 

The writing style of Herman Melville is impactful in the way he talks about modern themes that we focus today in society. For example, his writing about race and how he talks about the different conditions of black and white people. In “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” we also observe the different treatment between men and women, and how women are treated inferior to men. He also talks about power, inequality, capitalism, identity, and the progressive thought of resistance in his writing. Melville’s writing is distinct in the way he often writes stories and narratives to compare to sides of a concept. Just like with Hawthorne and Poe, Melville also uses this “doubling effect” to write. We can see this effect in his titles, and ideas such as black vs. white, men vs. women, and all the other comparisons he mentions. It is impressive how his writing often deals with modern topics when back in his time these ideas were original, progressive and very complex concepts.