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. 

One thought on “Emerson and Whitman”

  1. Hi Sadie, I really like your points about Whitman’s discussion of slavery. When I was reading, I was surprised that Whitman was so blatantly racist in his writing. I thought that the racist parts of “Song of Myself” seemed so far removed from the rest of his discussion on humanity, nature, and individuality. I agree with you that it’s important to remember that Whitman shouldn’t be celebrated for merely denouncing slavery, and that his writing here demonstrates that he did not understand the gravitas of the racial climate in America at the time.

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