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.

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