Song of Myself: Individuality and Free Verse

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Forged in the fire of revolution and defined by manifest destiny, America has always been the land of the individual. Although the American dream has not always been consistent, (married with 2.5 kids, 2 cars, a dog and a satisfying job), the spirit of innovation, individuality and progress remains unchanged. The father of free verse, and perhaps the American perspective of poetry, Walt Whitman embodies these values in his life and work. First published in 1855 in Leaves of Grass, "Song of Myself" is a vision of a symbolic "I" enraptured by the senses, vicariously embracing all people and places from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. Sections 1 and 2, like the entirety of the piece, seek to reconcile the individual and the natural world in an attempt to uncover the individual's humanity.

Born near Huntington, New York, Whitman was the second of a family of nine children. His father was a carpenter. The poet had a particularly close relationship with his mother. When Whitman was four years old, his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he attended public school for six years before being apprenticed to a printer. Two years later he went to New York City to work in printing shops. He returned to Long Island in 1835 and taught in country schools. In 1838 and 1839 Whitman edited a newspaper, the Long-Islander, in Huntington. When he became bored with the job, he went back to New York City to work as a printer and journalist. There he enjoyed the theater, the opera, and the libraries. Whitman wrote poems and stories for popular magazines and made political speeches, for which Tammany Hall Democrats rewarded him with the editorship of various short-lived newspapers. For two years Whitman edited the influential Brooklyn Eagle, but he lost his position for supporting the Free-Soil party. After a brief sojourn in New Orleans, Louisiana, he returned to Brooklyn, where he tried to start a Free-Soil newspaper (Academy of American Poets). During the Civil War Whitman served as a nurse and his contact with the atrocities of battle later proved to be a driving force in his desire to bring people together in harmony (Ott 1774). After the war, he held various jobs, including government clerk and homebuilder. But it was the decade before the war in which Whitman made the switch between rhymed verse and the radically new, free verse he has so greatly influenced. Leaves of Grass, in its original printing was the first product of that change.

Due to Whitman's glorification of the senses and intimate exploration of the human body, he was forced to publish the 1st edition of Leaves of Grass with his own resources (Academy of American Poets). Also notable was the absence of any note on the cover identifying Walt Whitman as the author. Instead, engraved on the front is a portrait of Whitman, hat cocked, nonchalant and intimately personal. In his preface, Whitman heralds the coming of a new democratic literature, one that forms a "commensurate with the people" (preface). Whitman saw his poetry not only as a creation of the self, but indeed a piece of the self and a reflection of American society as a whole (Mulcaire 471). Whitman purposely left the cover unmarked because he regarded his poetry as a binding and universal understanding of which he was not the proprietor, but merely a participant in. More central to Whitman's purpose was his view of the poem as a means expressing his "self" in universal terms. Because of his background in the high volume production of literature, Terry Mulcaire theorizes that Whitman saw the mass distribution of his poetry as a means of universalizing an intimacy with his world:

(W)e are now part of a living crowd who see the same "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," the same poem, the same book, the same product of an industrial culture that generations of readers have experienced. (Mulcaire 473)

The intended result is that the person that Whitman, in this "commodification,"...
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