Literature scholars inevitably encounter Whitman at the commencement of any poetic exploration (Perlman 21). As proposed in the novel Walt Whitman: A Measure of His Song, every twentieth century American poet has some encounter with Whitman, and each encounter is different. “Roy Harvey Pearce, in The Continuity of American Poetry, suggests that ‘All American poetry [since Leaves of Grass] is, in essence if not substance, a series of arguments with Whitman…’ One way to understand twentieth-century American poetry is as an ongoing and evolving discussion, debate or argument with Walt Whitman,” (Perlman 22). From these discussions, scholars voice their personal opinion and interpretations regarding Whitman’s poetic intentions. One controversy that has arisen from debate stems from Whitman’s manipulation of the use of the first person. There is a scholarly belief regarding Whitman’s first person identity in his poetry as an instrument for egotistical self-promotion and celestial self-declarations. Some scholars are discouraged by his egocentric approach to writing. The scholarly view criticizes Whitman’s poetry as a proclamation of himself as a superior prophet with faux empathy for others. The novel A Life of Walt Whitman discusses how Whitman viewed his work with “undisguised pride and satisfaction. Mother-like, he eyed it as the future savior of men. He saw it prophetic and large with destiny for America… He often said in years later that Leaves of Grass was an attempt to put a happy man into literature. Others may discuss the optimism and egoism of his pages, for of both qualities there is plenty in them,” (Binns 90-91). The first essay in which I explored the distressing counter argument was in the Literary World 12 entitled “Walt Whitman’s Poems.” “American he is, of the ruder and more barbaric type, a prairie cow boy in a buffalo robe, with a voice of the east wind, shouting prophecies and incantations about what he thinks he sees and knows. But from civilized speech or melody he seems strangely remote. Egotism, if a virtue, is certainly an unfragrant one, and Walt Whitman's egotism, grotesque as it is, is perhaps less grotesque than gigantic,” (“Walt Whitman’s Poems”). The review goes onto say how the second line in the last stanza of “Song of Myself” is a perfect description and representation of himself. I too am not a bit tamed- I too am untranslatable-
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world (“Walt Whitman’s”). John Burroughs spotted Whitman’s egocentrism, however turned the conventional interpretation to paradox the notion in his book entitled Whitman: A Study. “Whitman sees him as inevitable and as immortal as God himself. Indeed, he is quite as egotistical and anthropomorphic, though in an entirely different way, as were the old bards and prophets before the advent of science. The whole import of the universe is directed to one man, --to you. His anthropomorphism is not a projection of himself into nature, but absorption of nature in himself. The tables are turned. It is not alien or superhuman beings that he sees and hears in nature, but his own that he finds everywhere. All gods are merged in himself,” (Burroughs 281). Burroughs identifies the truth at hand. Henry David Thoreau wrote in a letter dated December 7, 1856 to Harrison Blake concerning Walt Whitman in which he concluded by saying, “I find that I am not disturbed by any brag or egoism in his book. He may turn out the least braggart of all, having a better right to be confident,” (Rupp 15). My argument begins with Langston Hughes’ commentary in his essay The Ceaseless Rings of Walt Whitman regarding the identity of “self.” “One of the greatest poets of all time, Whitman’s ‘I’ is not the ‘I’ of the introspective versifiers who write always and only about themselves. Rather it is the cosmic ‘I’ of all people who seek freedom, decency, and dignity, friendship and equality between individuals and races all over the...
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