The transcendentalist movement is a school of thought that emerged in the early nineteenth century. A response to rationalism and based on European romanticism, transcendentalism is centered around the idea that “[p]eople, men and women equally, have knowledge about themselves and the world around them that ‘transcends’ or goes beyond what they can see, hear, taste, touch or feel,” (Ushistory). This often relates strongly to accounts of divinity or absolute faith in one’s own intuition. Many transcendentalists believe that there is inherent good in humanity. In 1836, an association formed in New England known as the “Transcendentalist Club.” with a number of notable authors participating. What’s surprising is that each of these authors contributed to a tradition of heavily nationalizing literature; each has their own way of conveying ideologies which are easy to follow, but difficult to justify.
Spearheading the movement and participants in the club were authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Henry David Thoreau. Each had their own take on the philosophy, but wrote notably about self-reliance, calling for America to begin to establish its own identity as a people and a nation. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, early transcendentalists “…departed from orthodox Calvinism in two respects: they believed in the importance and efficacy of human striving, as opposed to the bleaker Puritan picture of complete and inescapable human depravity; and they emphasized the unity rather than the “Trinity” of God,” (Goodman). “Song of Myself” demonstrates this by creating a persona of Walt Whitman that attempts to both separate himself from the widely-accepted social narrative (not unlike Emerson’s version of non-conformity) while also preaching an inherent unity that allows him to claim the suffering of others as his own. Burton Hatlen, an American poetry critic, writes,
“However, the play of unlimited semiosis within Whitman’s language, the drive of that language toward a glorious self-immolation and/or an unlimited semiosis–and the two may be the same thing–runs up against a powerful counter-impulse, which operates at the level of theme: an impulse to find a unitary “meaning” within or behind the multiplicities of experience,” (2).
Essentially, Hatlen notes a parallel between Whitman’s unrestrained impulse to signify anything as he sees fit and his self-proclaimed martyrdom, both drawing the reader to a conclusion that there is a baseline to the human experience; a connectedness which pervades social and societal separation.
An undergraduate class attending Plymouth State University conducted a close reading of the text and, unlike some scholars, found there to be a benevolence in it, and contrasted that with other pieces of nationalizing literature. One student writes, “[Song of Myself] relates to Self-Reliance (by Ralph Waldo Emerson) but is way more sincere and real-life. It’s like a better self-reliance because it’s more about self-understanding and self-acceptance than self-indulgence and self-righteousness.” What’s being addressed in this student’s case is the focus on identity and the presentation of independence as an option rather than a necessity, creating a more palatable read than Emerson’s bold, arguably forceful style. The general consensus of the class- during open discussion- seemed to be that the poem was not as sinister as other pieces they’d seen.
There is, however, an undeniable “Americanness” in the piece. Until 1881, it was called “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American.” Within the title itself, he’s asserting two aspects of his identity: his name and his nationality. If Whitman was attempting to establish a kind of American individualism, it may have been because of the rapidly dividing nation on the brink of a civil war. Marc Mancinelli writes,
“Whitman’s task was to reconcile the vast chasm of difference between black and white, slave and master, working class and wealthy, man and woman, and the host of other divisions that plagued antebellum America,” (2).
This may have been the benevolence that the undergraduates were sensing. There are problematic ways in which the piece entices the audience into believing and accepting the ideologies present, but the ideology itself is not inherently evil or sinister.
Goodman, Russell. “Transcendentalism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 6 May 2017, plato.stanford.edu/entries/transcendentalism/.
Hatlen, Burton. “The Many and/or the One: Poetics versus Ideology in Whitman’s `Our Old Feuillage’ and `Song of..” ATQ, vol. 6, no. 3, Sept. 1992, p. 189. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9604260194&site=ehost-live&authtype=sso&custid=plymouth.
Mancinelli, Marc. “The Poet of the Merge: Creation Of American Identity and Post-Imperialist Nationalism Through the Poetry of Whitman.” Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/865704/The_Poet_of_the_Merge_Creation_Of_American_Identity_and_Post-Imperialist_Nationalism_Through_the_Poetry_of_Whitman.
“Transcendentalism, An American Philosophy.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association, www.ushistory.org/us/26f.asp.