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'Leaves of Grass' The Individual and The American Nation

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is an exemplar collection of poetry that encompasses all facets in what breeds humanity as subsists in the material world. As one of the most revered American texts in history, Whitman’s poetry acts as an instrument to highlight the similar nature between the mind and the body whilst celebrating what it means to be human, bringing an emphasis on sensuality, something that remained taboo during the mid-1800s. The works of Michael Sowder and other scholarly texts will benefit the development of distinguishing the functioning of this relationship by discerning Whitman as a writer and a creator. Through his language and abandonment of rigid poetical structure, the speaker can form a contradictory relationship with the American nation and us as readers. In the chosen passage, the speaker dwells on the unity they share with other citizens and sets himself up as more of a preaching character, bestowing his wisdom and calling to others as his worshippers. Henceforth, such relations between the poetic orator and American state are of contrasting classification, unable to commit between the humble citizen and the great deity presented.

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The speaker encompasses a sense of unity to rouse its readers from the societal decline and low morale amid the Civil War. Its assuaging agency establishes a nationalistic lens that highlights the solid patriarchal relationship between the individual and America. As one of the paramount artefacts of American Literature, Leaves of Grass has been essential in encapsulating the material world and illustrating the body and mind in a manner that shifts away from Romanticism. In the allocated passage, the speaker rejoices by claiming, “this is the city…and I am one of its citizens” (Whitman, p. 49); through the first-person perspective, the reader feels they are spoken to directly. The speaker so eloquently trounces any barriers by empowering his surroundings and mentioning that he is a citizen of the city. Such inclusive language extends to the mentioning of mundane activities such as “factories, markets, stocks and stores…”, and “sweating and ploughing” (Whitman, p. 49). This is the life of the majority of the American populace where hard work must be applied to assume one’s desire in life, even if it is as simple as putting food on the table for their families or sustaining hard labour.

Whitman always strived to discover ways to value “the self without de-valuing others” (Folsom 2008, p. 3). He does this by echoing the idea that all men are created equal, a powerful statement cemented in the United States Declaration of Independence. Such conception evidences when the speaker claims “whatever interests the rest, interests me” (Whitman 1855, p. 49); there is no dissent nor semblance of apathy in this deliverance, only an assemblage of words that functions as a bridge between Whitman and the readers to whom he celebrates, despite their humdrum entity. As Folsom postulates, Whitman “defined the yin and yang of American political life”, bestowing his wisdom through his ideals of what it is to be free and moral, etching his footsteps in American history, all while attributing to its construction (2008, p. 3). Henceforth, Whitman elucidates the robust interrelation between the speaker and the nation of America by celebrating the individual as a mundane piece to a national puzzle that cannot be complete without the contribution of others, substantiating equality as a core value.

Whitman’s acute religious background and exposure to universal ardour enabled him to persuade readers and potentially convert them, using a range of “rhetorical strategies employed by evangelists” (Sowder 2005, p. 2) to connect the mind and body through deified imagery and voice. The speaker and the American community are not only connected through means of material life but spirituality throughout the text, exploring a sensuality within the nation as a means to honour it and permit its prospering. The manner of our speaker can be stylised as an orator or preacher by which he commands “come my children, come my boys and girls” (Whitman 1855, p. 49); reflecting Whitman’s youth where he desired to be an orator, even participating in a study (Sowder 2005, p. 2). He deifies himself by calling to his ‘children’ as would God, asserting a divine dominance over his readers and in some instances contradicting the idea that was earlier fleshed out; equality amongst individuals. “Whitman built his poetry and a good deal of his prose on maintaining the contractions and setting up a dynamic between the individual and the en masse” (Sowder 2005, p. 2). Such biblical allusion contradicts the unity portrayed throughout the myriad of stanzas, raising questions as to whether or not the relationship between the speaker and nation is on comparable grounds or mirrors that of the bible, where God’s being is the all-mighty creator with humans confined beneath his sanctity.

Additionally, when referring to the sensual nature of Leaves of Grass, we must consider the roles of the reader and speaker. In this instance, the speaker embodies the dominant role, and the reader is the submissive. When Whitman calls to his children, he calls to us, substantiating a metaphorical pedestal where the power dynamic between the speaker and nation members is significantly fractured. This is achieved by utilising “my” when referring to the women, boys, and girls, exerting a sense of ownership.