American Identity: Emily Dickinson VS Walt Whitman

Interviewer: “Would you say that the search for identity is primarily an American theme?” Ralph Ellison: “it is the American theme. The nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are”.

Gender, political, sexual and religious identity (among many others) are the pulping veins of both Emily Dickinson’s and Walt Whitman’s poetry. However, in catechizing these ideas of ‘identity’ the American identity is formed and becomes the heart of it all. Both these outstanding new age poets undertake a search for either an anti- or pro- western distinctiveness; and in the quest, they encounter the barriers of culture, class and a broader conflict with their existence. While both writers challenge society by deviating from their contemporary conventions thus distinctively abstracting their identities from the norm, they are also very different in style. While Dickinson lies internally in her consciousness, concerning questions about the body politics and private truths, Whitman’s focus is predominantly on socio politics and American exceptionalism.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) has come to be considered as one of the most illustrious poets of American History by some of the most notable literary historians and analysts. It is difficult however to determine whether her fame is so capacious due to her literary style and artistic observations or predominantly due to her notoriously reclusive self.  Despite this privacy, and given the fact that little is known biographically, we have her poetry to decipher and fill in for the caesuras of Emily Dickinson’s life; poems such as “The Soul selects her own society-“.  Starting ambiguously; Dickinson states that “The Soul selects her own society-/Then-shuts the Door-” the stylistic structure is more irregular than her typical poetry but this may be a result of the level of truthfulness that is in this argument. Does the persona believe that the soul indeed selects its own society? The irony is shown through the dashes which interrupt the succession of the meter which gives almost hesitant pauses as well as the closing of the door as surely, if the soul did select its preferred society, then it would not have to isolate itself from the selected audience. Thus identity becomes disorientated; suggesting that one cannot choose their character in this society of “unmoved” audience.  Identity has become a “stone” walled prison where even if something gift worthy has brought this person to fame, it has almost become a robotic (as the parallel repetition of “unmoved” suggests) ritual, praised far and wide by “Chariots” to “Emporers” but not intellectually acknowledge. The poem “On a Columnar self-” has a similar suggestion. The rigidity of the personas self description “Columnar” which at first instantly suggests desperation, self defeat and a lack of freedom,  Dickinson however takes it to mean that the persona is truly independent- with her feet firmly rooted in the ground; un-wavered by any threatening forces “In Tumult-or Extremity-”. But again, she contradicts herself as she suggests positivity with an odd use of adjectives (such as “Columnar”) and contrasts it with an unbidden identity “Though None be on our Side”. Thus the American ideal blinds an audience with the false truth by making us take pleasure with the belief of liberty which is derivable but at a price which Dickinson is not willing to pay, thus shunning the American Identity of reaching for libertarianism by rebelling and asserting her own power on self-reliance by retreating from the expectation of amplifying into the all-embracing circumstances of fame and individualism so central to American culture.

Politics, specifically class, feature heavily within conceptions of American Identity in which Emily Dickinson status was derived from an upper middle-class culture. Her character is perhaps unique in that she espouses beliefs which seem inimical to her class interest or at the very least are critical of what it is to be an upper middle-class citizen in the 19th century; suggesting these accusations are derived from such a verse of hers as “Publication-is the Auction”. The persona seems to be haunted by her status and what the effects of her class equivalates to; they justify “poverty” as they play “auction” with the “Mind of Man”. Dickinson does however acknowledge her own contribution in the second stanza in this American paradigm as she uses the personal plural pronoun “We”. Here she states her opposition against the commercialization of nature as she creates an absurd metaphor of her class as the vainglorious prey upon the “Garret” whose ultimate capitalist intention is to “invest” in the natural elements of the earth such as “snow” and “sell/The Royal Air.” This apparent contradiction between Dickinson’s class and her political opinions shows us how hard it is to codify anyones identity – distinctly the American.

Furthermore, a major aspect of an American identity is the Christian religious identity which Dickinson is known to have mixed views over; perhaps this doubt is the reason for very frequent references to religion throughout her poetry. In the poem “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” Dickinson conveys society’s shallow hypocrisy of religion in a poetic version of Matthews 6:5 verse:

“And when you pray, do not be like hypocrites, for the love to pray standing in the     synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full”.

Formal assemblies are shown through the ritualistic conventions of society attending church suggestingly to prove their belief to the outside world. Dickinson suggests that this proof has even become materialistic “Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice-“ where as the persona sticks to non-extravagant innocence “I, just wear the Wings-“ and to simplicity “And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,/Our little Sexton sings.” Indeed, while Dickinson’s religious belief is biographically blurry, regarding this poem, her religious identity is unwavering and she asserts her religious convictions by emphasising her unequivocal belief in her holy destination (to heaven with a full stop)… “I’m going, all along.”

Both are also similar in dealing with the same themes, but acutely different in approach, style and structure, where Emily Dickinson’s poems seem short and could be taken as almost anti-‘American identity’, Walt Whitman’s (1819-1892) are set in free verse and are especially jingoistic. He conforms to patriotic values and nationalistic optimism much more in the sense that he celebrates the American ideal with little criticism and his poems almost read like anthems for the emerging order, in contrast to Dickinson’s somewhat somber reflection about aspects of American development and identity.

Regarding a conception of an American Identity, in his first poem from “Song to Myself” from his poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” (published 1855) Whitman seems to subscribe either knowingly or subconsciously a belief that identity is felt around a common purpose and he vehemently asserts his distinctive beliefs and views onto everyone else: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself./And what i assume you shall assume,”. His out right bold statements are possessive even if he is trying to stand in for the word of ‘the people’. He tries to sell that identity as not complex and subjective but concrete and collective- a concept of identity that feels more in line with obedience than collective acceptance “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”Waltman goes on to literally build the American Identity distinctively from “this soil, this air”- unlike Dickinson, who generally sticks to her private body politics, Whitman’s expression in socio politics is impersonal; he takes every opportunity to be heard whether by people or nature. More over he infuses the identity that stems from the uniquely American landscape and “air” (a pun on heir?) with the use of enjambment to his biological roots and lineage “parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same”.

Whitman creates a very prophetic identity through the syntax in his poetry. Poem 21 from the “Leaves of Grass” starts with a Christ like statement; “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,/The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me”. If searching for an identity is a distinctly American theme, it seems Whitman has found his identity for his poems (and also himself): a biblical identity, which is hence a distinctly American religious theme. Coinciding with Dickinsons “Some keep the Sabbath gong to Church” where she confidently states that she will be “going, all along.” Whitman needn’t state his confidence so abruptly, the mere biblical style “I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night./” shows that he means his poetry to be a foundation for a new religion or if not new an addition to the Holy Bible.  Furthermore, Whitman’s front piece to Leaves of Grass has a prophetic-like identity; he presents himself in working class garment and posture, as Jesus Christ was a part of the common society, and so Whitman attempts to portray himself as the working class hero- here to lead everyone to salvation.

Walt Whitman does address a certain audience in his poetry, and that is the majority working-class. In “I hear America singing”which the title suggests one national or American identity, in this poem individualism is foreground as he addresses the working class groups of men separately “mechanics”, “boatman”, “shoemaker”, “wood-cutter”… “Each singing what belongs to her, and to no one else”.  Through poetry such as this, I find Whitman to be a very false character, even if these are not his intentions; it seems like he constantly tries to veil the public with perfection like an aristocratic politician who sells the idea of people believing they are happy because they will tell them to be… His patriotism shuns the majority’s struggles by selling what he believes to be the American identity to them, and those who are not “singing” are forced to veil their struggles with happiness and get on board this patriotic picture of a perfect state.

On the other hand, Whitman was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism and had also opposed the attainment of additional territory for slavery[1]. One of his poems “A man’s body at auction” from I Sing the Body Electric demonstrates his sympathy to the black man and his belief in the equality of man, and his right to obtain an identity not a number.

The same old blood! The same red-running blood!

There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires, reachings


(Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in

Parlors and lecture-rooms?)

Here he states the illogicality of man not treating man as a human by the result of their skin colour. Absurdity is shown through context as well as style as the repetition of the interjection of the exclamation mark “blood!” emphasises disbelief. Corresponding biological aspects between the slave and everyone else are foregrounded by the asyndetic listing of vivid imagery of the heart and all humanly sensations. This conveys Waltman’s idea that this is not merely “A mans body” but an identity, an American identity at that as he suggests these types of men may in fact be any white Americans great-grandfathers:

This is not only one man, this is the father of those who shall be fathers

In their turns

In him the start of populous states and rich republics

Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments

How do you know who shall come front he offspring of his offspring

Through centuries?

(Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace

Back through the centuries?

They are no less of a man then any other, linking back to the first poem from “Song to Myself” “every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil” Whitman emphasises the equality through American Identity owned by men of any barrier of colour or creed.

In conclusion, through stark differences, both Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman become indefinetly similar. They both aspoused views that were defiant to their class and culture and encounter the barriers of declanation through their lives, but whether like Dickinson, disagreeing with the American culture and what it means to have an American identity as she seems constantly perplexed by the attitudes of society (and indeed her own sense of identity) “I’m nobody! Who are you?” Or whether like Walt Whitman you not only embrace your identity and are certain of its existance, even if there are clouds the view to fully understand “There is that in me- i do not know what it is- but i know it is me” both writers have dedicated their work to the foundations of identity, and after hunderds of peoms, there is not one poem which defines them fully as for who they are- so the quest for a true “American identity” still gapes open…

[1] Norton anthology, American Literature, introduction to Walt Whitman pp1311

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