Exploring Whitman

Just another Looking for Whitman weblog

Jessica Pike for September 8

Filed under: Uncategorized — September 6, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

In Walt Whitman’s America, David S. Reynolds indicates that Walt Whitman saw both great promise and profound defects in the American urban scene and in working-class behavior (Reynolds 83). Since Whitman was a keen observer of the world around him, Whitman used writing as a tool to share his observations to the rest of America. Throughout “Song of the Open Road”, “Song of the Broad Axe”, “Song for Occupations”, and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Whitman describes his observations and thoughts concerning the American nation. Although we are contemporary readers, Whitman advocates the importance of “constructing” the poem, and thus these selections from Leaves of Grass offer us a chance to analyze the American nation that Whitman describes.

In “Song of the Open Road”, Whitman uses nature to focus on the idea of a developing nation and freedom. The title itself is an image that invokes feelings of independence and adventure. Whitman celebrates the opportunity to create your own destiny in the lines, “From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines” (Whitman 299). Also Whitman comments on expanding America and searching out undeveloped lands when he exclaims, “I in hale great draughts of space, The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine” (Whitman 300) Yet, America was a land of contradictions and Whitman includes these contradictions throughout his poetry. For example, although America was the “land of the free” many individuals were unable to experience such freedoms. At times, Whitman describes an inclusive America and states, “The black with his wooly head, the felon, the diseas’d , the illiterate person, are not denied” (Whitman 298). Then a few pages later he goes on to describe the segregated America and argues, “No diseas’d person, no rum- drinker or veneral taint is permitted here (Whitman 303). In addition, these lines can also be related to the temperance movement that was occurring at the time, and Whitman is expressing his position against excessive drinking. But, the notion of freedom is something Whitman dwells on and is one of the many questions he mentions when he asks, “What gives me to be free to a woman’s and man’s good will? What gives them to be free to mine?” ( Whitman 302).

Furthermore, in “The Song of the Broad-Axe” and “Song for Occupations”, Whitman describes characteristics of America that he hopes for. The Broad-Axe is described as a powerful tool that has the ability to create buildings but in the same time can bring about destruction and violence. This axe could be viewed as a metaphor for what the American people can choose to do. Whitman describes the strength of the axe when he states, “What invigorates life invigorates death” (Whitman 334). Whitman also recognizes the importance of the American people and their role in society. Walt Whitman describes the fleeting nature of a great city, but says the solution is to have the “greatest men and women”. When discussing the government, Whitman explains that the citizen is the most powerful and elected officials are workers for the American citizens. He continues to pursue this idea in “A Song For Occupations” when he states, “The President is there in the White House for you” (Whitman 359). Yet, Whitman sees his role in America as someone that is there to promote literature and in effect change America. Whitman tries to make a connection to all American people, and he sees his poetry as a way to connect the American nation.


  1. abcwhitman:

    I agree with this statement in your response: “This axe could be viewed as a metaphor for what the American people can choose to do.”

    I think what Whitman desires from his reader, and you hint at this in your post, is a sense of hope and wonder of the great potential America held / holds. Though certainly not a land full of puppies and rainbows (slavery, I’ve heard, was quite unpleasant), but in its diversity America contains something unique and exciting. Whitman urges his reader to explore the beautiful and change the ugly.

  2. bcbottle:

    I’m glad you touched on the line “No diseas’d person, no rum- drinker or veneral taint is permitted here.” I was very bothered when I read that. I couldn’t figure out why Whitman would be so open about everyone becoming an important part of the American foundation yet claim to reject all those people, especially since I gather he didn’t exactly avoid some of those things himself.

    Your point about representing America as a contradictory nation being mirrored in Whitman’s poetry was a great point, I still can’t quite make myself comfortable with the line, but i guess I’m not really supposed to.

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