Whitman wasn’t a Transcendentalist. He bridged the gap between Realism and Transcendentalism. Realism is a style of literature that focused on the life of the everyday, common, middle class man or the “everyman.” It is a reaction to the works done in the romantic period. But Whitman took a lot from Emerson and Transcendentalism. He used a great deal of the same devises as Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller. Through his breadth of work, he has made great use of subjective individualism, a sense of “communion” with nature, and the subject matter of some of his poems is strongly naturalistic.
Transcendentalism as a school of thought is centered on the self and the transcendence of society through meditation and periodic semi-exiles of the self into pure nature. Emerson is an example of a true Transcendentalist. An emphasis is placed on the grandiose, yet minimal importance of the individual. The soul is important – very important – but, the soul is collective with everything. A prime example of this comes from the first section of Whitman’s Song of Myself: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (Whitman). A simple paraphrase of that line would go something like “I am you and you are me.” There is no separation. There’s the work of dissolving boundaries between two people, between a person and society, between a person and a plant, getting rid of the very concept of person and plant and just acknowledging molecules for a moment.
The greatest thing about Song of Myself is the structure of the poem. It has been called an “American epic” by some scholars (Folsom). The beginning of the poem establishes the identity and the soul of the narrator. He begins connecting himself with the audience with his references to sharing a like mind with the reader (“I celebrate myself, and sing myself, /And what I assume you shall assume”) (Smith, Whitman). He then starts talking about aspects of the soul and how it intermingles in holy communion with god, others, and the universe. This is evidenced in section five, lines twenty through twenty-four. At the end of the poem, the narrator warmly bids the reader adieu and, with beautiful imagery, “departs as air” and gives himself back to the earth, nourishing the grass (Smith, Whitman). He carefully reminds the reader that death does not mean the end. It simply is one’s soul leaving the body. He reminds the reader that he is everywhere waiting to be found.
There is a certain emotionality contained in the lines of this poem, and all transcendentalist poetry, that is not found anywhere else within the whole of literature. It promotes introspection, and causes an immediate comfort to the reader. Whitman is so human. This poem was a testament proclaiming he was; proclaiming that everyone was – is. There is a beauty in his use of personal-ish parables. It’s almost like a “love song for humanity” and in a very intricate and almost delicate way explains that no one can belong to anyone. You cannot even belong to yourself (Smith). We are a collective consciousness, forever sharing each other’s plights, trials, and tribulations. There is a comfort felt when reading the last few lines of poem fifty-two. It states “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, /missing me one place search another, /I stop somewhere waiting for you.” (Whitman).
Folsom, Ed. “WHITMAN’S CALLING AS A NATIONAL POET WHITMAN’S VISION OF
AMERICA POETRY ANDNATIONAL UNITY.” PBS.org. PBS. Web. 7 Nov 2012.
Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. Self Published, 1855. Print.
Smith, David. “Walt Whitman || Transcendentalism.” David-glen Smith. N.p., 04 2010. Web. 7
Nov 2012. <http://www.davidglensmith.com/wcjc/2327/slides/2010SUM2-slides15-Whitman.pdf>.
Emerson, Ralph. Nature. Self Published, 1831. Print.
Campbell, Donna. “Realism in American Literature.” WSU Literary Database (2011): n.pag.
WSU English Department. Web. 28 Nov 2012.