Mark EdmundsonMay 26, 2022
Song of Ourselves
Walt Whitman and the Fight for Democracy
Harvard University Press 2021
Walt Whitman knew a great deal about democracy that we don’t. Most of that knowledge is concentrated in one stunning poem, Song of Myself.
In Song of Ourselves: Walt Whitman and the Fight for Democracy (Harvard UP, 2021), esteemed cultural and literary thinker Mark Edmundson offers a bold reading of the 1855 poem, included here in its entirety. He finds in the poem the genesis and development of a democratic spirit, for the individual and the nation. Whitman broke from past literature that he saw as “feudal”: obsessed with the noble and great. He wanted instead to celebrate the common and everyday. Song of Myself does this, setting the terms for democratic identity and culture in America. The work captures the drama of becoming an egalitarian individual, as the poet ascends to knowledge and happiness by confronting and overcoming the major obstacles to democratic selfhood. In the course of his journey, the poet addresses God and Jesus, body and soul, the love of kings, the fear of the poor, and the fear of death. The poet’s consciousness enlarges; he can see more, comprehend more, and he has more to teach.
In Edmundson’s account, Whitman’s great poem does not end with its last line. Seven years after the poem was published, Whitman went to work in hospitals, where he attended to the Civil War’s wounded, sick, and dying. He thus became in life the democratic individual he had prophesied in art. Even now, that prophecy gives us words, thoughts, and feelings to feed the democratic spirit of self.
Jonathan Najarian is Lecturer of Rhetoric in the College of General Studies at Boston University. He is the editor of Comics and Modernism: History, Form, Culture, a collection of essays exploring the connections between avant-garde art and comics. He is also at work on a biography of the visual artist Lynd Ward, titled The Many Lives of Lynd Ward. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.