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Born on 31st May, 1819, Walt Whitman is an iconic figure in the history of American literature. His lifetime’s work, especially his poetry, has come to define the sentiments, aspirations and experiences of American citizens in the nineteenth century. Although Whitman was not active politically, he expressed his political views through his poetry. Having lived through the turbulence of the Civil War, he developed passionate views on the nature and complexion of American polity. Whitman envisioned America to be a vibrant multicultural society. This vision he expressed in many of his poems. The poem Passage to India is a good example of this idealism, which perhaps waned a little during the excesses of the Gilded Age. (Pannapacker, 2004, p.45) Through the medium of this art form, Whitman synthesized his notion of the American identity, encompassing within it concepts such as national sovereignty, individual freedom and democratic polity. For example,

“During this American Renaissance, as it came to be known, authors and philosophers such as Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Emerson assessed the nation’s brief history in their writings and summarily expressed a national identity. Of all of them, it was Whitman, who, with his barbaric yawp, was the most radical in avowing that American identity was inextricable from the nation’s central premise of self-governance and equality. In poems such as “Song of Myself,” he stressed to his readers how their individual lives constituted the very circumference of democracy. “[T] he genius of the United States,” he pronounced, “is … in the common people.”” (Schramm, 2005, p.24)

Whitman’s early years were chaotic, as circumstances forced him to seek employment at the tender age of 11. At first he worked as an office boy for a lawyer and later served as an apprentice and printer’s devil for the newspaper Patriot (published in Long Island). But these early experiences had a profound influence on Whitman’s formative mind, as he absorbed the essence of good journalism and good writing here. Looking back in retrospect, many of the issues raised by Whitman in his seminal work Leaves of Grass have their origins in these early experiences. Under Editor Samuel Clements’ mentorship, Whitman learned about the technical aspects of the printing press, which would help him later in his efforts to self-publish his poems. It was here that he developed his views on American identity. (Barrett, 2005, p.67)

Consistent with the thought of Ralph Emerson, Whitman too believed that an American poet must be “indivisible from the people about whom he wrote…the proof of the poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he absorbed it”. (Barrett, 2005, p.67) This symbolic unity of the poet and his compatriots is most evident in the very first poem of Leaves of Grass titled Song of Myself. Through the generous use of “I” “me,” and “you,” that the “myself” he was singing about comes to represent all Americans. Whitman’s also wrote poems covering sexuality and sexual freedom. In poems such as ‘A Woman Waits for Me’, he famously observed that “Sex contains all, bodies, souls.” (Barrett, 2005, p.67) Although Whitman’s references to homosexuality and overt sexuality was controversial during his time (which is the why his collections were self-published), his views on the subject only reflected the emerging liberal tradition of nineteenth century United States.

Since Whitman is a quintessential 19th century writer, his works reflected his preoccupation with the Civil War. In the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, the imagery employed by the author conveyed his hopes for peace and reconciliation. “At one level, Whitman’s turn to seemingly personal concerns in ‘Calamus’ might seem odd at this moment, on the very eve of actual warfare, but for Whitman the ‘Calamus’ poems explored both important personal relationships and addressed political issues. It was love that was to serve as the glue holding a democracy together.” (Schramm, 2005, p.25) Indeed, based on Whitman’s personal correspondence, it is fairly obvious that he wished to be remembered as a staunch patriot and a nationalist, comparable to the status of Pushkin as the Russian national poet. For example,

“Whitman ruminated about the curious national arithmetic of e pluribus unum (“Out of many one”) in ways that gave concrete expression-and vivid imagery-to the abstractions at the very heart of our democracy. In Whitman’s best lines, he casts himself as the spokesperson for women as well as men, blacks as well as whites, the well-heeled and the downtrodden. Taken together, the kaleidoscopic parts of America add up to . . . well, America. Whitman’s conception of America was also pluralistic, one in which multitudes could smoothly be integrated into the “larger, often mystically imagined Union”.” (Pinsker, 1999, p.716)

His most influential master work Leaves of Grass is full of allusions, commentary and idealization of American identity. Concepts such as democracy as well as principles such as individual freedom also find frequent mention. In many ways, Leaves of Grass is to the fledgling notion of American identity what Homer and Virgil were to the ancient Greek milieu. In this sense, Leaves of Grass can be said to encapsulate the history, politics and culture of the nascent American nation-state in the form of poetry. Whitman looked around at Americans of all stations for inspiration. And what he found was a nation of nations that augured its years of glory to follow. By thus listening to the messages of daily life, American citizens could learn much about their country’s history, culture and the tendencies in the future. Further, as per Whitman’s conception, the country is in itself a great work of poetry where the past, present and the future conjoin in intricate ways. This notion of treating the country’s exclusive merits is consistent with the broader literary currents of the time, where authors tried to overcome the remaining European influences by way of forming a separate American idiom and literature. (Pannapacker, 2004, p.45)

Whitman’s contribution to the development of American identity is seen in overt as well as subtle portrayals in his poetry and poetics. For example, his strong dislike of the institution of slavery is learnt from these lines from his personal correspondence: “I am the poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves. . . I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters and I will stand between the masters and the slaves, entering into both so that both shall understand me alike.” (Pinsker, 1999, p.717) On the other hand, his love of the common American folk is expressed by capturing

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