Writing at a time when America and its philosophers like Emerson and Thoreau were trying to eradicate the lingering influences of Europe, Whitman radically defined and constructed a national identity for America, which he construed was inextricable from the nation's central premise of self-governance and equality. [Schramm, 2005] Yet the diverse and conflicting philosophies and attitudes presented in the poem is often perplexing to a reader, who endeavours to understand the kind of American identity that Whitman constructs for the new civilization of America. The present research is an attempt to understand the archetypical American identity presented by Whitman in his mid-nineteenth century poem, Song of Myself.
Whitman's Song of Myself, which contains the "essence of nearly all his poems," published in 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass [Chase, 1995; p. 58], is also the most difficult to understand given the multitude of aspects it presents. In choosing the grounds for the poem, and its extended collection Leaves of Grass, Whitman deliberately abandoned the conventional themes and the stock ornamentation for poetry known till date, to choose the "broadest average of humanity and its identities in the [then] ripening Nineteenth Century, and especially in each of their countless examples and practical occupations in the United States" [Whitman, 1888; p. 299] at the time. While this vitally explains the difficulty in identifying a very unique or singular American identity, it provides the crux for understanding the multifaceted appeal, the many sides of the constantly evolving American identity.
Song of Myself begins with the poet's self-proclaimed celebration of himself, and extends to celebrate Nature, an environment that is essentially American in its quality and character, bringing together images and devices from every cultural arena [Reynolds, 2000; p.26]. Un-assuming as he is in celebration of himself, he calls up the readers to assume the same: "And what I assume you shall assume." [Whitman; 1990; l. 2] In his opening lines, Whitman makes it succinctly clear that his use of "I," "me," and "you," is democratic and universal and that the "myself" he is singing about in the poem could be for every American. [Schramm, 2005] As the poem historicizes "the poet's movement from loafing individual to active spirit," it presents a "catalogue of persons and things," [Mason, 1987; p. 187] with which he identifies as an American. It is through this identification that Whitman gains his confidence to construct a new identity and order for the American society. And to his contemporary readers, he instructs "You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself." [Whitman; 1900; l. 30]
Given that the American identity forged by Whitman in Song of Myself is very much based on the historical realities of the time, and is distinctly different from the contemporary American identity, any effort to understand the kind of American identity that he constructs in the poem would need to explore the historical context of the poem. As Reynolds remarks, while theoretically American democracy had abolished all kinds of social barriers, by the 1850s it was "painfully clear that such barriers were on the verge of