Walt Whitman vs, Frederick Douglass: the True Sovereign American Self

March 13, 2012
Mid-Term Essay

(Questions 1+2 combined)
The sovereign American self has no simple, dictionary definition. As the task of defining the sovereign American self is a difficult one, filled with much reflection, observation and assumption, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson set out to create their own definitions. In Whitman’s poem Song of Myself and in Emerson’s essays “The Divinity School Address” and “The Poet”, the men express their own beliefs as to what makes the American sovereign self, in all matters of life. As the two strive to convey to readers their notions of what truly makes the sovereign self, they often contradict themselves and one another, as well as giving readers insight into the social world they lived in and the values, morals and ideals of their time.
At the very start of Song of Myself Whitman tries to draw the reader in with brief but powerful statements, announcing that all should be aware of their own self-worth and equality in the world. He states that “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”, prefacing his work with the notion that he feels that he is in the same position as the reader, in the grand scheme of the universe. This leads into Whitman’s foremost contradiction in his work. While he initially tells the reader that they are in fact equal and made of the same atoms, he continues on to make incredibly narcissistic comments at later points in the work. As he describes his deep knowledge and understanding of nature and the American self, he gives off arrogance and a “know it all” vibe that does not help him to convey his message. One instance in which he extols his self is when he describes the negro he sees working with the horses. He does not know this man at all, and while he may feel strongly about equality and the abolition of slavery, is it fair to say that he truly loves him? How could he love someone of any race just on the basis of seeing them perform some task? This example seems to not...