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Q: Discuss the ways in which one American writer (of any period) writes about the notions of identity.

Answer: “I celebrate myself and sing myself” with these words begin Walt Whitman’s poem Song of
Myself and give the readers his main purpose that he is a poet who will fight to unify and consolidate his
vision of America. Through the generous use of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘you’, and the ‘I’ he is singing comes to
represents all Americans. His most influential work Leaves of Grass is full of allusions, commentary and
idealization of identity. Whitman shares his vision of identity with his readers through his poems
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, “I Sing the Body Electric” and “Song of Myself” where a wide plethora of
individualities are discussed.

In order to discuss Whitman’s American National Identity, this answer will start from discussing the
poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”. Whitman wrote this poem before the construction of the construction
of the Brooklyn Bridge which was constructed in 1883. He wrote this poem during the cusp of the civil
war during the time when America’s identity was deeply bifurcated. The overarching theme of “Crossing
Brooklyn Ferry” is the shared human experience. The speaker’s journey between Manhattan and
Brooklyn is a metaphor for the passage of time. At the beginning of the poem the speaker remarks that
many have completed this journey before him and many will travel this route after he is gone. The
poem, like the ferry moves the reader fluidly through the past, present and future and the speaker’s
words highlight the narrative thread that connects all human beings. Whitman uses light and darkness
to symbolize the multiple facets of the human identity. He describes his evil thoughts as his inner
darkness, hidden from public view just as the night casts a blanket over the river during his evening
commute. He also uses the theater as a metaphor to represent difference between public and private
life. The speaker offers some details about the rest of his routine—living in Brooklyn and working in
Manhattan. He professes to be fairly confident in his identity. The speaker makes it difficult to figure
out who's talking because there's a ghost like sense in that the speaker is watching us but then they're
able to 'throw' themselves into the past and present. The speaker identifies with everything and says
our physical body is the key to our identity.

However, Song of Myself begins with an ‘I’ and ends with a ‘you’ emphasizing upon a dual individuality
where Whitman first addresses himself and then ends on a ‘you’ showing the involvement of the
readers. The opening of the poem reads, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself”. This signifies and shows
the poet’s innate americaness and glorifying the unique aspect of the national identity. Douglas A.
Noverr pointed out how journalism helped consolidate the poet’s understanding of giving a voice to
several personas for example in Songs of Myself, a wide plethora of individualities are discussed and it
becomes universal representation of all Americans. Whitman feels that he is connected with all the
things in the world through his experience and therefore identifies with those things. The word
"identity" occurs only a couple of times in "Song of Myself," but it is easily the central theme of this vast
epic. For Whitman, there is no such thing as "private experience." He experiences the pains and pleasure
of all other people in the world, and even animals and inanimate natural phenomena, because he
"identifies" with them. That is, his innermost identity is connected to all things in the world.
The poem is an allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost. Whitman highlights individuality acts a mediator of all
mankind. He views himself as a part of the nature. He does not care about these worldly concerns. In
this poem he presents different versions of himself me, myself and self. Emerson was a poet on the soul
but Whitman has embarked his name by claiming the body. He says that neither the body nor the soul is
better than the other; both of them stand equal to each other. He tells the soul to come and lie down
with him on the grass. Moreover the poet takes on different personalities in the poem for example; he
takes the identity of a hunter, he talks of a slave. The ‘I’ in this poem is the poetic medium through
which the readers explore inclusiveness of the poem. Whitman makes his point very clear that
everything in the nature has a purpose and because of this he himself is completely engrossed in nature.
We can clearly identify the theme of self reliance in the poem. Whitman glorifies all jobs in the poem.
He does not elevate one job over the other; this shows the theme of equality which is emblematic of his
own life. He reinforces the idea of inclusivity.

Finally the last poem to be discussed in the answer is ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ which serves as the man’s
whole experience of body and soul. The thread of slavery is continued here as it was seen in Crossing
Brooklyn Ferry and Song of Myself. Whitman mentions, “A man’s body at auction symbolically depicting
the slave body as a commodity”. This was Whitman’s lifelong creed that labor creates real wealth. Thus
this creates the real image of what makes up American National Identity. The whole idea of slavery was
to keep the country supplied with labor. M. Wyan Thomas said that Whitman had ‘thrived on the
vitality, the energy, the variety, the inventiveness of the word labor and capital’. We can say that
Whitman glorifies the idea of labour but denounces slavery. Whitman says that the blood of the slave is
same as the blood of a white man. The poem celebrates the slave’s body.

Moreover, Whitman describes how body itself is the spirit and how body itself is the soul. He equalizes
the spirit and the body as one as if one of the two; body and the spirit is superior to the other.
Furthermore, we can also notice sibilance in part 2 of the poem where the poet talks about the motion
of the body; celebration of the limbs. Tautological elements are also seen in the poem where the poet is
addressing the women that it is due to them that other human beings come into existence so he is
telling them to embrace their identities. Then Whitman also talks about racial discrimination. For him
America should be inclusive of all identities and creeds. Once again we see that Whitman breaks free
from the conventions and writes in blank verse along with his favorite technique of cataloguing.

Furthermore, Whitman’s poetry explores a vast range of topics such as the body and soul, slavery, and
selfhood. These themes helps the reader put together the notion of the American national Identity that
was put together by Whitman in his poetry.