The Whitman and Emerson Universal Connection
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a minister, a magazine editor, a lecturer and a poet. He had enormous influence over writers and thinkers around the globe, and his powerful ideas still infiltrate the minds of great philosophers today. Emerson, as apparent by his essay “Self Reliance”, believed that people should follow what they believe is right and true. Conforming is not an option. The moment someone follows the crowd and discredits their own institutions is the moment their life becomes unworthy. Every person on this planet has a soul with thoughts and philosophies that are original and genius. Each word Emerson put on paper had a purpose and a determined path to making a difference in the world. Emerson once said, ‘Literature is the written record of the mind and its power comes from the fact that literature is always showing us ourselves’. One future writer, who took this sentiment particularly to heart, was Walt Whitman, one of the major poetic voices of an early America. Emerson and Whitman shared and believed in multiple themes in their writing, but the principle that they each unequivocally trusted in was the idea that every human being breathed the same air, walked on the same earth, and felt the same emotions, creating a universally binding and timeless connection between souls.
Ralph Waldo Emerson had three clear beliefs in his writing, all three of which seem to encompass the above quote about literature’s power connecting humans. First, Emerson mentions that expressing fake emotions for the sake of conversation or to spare someone’s feelings is one of the worst ways to be untrue to oneself. Emerson clearly praised those who took the path less traveled, and spoke openly about their thoughts and opinion. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” (Emerson 21). One of the most important aspects of Emerson’s life work is that it was written for the common man. The common man was not someone below anyone else, but simply another word for the idea that all men are equal and can therefore benefit from learning how to live honestly. By reading Emerson’s literature, the common man was taught to trust his instinct. Trusting one’s instinct is necessary in all aspects of life, but in Emerson and Whitman’s case, trusting their instinct was vital in order to write genuinely and create literature that holds up a mirror to the common man.
Similarly, Whitman believed in the idea of the common man as showcased by Section 1 of his group of poems in Song of Myself. His mood is inquisitive, honest and excited. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume, you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Whitman 23). When Whitman writes “I” he truly means “we”. Song of Myself is a collection of dense pieces of writing reflecting his relationship and connection with Emerson, his love for the natural world, self-reflection and the belief that everyone has the possibility of greatness within them. As he writes the reflective poems that come together to form Song of Myself, he is forced to completely open up his past and his childhood, trusting his instinct and attempting to remember how he genuinely felt in those turning points of his life. “The little one sleeps in its cradle, I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand” (Whitman 29). He observes, and he records his instinct. Emerson and Whitman’s honest prose held, and continues to hold, the key to unlocking the reflection of their audience.
A second strongly held belief by Emerson was that all men held the key to their own version of genius. A genius, as described by Emerson, is someone who thinks originally and is open about sharing those ideas. A genius speaks and writes with conviction. The unaffected man is the brilliant man. Conforming is not thinking, just being a part of society. Emerson believed that everyone could grasp the power to their futures by trusting and believing in their unique and brilliant minds. “I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency” (Emerson 25). Meanwhile, Whitman also often thought that regardless of background or upbringing, a person with a mind automatically preserved a clean slate to unleash their ability. “Undrape! You are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded, I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no, and am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away” (Whitman 29). The view that each person contains genius in Whitman and Emerson’s poetry, captures the reader, and encourages individuals to explore their own version of genius.
Emerson’s third most apparent belief was his idea that nature and the soul are one. Nature infiltrates every facet of our lives. Perhaps because Emerson believed that nature represents truth. Emerson’s idea of the soul was that we are all connected by nature, both during and after life. “The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart” (Emerson). People are connected to the natural world by the “Over-soul” and connected to each other by individual souls.
Whitman had a similar viewpoint on the powerful role of nature in conjunction with human life. “A child said, What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands; how could I answer the child? I do not know what it is anymore than he” (Whitman 27). Whitman very often uses nature and other forms of life to understand himself. The grass is something that both a child and an adult wonder about. The natural world is a subjective experience. It could be the babe of vegetation, or the Lord’s handkerchief. The grass could be seen as a uniform hieroglyphic, as it grows among both black and white men, a developing racial conversation happening in early America that Whitman personally dealt with. Or perhaps the grass is the “beautiful uncut hair of graves”, inferring that the grass is a tether to both those living and dead, proving the soul survives in every fragment of nature, just as Emerson believed.
Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking was a poem that Whitman wrote about a notable moment from his childhood. It has a meditative tone, which is common for reflection. Whitman’s deep relationship to birds and the sea in this poem connects with Emerson’s adoration and worshipping of nature. “Every day the he-bird to and fro near at hand, and every day the she-bird crouch’d on her nest, silent, with bright eyes, and every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them, cautiously peering, absorbing, translating” (Whitman 209). Whitman recalls translating for the birds and communicating between them. Later, as a poet, he writes down his thoughts for the good of human kind, in order to translate between different walks of life, connecting each human soul. In this poem, the audience witnesses Whitman’s first realization of death. “Till of a sudden, may-be kill’d unknown to her mate, one forenoon the she-bird crouch’d not on the nest, nor return’d that afternoon, nor the next, nor ever appear’d again” (209). His witness of death ultimately shows him what life and love means, and encourages him to discover what he ultimately desires out of his own life. Whitman’s open dive into his childhood memory effortlessly sways the reader to reflect on their own past memorable experiences, and in this way Whitman’s literature assists the reader in understanding their adult lives.
Whitman begins one of his poems with the simple, “Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?” This is a thought that doesn’t pass through most minds. Whitman believes that if one thinks it is lucky to be born, it is also lucky to die. He is inferring that there is not such a definitive beginning and end because every soul is always existing, perhaps just moving between altered platforms. Each individual is made from the same ‘stuff’, we walk along the same earth, we breath the same universal air. And apart from physical differences, people are fundamentally the same. Every breathing person has “loved” and “felt the sting of being slighted” (28). He mentions that one of humankinds binding connections is the fact that every person has a mother. Every baby, every bird and every blade of grass comes from a mother figure, whether that is Mrs. Whitman or Mother Nature. In the final lines of this poem, Whitman explains why it’s important to reveal one’s true colors. When there is so much evidence in front of humanity that there is a human connection on an outer earthly level, why waste time with the trivial concepts of color and age and sex? Every being has both smiled and shed a tear.
Whitman and Emerson both agree in the universal human experience. Emerson says the most valuable object of all writing is “the great and universal passions of men”. He thinks poetry should sink down into the very deepest parts of human emotions, those thoughts which everyone will inevitably feel throughout their lifetime. Poetry is a universal outlet for all of humankind, a place to take solace in the idea that each person feels the same emotions. All of human emotion is powerful, overwhelming, and uncontrollable. Whitman and Emerson turn to writing these feelings down to give others a type of escape and reassurance. A tangible tranquility is cast upon someone when they realize that their feelings are validated and felt by the rest of humankind.
Emerson’s ideas are democratic because he is ultimately implying that everyone has the power within himself or herself. A democracy is something based upon thought, argument, rationality, logic and most importantly an open and honest conversation between people. Democracy is most important in a country that is just starting out because they need to prove to themselves that they can think, work, and improve as is also evident in Whitman’s writing in an early America. Just like a youth reaching maturity, that is when they are beginning to understand their own thoughts and beliefs. They need to hold true to their ideas, or else they, and anyone else around them, will not take them sincerely. Emerson and Whitman’s writing can translate from the Romantic age to 2013 seamlessly because of their deep understanding of human essence, and how to show people who they are and what they’re meant to be doing.
As most students in 2013 are familiar with all of the latest TV show cults, many must have noticed the Walt Whitman correlation with Walter White in the critically acclaimed, Breaking Bad. Whitman, hundreds of years later in a dramatically different yet fundamentally identical America, is still creating and showcasing a written, and now visual, record of the human experience. The similar beliefs of Emerson and Whitman are still apparent, as one of the lines from Emerson’s Self Reliance could have come straight out of Vince Gilligan’s created characters. “Another sort of false prayers are out regrets. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will” (Emerson 33). This brilliant, very American character of Walter White looked up to none other than the literary genius Walt Whitman. Walter White would never waste his energy regretting the decisions that brought him to his present. Both Emerson and Whitman agree that the only type of reflection that should occur in a person’s life is one of a meditative and beneficial nature. Just as Walt Whitman helped Mr. White see himself as the man he truly was, Heisenberg, the entire premise of the show reflected America back on itself, posing the question, who are we really?