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The Cultural Context in which Walt Whitman lived

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One of the interesting tensions that exists in the ‘Song of Myself’, are the boundaries that are drawn between his actual self and the self that is being sung about, so to speak When one isolates some of the better known passages, like the opening line itself: I celebrate myself, and sing myself. [Whitman 29], one gets the sense that Whitman was an individual with a tremendous ego. If one assumed that the poem itself was about his self, they would be mislead as it is a pastiche of all humanity in some regards. While the work begins with a focus posited on his self or ‘myself’, it gradually transforms into an elegiac look at almost all facets of society. There is a particular empathy struck with the marginalized of his world: the Quadroon girl is sold at the auction stand, the drunkard nods by the bar-room stove…the groups of newly-come immigrants cover the wharf and levee [Whitman 40]. Whitman had a personal affinity to the marginalized in society. While he came from the country, he was obsessed with the urban life of New York City where he lived off and on for a long time. He was particularly fascinated by the people who are barely subsisting as indicated in the passage quoted above. Thus, his self is not his own individual self. Further, the self is not just the entire expanse of society, but also nature too. One of the more compelling dimensions of Whitman which was picked up by his first and most important critic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was the interconnectedness of the ‘self’ with all of the diversity and particularity of nature. However much one cannot isolate the ‘self’ in the song to that subject, as being that of Whitman, at the same time, he was an individual with an enormous ego and the poem itself is somewhat of an attempt at a validation of the ego itself too. First, one of the ego dimensions of Whitman as a point of context, concerns his publishing of the work itself. Whitman published this himself. Rather than go through the process of being scrutinized by others in order to be published, he was confident enough in his own genius so to speak, to publish his most important work himself. The first edition was printed by Whitman – who had worked as a printer in a number of businesses, was a run of just over seven-hundred copies [Killingsworth, 2007: 6]. The second point of biographical fact related to ego, were his actions immediately following the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855. Whitman fraudulently reviewed his own book in three different publications, and one has to consider the enormity of the ego of any individual who would do this [Price, Ed., 1996: 8. 18. 23]. A further biographical fact or issue of background and ‘context’, concerns the recent death of his father and also his homo-sexuality. There is such a language of burgeoning spring in the Song of Myself, that one wonders why the self is portrayed so much as something that is being born. For Whitman, there was a sense in this period of his life, where he was truly discovering himself. That is, he was trying to subsist on his own beyond the support of his family, and he was trying to establish himself as a writer. When his father died, this represented for Whitman an opportunity to transcend or basically escape from the bondage of his past. One of the areas that he is unquestionably challenging the past concerns his sexuality. It is maintained by scholars that in the period leading up to the publication o