who aM i?
How should I live? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live in society? We can look to great writing to help answer these questions so that we might create and re-create ourselves and the world we hope to live in.
In his book Why Read? Mark Edmundson shows us the value in "discovering oneself as one is in great writing and seeing glimpses of a self-- and perhaps a world-- that might be, a self and a world that you can begin working to create."
In the 1840s, Concord, Massachusetts was home to some of America's most influential writers and thinkers. Americans like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott imagined a world and a way of life that recognized the potential of individuals to influence society in profound ways.
In his essay Self Reliance, Emerson reveals to the reader how society holds us back from becoming all that we might be. Emerson reminds us, "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." For Emerson, there is no more important voice than one's own. There is none higher than the individual. "The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried."
Emerson's ideas had a great impact on his friend Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau is often considered America's foremost conservationists. In his book Walden, Thoreau recounts the year he spent living alone in a small cabin on the edge of Concord's Walden Pond. Like Emerson, Thoreau thought, and wrote much about the condition of the individual. "Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate."
Emerson's influence was wide. Walt Whitman, a poet from Brooklyn, inspired by Emerson's essay The Poet, took up the pen and wrote about life in America. His Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. In a letter to Whitman, Emerson praised Whitman's work, calling it "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."
In Leaves of Grass, Whitman's voice sings of an America ripe with energy and possibility. Whitman's reveals his "poetic vision and his conviction that the poet and the public are inextricably, symbolically linked." (Brain Pickings, Maria Popova)
In his great work, Whitman's subjects include democracy, slavery, poverty, reading and writing, work, the American landscape, the sea, nature, the Civil War, education, aging, death and immortality, romantic love, spirituality, and social change. But none speaks louder than that of the individual. The 52 verses of Whitman's Song of Myself explode on the page with great force.
Song of Myself
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.