Whitman’s mother once commented that Walt always seemed to be “going out and coming in.” She was referring to his peripatetic ways, but her description works as well for the structure of “Song of Myself,” where the poet expands out into the welter of details around him, testing how wide he can expand his sympathetic impulse before the self dissipates, and then he contracts back into a firm sense of self, expressing confidence that he can contain the multitudes he has absorbed, that they in fact strengthen the self. Section 16 is the contraction of the vast expansion of Section 15, where the random sampling of America took us up and down the social strata from a prostitute to the president, across the nation’s vast geography into the city and into the country and into the wilderness, through the diversity of occupations, and across races (with signs of America’s increasing racial mixture—the “quadroon girl” and the “half-breed”). His catalogue manages to create a remarkable sense of interpenetration: farmers farm and hunters hunt, and people eat the harvest and the kill; sewers sew and weavers weave, and we see the bridal gown and the regatta sails that are the results of their labor; the young become the old, the foolish the wise; everyone’s activities feed into every else’s, as we all move to the beat of the conductor, to the minute hand of the clock, as night and sleep eventually overtake us. And now, in Section 16, the poet pauses, contracts, absorbs all that he has seen and heard and felt, and uses it to formulate a definition of the self.
What had before seemed random and dispersed now comes to be the very weave of self-identity: “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,” the poet says, discovering all possible identities within himself. Each of us has within ourselves the potential to be anyone else; any identity the nation can generate could be ours, given slight shifts in where we were born, how wealthy our parents were, what dialects we were raised in, what religious views our parents held. So Whitman realizes he is “a Southerner soon as a Northerner,” because the divisions in our society are not the result of different souls but rather of different experiences. And if we can expand our experiences, absorb vastly different points of view, we can begin to overcome bias and see that in fact we are all in essence one pure human potential, with an infinite scatter of realizations: “Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion.”
A democratic imagination breaks through all the boundaries that divide us and allows us to see how our identities interrelate, lets us each see our individual self as every bit as diverse as the nation is: each of us is “one of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same.” So Whitman can finally make the most radical of his claims: “I resist anything better than my own diversity.” The only thing that he will fight against will be anything or anyone that teaches him discrimination, that urges him to be less, to be more narrow, than his democratic imagination would allow him to be. He will not be “stuck up” in the slang sense of “arrogant” or “self-important,” but also in the sense of “isolated,” above everyone else, stuck up in some privileged corner of existence. Rather, he will be “in his place,” which, just as a moth or a sun is in its place, is one unique place—occupied by nothing else—that is also, via the imagination, all places.
And everything has its place—the palpable, the impalpable. Indeed these are the communicating vessels through which observation and invention find their levels. For what is imperceivable to the mind or the senses shapes imaginative work no less than what we experience at first hand. For every bright sun that lights the sky there are innumerable dark suns, in galaxies near and far, around which we orbit unaware, now brushing up against someone or something with the key to a room in which the miraculous may reside, now veering off in another direction for reasons that mystify. That we do not always know why we do the things we do reminds us that we are caught up in the mysterious currents flowing through the universe, the sea charted in “Song of Myself,” and here we learn that the ship we boarded at the beginning of time is named Diversity.
Every generation of Whitman’s readers experiences different phenomena, maps anew the cosmos within and without the soul, journeys from the visible to the invisible and back again at a pace unique to the age and their temperament. The poet is “of every rank and religion,” of the foolish as well as the wise, from the North and the South, with city dwellers and trappers in the wilderness, with the young and old; his inclusion of everyone in the scheme of things might spur us to deepen our own powers of empathy, to put ourselves in the shoes of our enemies: we are all in this together. To know your place is a phrase without pejorative connotation for this poet. It is how he hails us to the next stage of the journey—the task of a lifetime.
In your culture, who comes closest to achieving Whitman’s broad sense of identity, a sense that both incorporates and transcends sectional divisions, gender differences, and class distinctions? Are there historical or contemporary figures who seem to have achieved such a non-discriminating identity?