Friday, February 4, 2011

Walt Whitman- Egotistic? Arrogant?

Before reading Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, I was expecting to read more or less an autobiography of Whitman. The title alone of this work is extremely egotistical, so my assumptions were fair. Throughout the work, and as discussed in class, there were many points where Whitman came across as being over the edge arrogant and again, self-centered. After re-reading and analyzing the work a little more I started to have some doubts on these thoughts and decided I wanted to look farther into this. After some research I came to find that Whitman is not an arrogant or egotistical man at the least.

Walt Whitman was viewed by Thoreau as “the greatest democrat the world has ever seen” (Kateb 545). With this, he had great views on democratic culture, with one aspect of his view focusing on democratic individuality. Then, within the idea of democratic individuality is the idea of responsiveness to others; a form of connectedness to individuals unlike any other (Kateb 548). He shows responsiveness many times throughout “Song of Myself” but with the possibility of the line before comes across very arrogant, and shields the meaning he is trying to convey. An example of this is shown in the very first section of “song of Myself”:

“And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
The first line is arrogant and demanding while the second line is humbling and puts forth his responsiveness to the reader. Another point brought up in my research was that this “atom” he is talking about here could stand for potentiality. That “when I perceive or take in other human beings as they lead their lives or play their parts, I am only encountering external actualizations of some of the countless number of potentialities in me, my soul” (Kateb 549). This shows where Whitman is coming from when he is coming across as being arrogant. That he has a part of everyone else in him, and that everyone else has a part of him as well as everyone else, a society of sharing, and that’s why you should take his word in what he says because it is also your words.

Another issue that was brought up in class, is how Whitman shows some forms of hyperempathy syndrome just like Lauren from Parable of the Sower. Lauren was everything but arrogant and selfish due to hyperempathy. I see Whitman’s democratic views to having a connectedness among the people to be very similar to as if everyone had hyperempathy syndrome. The way Lauren felt other peoples’ pain and pleasure, is to Whitman’s democratic connectedness of how you view others is how you view yourself. So if you reject someone for whether it be a good reason or a bad one, then you are also rejecting yourself (Kateb 552). To show the connection of hyperempathy and lack of arrogance and egotism that Whitman contains, I found this quote to be useful:

“One lifetime is not enough to realize more than a few potentialities, so that one lives many lives (on earth) only through the ability to perceive and identify with others, and thus, in an unarrogant sense, to become them, if only for a minute now and then.”

A quote from Whitman’s earliest Notebook is “A man only is interested in anything when he identifies himself with it” (Kateb 554). Whitman is not trying to say that everyone is the same person, he wants democratic connectedness but knows there are the individuals that create this whole. Everyone has a personality in which is the most copious potentiality is shown by, this then masks all the potentialities that are held with in, some are down deeper in the soul than others, but they are all there. This is what makes everyone have a sense of hyperempathy syndrome, that everyone shares each others personality within oneself, which enables us to understand and empathize with other individuals on a higher level (Kateb 553).

To understand where Whitman is coming from, that everyone is everyone you can look at a situation that where a persons life is now would not be the same if you put them into a whole different social setting and was raised differently. Therefore everyone has the potential to be someone else, but what you choose to be is your business, but to remember that you hold with in you even the people you don’t want to be (Kateb 569). With this, Whitman is far from arrogant and egotistical, just views the world in a different way than most and is trying to show how a person really is and what people may fear to believe. That just like hyperempathy syndrome in Lauren, every individual should be able to empathize with everyone else, causing a more understanding democratic connectedness.

Works Cited:
Kateb, George. "Walt Whitman and the Culture of Democracy." Political Theory 4th ser. 18 (1990): 545-71. Sage Publications Inc.. University Library System. University of Pittsburgh. 03 Feb. 2011. .


  1. I liked this for several reasons. First, I thought you did an outstanding job of managing to write a very short essay which is rooted in research. For this option especially, I don't necessarily expect functioning essays - I expect people to struggle with both accurately presenting research and making an argument based upon it in such a short space. You did it, and that's good. I also liked your consistent focus on the topic of arrogance.

    So, this is good work for a short draft of a researched essay. What, then, could be developed further?

    I'm curious about where *you* want to go with it, but I'll tell you my biggest problem/question. Why do you assume that arrogance and empathy need to be antonyms? Is it inconsistent to think that Whitman or Lauren (I'd actually be prepared to make this argument...) are both deeply empathic *and* deeply arrogant? In part, I'd argue that Lauren is arrogant because she has a absolutely clear, biologically rooted but intellectually developed sense of right and wrong. She has a deep certainly in herself. Isn't that arrogance, from a certain point of view?

    Maybe simply writing a little bit about what you understand arrogance to be would help here. After all, Whitman calls himself arrogant explicitly (although one might argue that he's halfway joking) - that requires some kind of detailed response.

  2. Brittany: I think your essay is one of my favorites I have read so far. I felt your argument was very valid and agreeable. One thing I was wishing while reading was that I knew more about what Kateb's work was. I felt myself wondering who this author was and how their work was valid to the essay. Also, I feel like your (second) long indented quote was very powerful, yet it wasn't explained as to how the quote was actually useful to connect hyperempathy and lack of arrogance like you said it did.
    I also completely agree with you on expectations prior to reading the poems. I guess you could say we "judged the book by it's cover." Or in this case, title.

    But overall, I really liked your essay!