The Paradoxical Singularity of the American People

Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself is an American classic. The poem’s attention to the various iconographies of America, its natural beauty and its people alongside Whitman’s own reputation have cemented it and him as a centerpiece of classic American literature.

Yet it cannot go without saying that Walt Whitman’s attempt to condense the American experience into a singular monolith, as portrayed in one of the most famous lines of the poem — “I am large, I contain multitudes” (Whitman section 51) — creates an odd, paradoxical singularity of America. Walt Whitman’s whiteness in an era where segregation and slavery was still legal cannot go without saying. Whitman’s poem references many comparisons to slavery, such as

“The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat,
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous buckshot and the bullets,
All these I feel or am.” (Whitman section 33)

So when we revisit the “I contain multitudes” line, we are made aware of how Whitman attempts to not only contain his own identity, but the identity of other Americans, including the enslaved into a uniform line representing them all.

In The Work of a Common Woman , a poetry collection from Judy Grahn we are treated to a different experience of America. Grahn’s poems about common women are anything but common— in direct opposition to Whitman’s singular multitudes we are treated to the unique common experience, poems about specific people and their specific lives and personalities. We get names of women like Helen, Vera and Ella. We are told they and others Grahn writes about are the common women, yet we also get lines that emphasize anything but common. Ella’s poem has a line that goes “Once she shot a lover who misused her child. Before she got out of jail, the courts had pounced and given the child away.” (Grahn 63).

It is lines like this that make us wonder what ‘common’ here is to mean, when Ella’s experiences aren’t the same as the next poem’s subject Nadine, “sitting on the doorstep counting/rats and raising 15 children,/half of them her own.” (Grahn 64). Common here is anything but common, and Grahn brilliantly avoids the same trap Whitman set for himself trying to lump America into one bubble. One might feel like this is Grahn’s answer to Whitman’s famous line, her own way of trying to inform Whitman that his experience isn’t representative of everyone, and that each person is their own unique identity, even with similar experiences and commonalities this uniqueness makes them their own individual being and they deserve to be seen as such. Grahn’s poems end up thus affirming America, and America’s women as a nation of different peoples, alike but never the same.

4 thoughts on “The Paradoxical Singularity of the American People”

  1. While Walt Whitman strove to encompass the journeys and experiences of all American’s in his “Song of Myself”, it is obvious that his background as a white male limited his scope of understanding. Your theory that Judy Grahn’s work answers Whitman’s verse is brilliant, but I thought of her poem as an addition rather than an answer. Whitman tried to represent America and did so wonderfully by recounting common human experiences such as touching and feeling. However, Grahn’s accounts of specific stories, coming from her perspective as an openly queer woman, open the conversation wider. With time, more authors with varying backgrounds and viewpoints will be spotlighted and added to this conversation.

    1. I do like the idea of reading it as an addition instead of a rebuttal. It makes the idea of literary lineage enticing, as authors instead are now drawing from each other and building on predecessor works to create interesting new content.

  2. Thanks for the post.
    You highlighted well the disparity of perspectives between Song of My Self and the poems within The Work of A Common Woman.
    While it is true that Walt Whitman claimed to represent everyone’s experiences while he couldn’t, the quote you chose can be interpreted in another context. The full stanza: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then…I contradict myself;/I am large…I contain multitudes.” I perceive this very possibly as Whitman having “multitudes” as an individual, having many dimensions within himself, a person full of “contradict[ions]” as a person should. Though he made outragous claims of empathy elsewhere, can more of them be extracted to support this one here? and is it helpful to ask further why this perception of Whitman can be detrimental, other than just giving false/limited representation?

    1. Hm, you raise an interesting point here. I am cherry picking my beliefs a little bit, but literary bias has always been a thing. I do think this line has particular merit because of how much it is referenced in the literary canon and elsewhere, so it is subject to a lot of misinterpretation.

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