Identity and Individuality in Ralph Waldo's Essay "Self Reliance" and Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"

Carl Jung, psychologist, once said, “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes” (1). Throughout this semester, we have studied authors who do a bit of both in constructing their identities through their works, specifically, Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography, Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance,” and Walt Whitman in Song of Myself. The cultural and social factors are seen within all three works. In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin he goes through his early life, not only telling us of his formative experiences, but also teaching us how we can be like him.

George L. Rogers says in Benjamin Franklin’s the Art of Virtue: His Formula for Successful Living, “From small things to great, he progressed step-by-step, patiently mastering the details, industriously performing the necessary duties, and persistently pursuing his objectives” (4).

Although his autobiography does not span across his entire life, we get a real sense of the formation of his identity. Benjamin Franklin was a man with a passion for learning and acquiring knowledge.

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He writes in his autobiography, “I do not remember when I could not read” (1). After having only one year of formal schooling, he was remarkably intelligent and bright. A good deal of his construction of self involved the consumption of books and other learning materials. Franklin recounts, “Essays to do Good […] perhaps gave me a turn of thinking that had an influence on some of the principal future events of my life” (1). And it was his “bookish inclination” that got him into the printing business, his career that also granted him “access to better books” (1).

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From his working-class roots, his ascension to greatness and the formation of his character and selfhood was formed through his passion for reading and learning. Gordon S. Woods in The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin writes, “He is the prototype of the self made man, and his life is a classic American success story” (5). Franklin’s story is an archetype of the “rags to riches” American phenomenon.

America, however, was not always the land of opportunity. As Woods explains, “Aristotle’s principle that people who worked for a living could never possess virtue was still alive in the mid-18th-century” (56). Franklin combats this societal constraint with heartiness, cultivating many virtues. One of his contemporaries, Mr. Benjamin Vaughan, who writes a letter within Franklin’s autobiography, notes “you prove how little necessary all origin is to happiness, virtue, or greatness” (1). He credits his virtuous character to the cultivation of thirteen particular virtues which he would systematically work at through the weeks until he had conquered them all. Certainly, we can see that he did not let the societal expectations of there being virtueless working-class ring true for him in the development of his own individuality.

Despite preconceived notions of some within his society, Franklin not only cultivated virtues, but also his own character. If something worked for him, he would not quit it. When he read about a vegetable diet, he found it not only physically sustaining, but also fiscally sustaining. He would save money by not spending it on meat, and he would spend it on books (1). Throughout his life he was continually looking inside — looking inside himself by cultivating virtues, or looking inside of books to gain knowledge and understanding. These were pivotal in the identity construction of Benjamin Franklin. While The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is personal nonfiction, Ralph Waldo Emerson looks at identity in a different way in his essay “Self-reliance.”

Individuality is also approached in a different way: while Franklin develops his identity through reading the works of others, Emerson teaches his readers to think for themselves. “Trust thyself” he advises (1). This piece of advice is crucial to transcendentalism, which is Emerson’s prescribed doctrine. Transcendentalism and “Self-reliance” are also both “American” in nature (if we can equate the constant need to improve with being American). Emerson, like Franklin, outlines various ways that his readers can help themselves. Kerry Larson, in “Individualism and the Place of Understanding in Emerson’s Essays,” writes, “Self-respect is commonly taken to be a necessary condition for self-improvement, so its appearance in an essay by Emerson is not particularly surprising” (1000). He gives some advice on self-improvement by saying, “Be it how it will, do right now. Always scorn appearances, and you always may. The force of character is cumulative” (1).

Emerson teaches that true individuality exists only within those who value their own opinions above all else, wishing only to please themselves, in order to embrace the creative forces within. When these creative forces are tapped into, it is for the benefit of all, not just the individual, but the individual must be true to himself or herself. Bryan Caplan, in “Self reliance and Creative Destruction,” elaborates, “What Emerson said to the world, in effect, was that individualism was the virtue that made Americans’ – and all other – achievement possible. Imagine, he implies, how much greater Americans’ achievements would be if they were to enshrine their individualism instead of minimizing it” (5). It makes sense: 40 heads thinking the exact same thing will only yield one idea, but 40 heads meditating on their own ideas will generate 40 times as much. It is these freethinking individuals who will contribute most to society. As they look inside, they awake. If they look outside, in Emerson’s view, they are looking for approval from society, and that is not what individuality is about. Emerson says that, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members” (1). Because, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” (1).

Those who conform are thwarting their own sense of individuality, giving up what makes up their core personality. This profound sense of individuality has come to define the typical American personality. “The citizens of […] United States, have long been considered ‘individualistic’; that is, (by world standards) unusually self-reliant, independent, and freethinking” (Caplan 3).

So, individuality is developed when complete self-reliance is attained. To be completely self-reliant, one must be free from all other institutions — of politics, religion, society and Academy — and fully accountable for one’s actions, and totally self aware. Emerson writes, “Insist on yourself; never imitate” (1). To be an individual is to harness the divine power apportioned to one. “Emerson’s hero is the Thinking Actor, a person’s whose intellectual independence enables him to surpass the achievements of previous generations” (Caplan 4). This total reliance on self means that the most intelligent and meaningful contributions come wholly from within. “Shakspeare will never be made by the study of Shakspeare” (1).

If an individual wants to create something truly original and genius, she cannot study about it beforehand. While “Self-reliance” preaches about the necessity of human individuality, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself emphasizes not only individuality, but human togetherness. Through this epic poem, Whitman develops his theory of individuality that transcends time and space and encompasses everyone. He begins, “I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (1). By celebrating himself, he is celebrating every human soul, stressing the connectedness of humanity to each other. Indeed, there is a sort of connectedness between all of the authors heretofore discussed.

Emerson writes in “Self-reliance” of Benjamin Franklin, “Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin […]” (1)? And, Emerson was so taken with Whitman’s Song, when it first came out in 1855, that he wrote Whitman a letter expressing his delight. Whitman later used this letter in one of his editions of his poem (Bloom 254). What does this have to do with the individual? Well, the culmination of American identity is founded on those ingenious poets of the past who, by being freethinking and individualistic, show us exactly what an individual is capable of. This is also an excellent example of the connectedness of the human and American identity. Certainly, we are content to be ourselves and to learn from our own minds, but we are also born into a tradition which cannot be ignored on the basis that we are busy “being ourselves.”

The values and new avenues of thoughts that these authors give us form a part of our national identity that we may not even know about on a conscious level because it is so ingrained into our culture. Whitman wrote Song of Myself in the 1800s when America was experiencing its Transcendental Period. This era is characterized by self awareness, individuality, and freedom. Whitman’s poem certainly evokes these qualities as a leader of transcendentalist thought. He talks about the time being now and the time being always: “But I do not talk of the beginning or the end. / There was never any more inception than there is now, / Nor any more youth or age than there is now, / And will never be any more perfection than there is now, / Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now” (1).

The time for perfection is now, and while it may elude us, it is always there, but never within the constraints of the traditional parameters of time. This reaching toward perfection is a great case in point of Whitman’s theory of identity. As Americans, we are taught that there is such a thing as “perfection,” and that it is a worthy goal to pursue (Bloom 35). Whitman, here, embodies that thought, as he stresses the importance of his vision of identity and individuality. In combination, Whitman looks both outside (though not specifically focusing on society) and dreams, and sees within himself and wakes. He also does not discount the physical sense of identity.

In Regeneration through Violence: the Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, Richard Slotkin explains, “The sublimated spirits of place in the long hunt for identity in Song of Myself emerge as sexual beings, both male and female” (534). Whitman does not eliminate sexual identity from his definition of individuality; we see it in the characters animated throughout his poem, and we see it in Whitman himself. He writes, “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air, / Born here of parents born here from parents the same” (1). This sexual part of identity, before Whitman almost completely ignored by Americans, was one of the main reasons Song of Myself was so controversial in Whitman’s time (Bloom 58).

However, to not give a voice to every aspect of identity would be denying human individuality, and completely counter to the goals of Whitman’s work. Because it is so encompassing, the identity of not only Whitman is apparent, but it also gives the reader an opportunity to put himself or herself in the lines, giving rise to multiple individualities and identities. Whether it is the construction of an entire personality, as in the case of Benjamin Franklin, or explains just how to be the most original individual ever, as in the case of Emerson’s “Self-reliance,” or individualism is put into poetry form as in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, individualism is an important aspect of the American literary tradition.

Franklin’s identity emerges as he reads and hungers after knowledge. Emerson explains the best way to be an individual is by trusting in oneself, and relying only on oneself for all matters of identity in truth. Whitman rejoices in the freedom of being in both the spiritual and physical sense is while forming a connection with everyone in the world, and with the universe. The formation of these identities helps us to understand not only who these authors were, but helps us examine who we really are.

Works Cited

  1. Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. Riverhead Trade: New York, 1995.
  2. Caplan, Bryan. “Self-reliance and Creative Destruction.” George Mason University: 1996.
  3. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-reliance.” Emerson Central. 9 Dec 2006. <http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm>
  4. Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Electronic Text Center, University Of Virginia Library. 9 Dec 2006. <http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2? id=Fra2Aut.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public &part=all>
  5. Franklin, Benjamin, ed. Rogers, George L. Benjamin Franklin’s the Art of Virtue: His Formula for Successful Living. Acorn Publishing: New York, 1996.
  6. Larson, Kerry C. “Individualism and the Place of Understanding in Emerson’s Essays.” English Literary History(68:4) 2001. pp 991-1021.
  7. Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. University of Oklahoma Press: Oklahoma City, 2000.
  8. Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. Princeton University Online Texts. 9 Dec 2006. <http://www.princeton.edu/~batke/logr/log_026.html>
  9. Woods, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. The Penguin Press HC: Boston, 2004.

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Identity and Individuality in Ralph Waldo's Essay "Self Reliance" and Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself". (2021, Sep 16). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/identity-and-individuality-in-ralph-waldo-s-essay-self-reliance-and-walt-whitman-s-song-of-myself-essay

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