Whitman and Emerson: Pioneers of American Individuality

Categories: Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the tapestry of American literature, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson stand as quintessential figures, shaping the discourse on nonconformity and individuality. Their revolutionary ideas, though expressed through different mediums and perspectives, have become ingrained in the mainstream consciousness. Despite the contrasting tactics they employed, their shared commitment to championing originality and personal expression is unmistakable.

The Divergent Paths of Emerson and Whitman

Emerson and Whitman, each in their own distinct manner, ardently believed in the importance of originality and personal expression.

Emerson, in vehement opposition to what he perceived as an oppressive and unimaginative society, contended that modern civilization conspired against the individual's true essence. He famously proclaimed, "Society is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members."

On the contrary, Whitman expressed profound esteem for the common man in his epic poem, "Song of Myself." Embracing the working class with an unusual favor, he celebrated their unique ways and lifestyle, urging readers to lead an original and unconfined life.

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"The sun falls on the crisply hair and mustache, falls on the black of his polished and perfect limbs, and I behold the picturesque giant and love him." In doing so, Whitman encouraged a rejection of societal norms in favor of individual happiness.

While their approaches may appear disparate, the underlying message remains consistent: reject societal constraints and embrace a life of simplicity, devoid of conformity to rigid social customs.

Tonal Contrasts: Emerson's Disgust and Whitman's Celebration

The tones of Emerson's essays and Whitman's poetry diverge significantly.

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Emerson's "Self-Reliance" exudes a cold and almost apocalyptic sentiment, viewing society with disgust and suspicion. He perceives it as a cruel masquerade enslaving hapless souls to its iron will: "Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on another."

Conversely, Whitman's "Song of Myself" emanates beauty and upliftment. His verses are a celebration of life and individuality, expressed in flourishes and silky prose: "You sea! I resign myself to you also – I guess what you mean, I behold from the beach your crooked fingers." Emerson's essay is philosophical and open to personal interpretation ("A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"), while Whitman's poem is vividly sensual, offering a detailed exploration of personal experiences ("The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair"). Notably, Whitman shares his personal perceptions and opinions, engaging the reader in a more intimate manner, whereas Emerson presents facts and leaves interpretation to the reader: "Another sort of false prayers are our regrets."

This stark difference in style and approach underscores their common goal of advocating for more originality within society. Whitman aspired to forge an authentic American consciousness through his writing, free from European influence, while Emerson sought to liberate minds from the shackles of conformity imposed by society: "Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater."

The Obligation to Inform: A Shared Sense of Duty

It is evident that both Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson felt a profound duty to free, warn, or inform society of their perspectives. This sense of obligation and desire for intellectual liberty has paved the way for subsequent thinkers eager to enlighten us in various aspects of life. Ironically, in their attempts to liberate society from perceived constraints, they unwittingly unleashed a quintessential component that now plagues us—telemarketing.

By challenging societal norms and advocating for individuality, Whitman and Emerson laid the groundwork for a broader discourse on freedom of thought and expression. Their contributions, though differing in style and emphasis, converge in their overarching theme of encouraging individuals to embrace their uniqueness and resist the stifling conformity of society. In the grand tapestry of American literature, Whitman and Emerson stand as beacons of nonconformity, guiding subsequent generations toward a richer, more authentic understanding of self.


As we reflect on the enduring legacy of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, it becomes clear that their impact extends far beyond their respective eras. Through their writings, they have left an indelible mark on the American literary landscape, influencing generations of thinkers who followed in their footsteps. The call for nonconformity and the celebration of individuality, though expressed through diverse lenses, resonate as enduring principles that continue to shape our understanding of the self and society.

Updated: Jan 02, 2024
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Whitman and Emerson: Pioneers of American Individuality. (2016, Jun 05). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/transcendentalism-of-ralph-waldo-emerson-vs-walt-whitman-essay

Whitman and Emerson: Pioneers of American Individuality essay
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