In the midst of a crisis of democracy, we have much to learn from Walt Whitman’s journey toward egalitarian selfhood.
Walt Whitman knew a great deal about democracy that we don’t. Most of that knowledge is concentrated in one stunning poem, Song of Myself.
Esteemed cultural and literary thinker Mark Edmundson offers a bold reading of the 1855 poem, included here in its entirety. He finds in the poem the genesis and development of a democratic spirit, for the individual and the nation. Whitman broke from past literature that he saw as “feudal”: obsessed with the noble and great. He wanted instead to celebrate the common and everyday. Song of Myself does this, setting the terms for democratic identity and culture in America. The work captures the drama of becoming an egalitarian individual, as the poet ascends to knowledge and happiness by confronting and overcoming the major obstacles to democratic selfhood. In the course of his journey, the poet addresses God and Jesus, body and soul, the love of kings, the fear of the poor, and the fear of death. The poet’s consciousness enlarges; he can see more, comprehend more, and he has more to teach.
In Edmundson’s account, Whitman’s great poem does not end with its last line. Seven years after the poem was published, Whitman went to work in hospitals, where he attended to the Civil War’s wounded, sick, and dying. He thus became in life the democratic individual he had prophesied in art. Even now, that prophecy gives us words, thoughts, and feelings to feed the democratic spirit of self and nation.
What better way to imbibe the intoxicating stanzas of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself than in the company of Mark Edmundson, author of the brilliantly argued Why Read? In Song of Ourselves Edmundson explicates and amplifies Whitman’s great wake-up call with an exuberant tenderness reached through decades of study and teaching. Here you will find our American ur-text, Whitman’s irreverent bible of New World democracy, revealed.
Accessible, conversational, thoughtful, and eloquent, Edmundson has found his wonderfully distinctive and compelling voice in a book that is fascinated by democracy, fellow-feeling, sympathy, imagination, tyranny, and hierarchy. Song of Ourselves is one of the great books about literature, partly because it is about so much more than literature.
There could be no better time than the present for Mark Edmundson’s tribute and guide to Walt Whitman. Song of Ourselves is a stirring and worthy evocation of the great poet of American democracy. Edmundson inhabits Whitman. Edmundson is Whitman’s companion, as Whitman is ours through all of our vexations, taking stock of multitudes still to come.
‘What of Walt can we use?’ Mark Edmundson asks urgently in Song of Ourselves. This lyrical, forthright, and intimate book pays tribute to Whitman in a thoroughly Whitmanian spirit, guiding us through a revelatory reading of Song of Myself and the poem’s fulfillment in Whitman’s experience of tending wounded soldiers in Civil War hospitals. Edmundson has composed a learned and unpretentious hymn to democracy and its greatest American bard.
Mark Edmundson’s portrait of Walt Whitman proves that our greatest poet is also an essential spiritual guide for twenty-first-century America. With his moving account of Whitman’s visiting the Civil War wounded, as well as his reading of Song of Myself, Edmundson makes a resounding case for the humane, democratic sympathy we now need so much.
Whitman was a great sage, a wise man, a mage, but he would have been happier with a simpler term. Perhaps just a friend, someone who might take your hand and point out the path. And that is exactly what Mark Edmundson does in this ecstatic book: he gives us a visionary glimpse of Whitman’s own vision. Song of Ourselves is a book about why we need to read Whitman now, by a writer as large-souled as his subject.
‘Song of Myself’ is a challenging poem to describe, let alone interpret. Edmundson does both masterfully…The style is welcoming and informal, his wide-ranging parenthetical references (to Plato, Freud, Derrida, etc.) make the experience of reading the book more like dropping into his classroom. Like many of the best teachers, Edmundson radiates enthusiasm for his subject.
For fans of Walt Whitman's poetry or any reader interested in how this father of American poetry continues to shape our understanding of democracy…A beautiful and thorough introduction to and examination of America's most important poet.
- 240 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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