Walt Whitman walked about in his America, noticing and noting down. Famously containing multitudes. Famously willing even to contradict himself. Including minute details of ornithological observation and the sky studded with stars. The butcher-boy, the blacksmith, the surgeon, the Negro teamster. Occupations and classes of people. Men, women, children. The solitary wilderness hunter and the crowds thronging city streets. The President, the planter, and the panting fugitive slave. Encompassing even the common grass, everywhere. "One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same."
Words: cymballine, quoits, simulacrum, gamut, Paphian, agonistic, melange, trottoirs, coreopsis, interstices, mulleins, chyle, riant, autochthons... Whitman's words, more than 13,000 different ones, by some estimates. And many discourses. Whitman, looking back on his early years in New York, recalls frequent visits to the antiquities of the "Egyptian Collection" on Broadway and to the "Phrenological Cabinet" of the Fowler Brothers and Samuel Wells (Whitman had his own "chart of bumps" prepared). Whitman studied Ormsby MacKnight Mitchell's Course of Six Lectures on Astronomy and used its lessons in his poems (his own astronomical observations were so detailed that some of the poems can be dated using his descriptions of the night sky). He was familiar with contemporary thought about electricity and atoms, with the theology of Elias Hicks, with the historical theory of Thomas Carlyle.
And then there was music. The poems use more than two hundred different musical terms and mention more than two dozen different instruments. In Whitman's youthful journalism and in the memoirs of old age, music appears often, music of all kinds. Popular family singing groups like the Cheneys and the Hutchinsons. Visiting European virtuosi of the violin and the piano. Oratorios and operas. The minstrel singer Daddy Rice. The "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind, on a tour of America promoted by P. T. Barnum. The American classical composer Anthony Philip Heinrich. The songs of Stephen Foster. A Beethoven septet. A performance by a group of nurses and convalescing soldiers in a Civil War hospital. Whitman wrote an editorial urging the regular study of music in American schools. He proposed an American opera using three (or more) banjos in the orchestra and including arias accompanied only by the banjo. He told a friend that more of his poems than he could remember had been inspired by music, heard in the streets, in the theater, or in private. In defending his poetry against accusations of formlessness, he claimed to construct his poems in the manner of Italian opera. "Nobody could write in my way unless he had the melody singing in his ears... in the older pieces I always had a tune before I began to write." And in the poem "I Hear America Singing," he celebrated the music welling up all around him.
The America which Whitman heard singing was one which he imagined shared many qualities with himself.
Exuberant. Expansive. Adhesive. Inclusive.
And here it is.
David Kresh was the reference specialist in poetry in the Humanities and Social Sciences Division of the Library of Congress. He served as poet in residence at Capitol Hill Day School, where he introduced his students to Walt Whitman in second grade.
Learn More About It
- See Whitman's notebooks in Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks from the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection - http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwhtml/wwhome.html
- Read articles and poems by Whitman in The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals (search on "Walt Whitman") - http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpcoop/moahtml/snchome.html
- Read more about Whitman in Today in History, May 31 (Whitman's birthday) -
- Read about how Walt Whitman relates to The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War
- Search the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog for photographs of Whitman (enter the key words "Walt Whitman" in the search box) - http://lcweb.loc.gov/rr/print/catalog.html
- View the finding aid for the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman in the Manuscript Division - http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/eadmss.ms004014
- View the finding aid for the Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman in the Manuscript Division - http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/eadmss.ms002007
- View the finding aid for the Walt Whitman Papers (Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection) in the Manuscript Division - http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/whitman.html
When Walt Whitman wrote ‘I Hear America Singing’, he intentionally wanted to catch the attention of America’s individuality. Langston Hughes responded to Whitman, by writing ‘I, Too’ because he felt like every culture wasn’t included in America according to Whitman’s poem. ‘I, Too’ references African Americans during the time of Harlem Renaissance, World War I and II . One of the purposes of this poem is to attract the attention from African Americans and Caucasians. In this poem, Langston Hughes shows his ambition towards changing the level of equality of African Americans and the rest of America. The poem explains Hughes sitting at the table but being asked to move when a Caucasian comes in the restaurant. He is told to eat in the kitchen because he is a ‘darker brother’. The Caucasians who told him to give up his seat expects the personna to take offense to this, but instead laughs. He knows that one day he will be able to sit at the table and without the feeling of shame. This poem was written during the period of the Harlem Renaissance.
Originating in Harlem, New York during the 1920’s, this movement was started to shed light on the history, experience, and creativity of the African American community. Though there are many cultures found within America, the prevailing culture at this time suppressed that of African Americans. The emphasis of the Negro culture promoted the need to understand and incorporate the Bryant-Erales 2 importance of this culture in the ‘melting pot’ that is America. Hughes uses this poem to highlight the fact that his culture is also that of America. Hughes does not have the power to control what is said to him, but he can control his reactions.
African Americans have always been able to deal with the negatives cast to them and grown stronger. ‘But I laugh,/And eat well,/And grow strong.’ (lines 5-7). Hughes uses irony in these lines in that he was told to do something as derogatory as moving for a ‘better’ person, yet he reminds himself of the fact that those times will not last much longer.
Therefore he laughs, enjoys his food, and develops more strength to continue to fight for equality.’Speaking for all African Americans, he says that he will feed his soul independent of others and grow strong within until that time comes when you begin the see the beauty and worth of my people’s contributions. He does not merely believe change is possible by speaking in grandiose terms.’ (Booth p.5) Caucasians would expect him to be affected in a negative way and outraged, because he has to eat in the kitchen, but he was not discouraged. When he finally gets to eat at the table, others will be ashamed. Caucasians will see his beauty and see their wrongdoings for sending him to the kitchen. Hughes spoke to determined individuals who were serious about progress and work towards a permanent change. ‘But I laugh/ And eat well’ (lines 5-6).
These lines influences African Americans to have faith and enjoy life even though they may experience a rough journey that will eventually lead to joy. In addition, he explains the significance amount of the joy that will come after the blacks work together to make a difference. The word,’table’ (line 9) means a celebration for change. He remains optimistic and sees the people from all different backgrounds getting along. Bryant-Erales 3 Hughes knew that there would be a day where everyone is equal. In this poem, Hughes states ‘Tomorrow,/I’ll be at the table’ (line 8).
Not only does this state that African Americans will not have to be ashamed and sent to the kitchen to eat but they are free to sit at the table. In other words this day would show America truly united. At this time, there was a lot of violence and hateful oppression. He doesn’t necessarily look over the negative things that happened but he has hope that America would change for the better. ‘One day, these whites will be ‘ashamed’ of their conduct and admit that he, too,sings America-he, too is America'(Rampersad par.3). America at this point could be better only if people would change their views.
The ‘table’ is a symbol of equality. By being at the table, Hughes is saying his voice was heard and he is now included in America. African Americans weren’t treated like Caucasians because of their skin color. Hughes avoided using specifics words that would create feelings that would stir controversy. ‘I, too, sing America/I am the darker brother'(line 2). Hughes means he is related to the rest of America, but he looks and feels different compared to the rest of America. This quote also demonstrates many African Americans including him singing the national anthem and having freedom.
In other words, singing represents blacks having a voice in America and looking forward to having freedom in the future. ”Darker’ (2) is used in place of black to refer to African Americans. Rather than saying white, Hughes uses ‘they’ (3) to talk about Caucasian Americans. This poem offers a glimpse into the future where there is greater unity among the races’ (Booth par.3). Being darker at this time meant having less rights. When African Americans went to restaurants Bryant-Erales 4 they weren’t allowed to sit anywhere they wanted. They only had the option of eating in the kitchen or in the back of the building.
Hughes spoke for better days, which would mean him being included in America. He remains optimistic about what the future holds. ‘Tomorrow,/I’ll be at the table/When company comes'(lines 8-10). Sitting at the table shows freedom and equality and by him not being able to sit there shows that he doesn’t have either of these. He continued to think positive and had no problem fighting for what he believed in. Hughes created an enlightening story of staying strong and experiencing the true meaning of freedom.
This line shows how African Americans advocated the importance of being strong and positive. African Americans fought until they achieved their goal of equality. In conclusion, Hughes wanted to feel like he was apart of America. In this poem he showed ambition since he stayed positive by staying focused on better days. He wanted to end racism so he could feel the real definition of freedom. He wanted to everyone to feel equal no matter what their skin color was. His poem relates to the Harlem Renaissance and how the African American community to enlighten people. All of the hard work that African Americans put into making everyone feel equal, worked. Patience is the key to changen here…