Emerson is considered to be a godfather of American democratic tradition in America. Indeed, he was a literary artist of dramatic and imaginative expressiveness and the first mature democratic intellectual in the United States whose desire was to speak to the broad public. He paid attention to the urgent social issues of his time (the destruction of Native Americans, slavery, etc.), emphasizing the need for democratic individuals to be nonconformist, brave and faithful. According to Emerson, individuals must create their own democratic individuality. Democracy by Emerson is not only about the mechanisms of the political system, but more important, it is about individuals being encouraged and enlightened with the aim of creating and sustaining a true democratic community, a type of civilization that was exceptional in human history. An individual must earn everything himself, “that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till” (Emerson, 1841). Emerson considered that this task required questioning fundamental dogmas as well as human beliefs and prejudices. He thought that the United States should develop an original culture independent of Europe, for example, create an American writing style. Emerson’s romanticism was the result of his understanding of the need for change. Thus, a democratic community must constantly create new outlooks, new vocabularies, new viewpoints, and new visions. He also stressed on individual commitment to analysis and volition.
Emerson put forward the inspiring vision that to be a democratic individual is to be adaptable and revisionary in one’s relations with the other people and the world, not sticking to comfortable doctrines. His democratic individual is a freedom fighter against those difficulties that interfere with rich individuality, particularly cumbersome philosophy. He advocated equality of opportunity, but he also criticized the narrow American dream of financial prosperity being a form of conformism.
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Whitman’s “Song of Myself” contains a self-portrait of a man, who feels the immense mental strength and is endowed with unwavering love of life, which combines with a strong belief in the great present and the great future of his country. This artistic image conveys some real personality traits of the poet. Coming from a democratic environment, he considered himself to be a son of Manhattan: the man for whom the beliefs, concepts and hopes of ordinary Americans were closely related to his own. Never perceiving himself as an artist who might have conflicting relations with the world of everyday American reality, Whitman tried to speak on behalf of millions of his countrymen. The concept of masses, people and democracy were synonymous for him. The son of Manhattan is not considered as a unique human person, but as a cosmos, as the embodiment of the national consciousness and American (and possibly world) soul. Democracy for Whitman was “the central organizing principle of nature” (Mack, 2002).
Since his youth, Whitman was accustomed to labor. He was a carpenter, a typesetter, an elementary school teacher, a reporter for small newspapers, and he had no time for deep intellectual pursuits. Whitman even did not get a formal education. However, he learned from Emerson’s ethical doctrine of self-reliance which exalts the creative potential of every person endowed with courage and independence of knowledge. Another important source of his ideas was the concept of utopian socialism as a part of American social experimentation (Shklar, 1990). Permeated by the conviction that the divine is contained in every man, Whitman considered that brotherhood is the natural state which will certainly lead to the development of social relationships (especially in America). Whitman glorified the unity of being and equality of all of its forms.
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