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Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, wearing hat and sweater, holding butterfly

[Detail] Walt Whitman holding butterfly

Nation Building

Living not one hundred years after America declared its independence, Whitman, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and other contemporaries, was concerned with how the country would develop. Students can read Whitman's definition of true American character on pages 17-19 of Notebook #80. They can also read statements about nationhood on pages 24 and 114-116. Ask students to consider the following questions:

  • How does Whitman conceive of America and its people? What are some of the words he uses to describe them? Is this a realistic description? What does Whitman want to communicate through these descriptions?
  • What does Whitman mean by "scheme" on page 116 of Notebook #80? What might his scheme be and how does he hope to accomplish it?

Interest in nation building was not limited to intellectuals like Emerson, but captivated the public at large, expressed in the many reform movements of the nineteenth century. On pages 4-8 of Notebook #86 Whitman writes a long, graphic simile comparing "what has been called and is still called religion," to a corpse. Shortly thereafter, he makes reference to "religious and political improvements." Ask students to consider the following questions:

  • How does Whitman's simile on pages 4-8 relate to pages 2 and 3, preceding it?
  • Why does Whitman use a corpse to characterize religion? What does he suggest about religion through his description of the corpse?
  • Is Whitman calling for a reform of religion? What else might he be trying to reform and how?

Refer students to David Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance to better see how the poet and popular culture influenced each other through the activities and rhetoric of reform.