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Contrast of Individualism of Emerson and Whitman

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Free «Contrast of Individualism of Emerson and Whitman» Essay Sample

The definition of individualism differs among the famous writers from the United States of America. These differences may be on the subtle of the individualism and sometimes it is on a substantial course. Whichever direction the differences are, individualism remains a subject of contrast by famous authors. Whitman and Emerson are the famous champions of individualism in American history. Both authors came out to the public through their various articles in order to give different definitions and opinion concerning individualism. Ralph Emerson provides a detailed explanation of individualism in the essay called Self-Reliance, a description that contrasts with the definition given by Whitman Walt in the Songs of Myself. Therefore, this paper seeks vividly to contrast individualism of Whitman and Emerson using Whitman’s Songs of Myself and Emerson’s Self-Reliance as the principal references to draw the differences.

Individualism According to Whitman’s Songs of My-Self

In the Songs of Myself, the author does not use ‘self’ to identify a particular individual, but he rather uses this term to refer to more than one person. To be specific, Whitman uses the term ‘person’ to refer to all people who fall into the same category and, as a result, need similar attention. The poem Songs of Myself has its roots in a nation entangled in a political crisis and agitates for the freedom of all affected by slavery, rights oppression, and religious discrimination. Whitman does not alienate one person from the large group of individuals (Whitman 63). He views problems as a common disturbance to all individuals that need to be tackled in a collective manner rather than letting a person struggle alone.

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According to the Whitman’s Songs of Myself, ‘individualism’ is a group of people with similar problems and predicaments but is squeezed into small groups that are completely oppressed and unrecognizable in the society. For instance, the poem talks about an individual being a part of a larger group and about an individual speaking a language similar to another colleague. All these examples indicate that Whitman is referring to a group of people in the society facing common problem and have the potential of succeeding as a group, a view that is contrary to Emerson’s argument of groups compromising an individual’s success (Whitman 87).

Additionally, Whitman’s Songs of Myself argues that any person has an opportunity to own tangible and intangible goods. This signifies that any two individuals have common rights and are, as a result, considered as one. Further, the poem describes individualism in the context of seeing an individual in all people. For example, the group is responsible for all the right and wrong actions performed by an individual representative of the group. The poem implies that one person cannot survive without associating with colleagues. Instead, association creates good character, values, and bondage among the members of a society. This assertion is contrary to the Emerson’s views that association interferes with good characters and the values of an individual.

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Moreover, Whitman indicates clearly that the concept of individualism depends on understanding of the term ‘self’. Further analysis of this poem reveals that the term ‘self’ does not refer to a particular person but rather combines the individual and the universe. In other words, the term does not refer to a singular personality but to a society comprising of individuals with similar behaviors, values, predicaments, and opportunities. In contrast to the Emerson’s ideologies, the term ‘self’ is used here to signify human ideal. Nevertheless, Whitman has accorded success to every individual and not particular person referring to it as a “leaf” found between “grasses” and exceeded the conventional limits of the term ‘self’ (Whitman 97).

Individualism According to Emerson’s Self-Reliance

On the contrary, Emerson’s Self-Reliance has depicted an entirely different version of what exactly constitutes individualism. According to Emerson, the human mind is subject to conformism that causes unhappiness, thus, justifying the use of thyself in the poem. Additionally, Emerson relates individualism to universal reliance and presupposes that human beings should act in person and avoid conformity, false consistency. Thus, Emerson argues that people should follow personal instincts and ideas (Emerson and Hubbard 56).

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Further, the definition of individualism by Emerson rests on three main pillars: self-contained genius, the value accorded to self-worth, and the world’s disapproval. Additionally, Emerson argues that private thought and an opinion should be considered good for all others in the society. Such renowned individuals as John Milton, Plato, and Moses, who gave preference to their own mindset, highlight the values attributed to self-expression. Additionally, the poem states that following one’s thought can make one achieve success while avoiding being diminished and dispirited (Emerson and Hubbard 66).

In other words, individualism should be left to private affairs and be protected from authority arising from an association with the institutions and the governmental agencies. According to Emerson, this interference is due to the adverse effects caused by the society to the individuals. Moreover, the society compromises the good habits and characters of a person at the expense of bad collective behavior of the world. Emerson goes ahead to explain that giving into the societal demands influences an individual to violate personal nature. Instead, individualism should allow one to open his or her own consciousness to intuition and pay no attention to misunderstood from other for giving preference to an opinion (Emerson and Hubbard 74).

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Finally, the four top contrasts brought out in the Emerson’s view of individualism are depicted in the themes the poem Self-Reliance. To begin with, Emerson argues that self-authority of individuals is due to the ability of citizens to control the government individually, thus, ruling out the possibility of history bringing entitlement. Emerson also presupposes that there is no other thing that bears authority over self since the truth lies inside an individual. Additionally, nonconformity should allow people to be independent and take actions presumed to be right irrespective of what others may think.

Another aspect of individualism, according to Emerson, is existence of a community and solitude. Community is seen as a major disruption to the upright growth of an individual. Thus, Emerson suggests that one should spend more time in solitude rather that involving oneself with the family and the society as a whole. This view is contrary to the Whitman’s argument that success and good values accord to the society or all individuals. In contrast, Emerson says that high self-confidence might sway an individual’s beliefs in a community.

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Lastly, Emerson asserts that spirituality found within a person’s self posits on the institutions a barrier to personal mental growth. This argument is contrary to the Whitman’s view that good habits and character are acquired through interaction and incorporation of appropriately structured institutions (Emerson and Hubbard 46).


To conclude, individualism, according to Emerson, involves succeeding as one person with less regard to the institutions and other individuals in the society who cause disruption of good values and characters. On the other hand, Whitman goes beyond the limits of self and believes that individualism includes all members of a society. In other words, collective character and values are more important than one person’s predispositions.

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