This is an essay I recently wrote for my American Poetry class at Concordia University. A few people seemed interested in the topic, and since people (myself included) are eager for new content, I thought I’d post it on my rarely-used blog. It’s not my best work (my professor gave it an A-), but I enjoyed writing it. I hope you enjoy reading it, too.
Exploring American Identity Through Walt Whitman and Dolly Parton
With his first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Walt Whitman self-published his poetry, and constructed a new, false, pastoral, quintessentially American identity for himself. “Song of Myself” is a poem that is both extremely personal and aiming to be universal. His persona cannot be separated from his reality, as he publicly embodies fully this created identity. It is through this careful persona that he can choose to embody whoever he wants to, whether it is a runaway slave, an elderly woman or a child. Published just before the outbreak of the U S Civil War, Whitman introduced a new way to write poetry, a form that became wholly American. Whitman writes in free verse, without the constraints of traditional rhythm, meter or rhyme. Similarly, country music is a form that has come to be synonymous with Southern American identity. Banjos, steel stringed guitars and a harmonica set under a sweet, southern accented voice singing a story. A sweet, southern accented voice like Dolly Parton’s. Parton’s album, My Tennessee Mountain Home, was released 118 years after Whitman’s original publication. Parton’s work, however, is also something wholly personal, and somehow universal. She sings of rural, southern America, her Tennessee home in the Appalachian Mountains, and somehow succeeds in connecting to almost anyone through her music. Whitman and Parton share many commonalities: undeniably talented, a self-created image, work that continues to connect to large populations. The falseness in Whitman comes from his not being everything he says he is, whereas in Parton it comes from representing and recreating the identity of a poor country girl, one who, in reality, no longer lives in a Tennessee mountain home wearing her coat of many colors. Neither of these artists’ personas can be separated from themselves; they publicly embody fully their created identity. It is through this careful persona that they aim to relate to a vast population of people. This essay does not presume that Whitman or Parton created their respective works with a purpose being disingenuous. Rather, it aims to investigate their respective representations of what it means to be American. Parton uses her unique background and regional history to create a persona that both subverts and utilizes stereotypes of Southern Americans. Whitman uses an appeal to the universal, and free verse to show that America is a country without borders, and full of opportunity.
Throughout “Song of Myself,” Whitman aims to write for everyone while simultaneously investigating his own identity and place in the country. He begins the poem by saying, “I celebrate myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Whitman 25). These opening lines set up the essential dichotomy in Whitman’s work: it is both simultaneously a personal manifestation of self, and an aim to relate to everyone and anyone. This is continued throughout the rest of the poem, with Whitman’s speaker moving back and forth between the personal and the general. The opening lines of celebration are completely personal, before he quickly moves to an expansion outwards, addressing the reader. These opening lines set up a precedent for the rest of the poem; that the speaker and the reader will be moving through the journey of self-identity together.
Through his universality, Whitman is able to create a generalized image of America, one that is pastoral and rural while also being lively and bustling. While he uses images of farming and the countryside, there is no specificity in place: “The big doors of the country-barn stand open and ready,/The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon” (Whitman 32). These lines could describe any rural section of the country. The character that Whitman created for himself (Whitman as the poet) utilizes generalization to make it so he can represent every group of Americans, while still remaining the specific white man that he is. He portrays himself as one with everything, a simple man loafing in the grass. The poem even contains a self-referential description: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,/Disorderly flesh and sensual…eating drinking and breeding,/No sentimentalist…no stander above men and women or apart from them…no more modest than immodest” (Whitman 48). This passage seems self-aware, as Whitman writes about himself in the third person, and could possibly be read as sarcastic. His self-awareness creates a tone of near-hyperbole. He defines himself clearly here as an American, and combines grounded ideals of the flesh and roughness with the idea that he is a “kosmos.” He chooses to use the Greek-originating spelling, rather than the more standard cosmos. This is a biblical reference as well, as kosmos is used in the New Testament to mean the ordering of the universe or the world. Whitman is again using juxtaposition of opposites to say that he is both the entire universe and a simple creature of the flesh.
The final lines of “Song of Myself” are: “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,/Missing me one place search another,/I stop somewhere waiting for you” (Whitman 86). By beginning the poem “I celebrate myself,” and ending it with “I stop somewhere waiting for you (Whitman 86),” Whitman is enveloping his piece in a celebration first of self, and then of everyone else. The ending lines also add to the idea that he is something to be found everywhere, an omnipresence in the grass and the dirt, which he indeed says only three lines earlier (“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles” (Whitman 86)). Through this work he has made himself not only a representation of America, but a product of the very ground the country is built on. Whitman seems to be discovering his identity through this poem, which is perhaps why Leaves of Grass went through so many iterations in his lifetime; he was never fully satisfied with any version of this poem.
There is a difficulty in his aiming to be universal, because he cannot escape the realities of his white, male body. There are many passaged throughout the poem that can be read as problematic: “Through me many long dumb voices,/Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,/Voices of interminable generations of slaves,/Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,/Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarves” (Whitman 48). Here, Whitman as the speaker is saying that he can serve as a voice for the voiceless. While dumb can mean speechless, it also has more common connotations of stupidity and pity. He is the voice for an entire country, yet he is still othering the groups he claims to be able to speak for.
Country music is a form that has come to be synonymous with Southern American identity. Banjos, steel stringed guitars and a harmonica set under a southern accented voice singing a story. This essay offers Dolly Parton as a modern counterpoint to Walt Whitman. She is a contemporary artist who also created a strong public image for herself, one which is inseparable from her reality. She has a strong sense of regionalism in her work, yet, her work is also so personal it becomes universal. Parton’s album, My Tennessee Mountain Home, was released 118 years after Whitman’s original publication of Leaves of Grass. Parton sings of rural, southern America, her Tennessee home in the Appalachian Mountains, and somehow succeeds in connecting to people of many backgrounds and identities through her music.
Whitman and Parton share many commonalities: talented storytellers, rural self-created images, work that continues to connect to large populations. Like “Song of Myself,” Parton’s My Tennessee Mountain Home is also an exploration of the self. There is even an echo of Whitman’s pastoral imagery in the verses of My Tennessee Mountain Home’s title track: “Honeysuckle vine clings to the fence along the lane/Their fragrance makes the summer wind so sweet/And on a distant hilltop, an eagle spreads its wings/And a songbird on a fence post sings a melody” (Parton 1973). This is an image of a perfect America, even including the image of an eagle, an important symbol in the identity of America as a united nation. There is a specificity in place, but a universality in the ideals that Parton is representing. In Dollywood, a theme park in Tennessee based off of the music of Appalachia and Parton, there is a replica of Parton’s childhood home (“Tennessee”). That represents the point being made about Parton’s persona: a fake house in the middle of a theme park of Parton’s life, that is supposed to show the reality of her pastoral life, but in reality, is just a facsimile.
The falseness in Whitman comes from his not being everything he says he is, whereas in Parton it comes from representing and recreating the identity of a poor country girl, one who, in reality, no longer lives in a Tennessee mountain home wearing her coat of many colors. The narrative that Parton perpetuates is another version of the American dream: a hometown, country girl with Hollywood aspirations who finally makes it big yet retains her small-town spirit. There is an obsession with rising to the top. If you just work hard enough, you’ll be able to make it big and earn enough money to graduate out of your lower financial standing. The aforementioned album, My Tennessee Mountain Home, begins with a letter from Parton to her parents, written just after she left for Nashville. She says, “I cried almost all the way to Nashville and I wanted to turn around a few times and come back but you know how bad I’ve always wanted to go to Nashville and be a singer and songwriter and I believe that if I try long enough and hard enough that someday I’ll make it” (Parton 1973). Her story is quintessentially American, and although Parton actively defies many of the stereotypes of the poor, dumb farmer from Appalachia, she feeds directly into the pull-yourself-by-your-bootstraps version of American identity. Graham Hoppe’s recent essay, “Icon and Identity: Dolly Parton’s Hillbilly Appeal,” says that: “What Dolly Parton understands is that the “hillbilly” aspects of her upbringing, her origin story, endear her to people who share that background and create an unmistakable air of authenticity for those who don’t” (Hoppe 50). There is a careful creation for both Parton and Whitman of an identity that serves this very purpose.
Parton’s identity, however, cannot be as actively defiant as Whitman’s. Although she wrote her album over a century after Whitman’s original publication, she works under the restraints of being a young woman in an era and a region where defiance was not tolerated. Whitman writes: “My flesh and blood playing out lightning, to strike what is hardly different from myself/On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs,/Straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip,/Behaving licentious towards me[…]/Unbuttoning my clothes and holding me by the bare waist” (Whitman 53). This “masturbatory sequence” is carnal and sexual, and a move towards the self, creating a detachment from the everyman narrative in other sections of the poem. The sexuality of “Song of Myself” does not discredit the work, however, a passage such as the one above is an example of the presence of Whitman’s masculinity. Parton’s identity is defined in opposition to this facet of Whitman; she is a feminine, sweet, home-grown girl. “Back Home” is a song about homesickness, and while Parton sings “I’ve spent a lot of time a’ wishin’ I could go back home,” she prefaces it by saying that “I got a letter from mama/And mama asked if I’d come back home/She says it sure is lonesome now” (Parton 1973). Her persona is rooted in selflessness, and the album as a whole contains no mentions of sexuality, and very little mention of any of her personal desires. She is working within a mode that does not support outright expressions of politics, or expressions of non-feminine ideals from women. Whitman had more freedom as a white man in 1855 than Parton did as a woman in 1973.
It is difficult to encompass the entire breadth of America in a single, dogmatic phrase, other than perhaps that the country’s history is extremely troublesome and difficult to reckon with. Whitman created the persona of himself as a poet in order to authenticate his work, to have a physical image that matches the one within the poem, of an everyman loafing in the grass. His creation of a new form of poetry became one that was quintessentially American, filled with ideals of equality and republicanism. Parton’s identity is similarly American, patriotic, and accessible despite being so personal to her lived experiences. She uses her specific, regional identity to relate to a larger audience. Whitman uses personal and universal identity to do the same. Although their respective personas are constructed, there is a balance of this identity being partially false and partially genuine.
Word Count: 2,132
Bratcher, Robert G. “The Meaning of Kosmos, ‘World’, in the New Testament.” The Bible
Translator, vol. 31, no. 4, Oct. 1980, pp. 430–434, doi:10.1177/026009438003100406.
Hoppe, Graham. “Icon and Identity: Dolly Parton’s Hillbilly Appeal.” Southern Cultures, Spring
2017, pp. 49-62.
Parton, Dolly. “The Letter.” My Tennessee Mountain Home, Sony Music Entertainment, 1973.
Parton, Dolly. “My Tennessee Mountain Home.” My Tennessee Mountain Home, Sony Music
Entertainment, 1973. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/6rQlfR31QLNCBrq0no1Qc2?si=hsGbfgrqTRuFD75GFAp0JQ.
Parton, Dolly. “Back Home.” My Tennessee Mountain Home, Sony Music Entertainment, 1973.
“Tennessee-Mountain-Home.” Dollywood Parks & Resorts,
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition, Viking Penguin