Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Price of Individuality in Modern America

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America is freedom. As the melting pot of many races, religions, traditions and ideologies, we are responsible for keeping the opportunities available that were promised by our forefathers. Individualism is a large part of freedom, which makes it challenging to appropriately discuss the concept of the individual in American Literature among such a diverse audience. It is interesting to note how two completely singular authors�Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman-- from two totally distant eras, address the concept of the individual in American literature and have very similar conclusions to form on the issue. Both of these great poets, as individuals in American literature, have incorporated current events into their work , broken out of the ordinary, and been open to new ideas, while standing up for their beliefs in order to become true individuals.

The individual of American literature is self-reliant in that he/she draws on their own experiences to influence, and sometimes manipulate their work. Whitman’s Drum-Taps, which was very much similar to his diary during the American Civil War, reflected the historical situation of that time (Walt Whitman). Because this particular piece goes from a patriotic war fever to a realization of the horror and reality of war, we really get a rare glimpse at this conscious transition in his mind and not only his physical deterioration

Aroused and angry,

I thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war;

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But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d, and I resign’d myself,

To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.

. . .

War! an arm’d race is advancing!�the welcome for


turning away;

War! be it weeks, months, or years�an arm’d race is advancing to

welcome it.

Meanwhile, Ginsberg from “The Beat Generation” was a familiar bushy-bearded figure at protests against the Vietnam War. His ability to state his controversial views in public was an important factor in the development of the state of mind that America developed during the 160s (Widmer, 158).

America you dont really want to go to war.

America its them bad Russians.

Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen.

And them Russians.

The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russias power

mad. She wants to take our cars from out our


Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Readers

Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia.

Him big bureaucracy running our fillingsta-


. . .

America this is quite serious.

America this is the impression I get from looking in

the television set.

America is this correct?

Id better get right down to the job.

Its true I dont want to join the Army or turn lathes

in precision parts factories, Im nearsighted and

psychopathic anyway.

America Im putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Ginsberg’s individuality was further reinforced by his obstinate poetry, which was so strong and straightforward that his talent could not be denied. His refusal to be embarrassed or to deny himself was yet another characterization of his individuality.

Individuality is what ultimately characterizes these two American literature individuals whose work both redefine and worship the America they write about. A major difference between Whitman and Ginsberg is that Whitmans use of language is pretty obvious while Ginsbergs use of simple words as Geoffrey suggests, sometimes develops complex thoughts and meanings, which are easily misunderstood(Geoffrey, 177). Although we can still see the influence of Whitman in Ginsberg’s “America”, Ginsberg is much less optimistic and positive than Whitman himself. He actually sees the irony in American life and addresses it quite frankly. Ginsberg utilizes typical statements and phrases of the time to twist them in a way to show the irony and self-contradictions that underly almost anything. For example, in the section from “America” quoted earlier, rather than putting their shoulder to the wheel, Ginsbergs addition of queer, (meaning homosexual) makes the saying take on a different meaning (Geoffrey, 177). Whitman’s poetry, on the other hand, although very straightforward is also susceptible to different interpretations. For example, Whitman’s exploration of the self in his poetry and his use of the word I can easily imply certain egotistical qualities on his behalf. Or the more popular interpretation given by Miller, is that he was referring to a universal self that connects all people to each other and to nature(Miller, 145).

I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, formed from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents

the same,

I, now thirty seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,

Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,

I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,

Nature without check with original energy.

An additional suggestion of the individualism amidst these two seemingly analogous poets is that Howl seems to be the antithesis to Walt Whitmans Song of Myself. The poems are discussed in relationship to their depiction of individuality and freedom. Both poets portray their subjects in different ways, while still maintaining a few similarities. Both see these issues as illustrating the connected nature of humanity, whether spiritually or not. One speaks of hopelessness and the other of beauty and God. Whitman finds joy and wonder in all things great and small, and identifies with all types of people. While Ginsberg also deals with a variety of actions more than people, he constantly finds desolation rather than joy. His connection with the people he speaks of is not the result of “insight or divine communication”(Atlas, 14) as in Whitman, but instead a clear declaration of utter hopelessness

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

The people he speaks of wander around and around at midnight in the railroad yard, wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts. There are no broken hearts because there are no expectations of connection, which is absolutely contradictory to everything Whitman writes about. Whitman is delighted to learn new things every day, but Ginsbergs subjects demand instantaneous lobotomy. The final and most obvious example of Ginsbergs divergence from Whitman is in the title; where Whitman sings, Ginsberg howls.

A major feature in sustaining your individuality in American literature stems from the ability to stand up for what you believe in, while being open to new ideas. Ginsberg’s mother was a Communist and extremely paranoid, often trusting her son while scared of her family and the rest of society. Ginsberg struggled through family conflicts and homosexuality throughout his adolescence (Sullivan). However this never hindered his poetic accomplishments, instead it gave him more to write about. Allen Ginsberg became the signature of the hippie subculture in addition to that of the ‘Beatniks’ (Widmer,166). Additionally, being a famous American poet, he took advantage of the chances to meet important political figures and express to them his radical “left-wing views” (Moramarco,15). Ginsberg expressed feelings of irritation with the U.S. government, not only in terms of the Vietnam War, but also especially with the drug enforcement laws. The drug culture is one in which Ginsberg was deeply involved as a poet, a person, and a ‘Beatnik’. Some of Ginsberg’s favorite topics to write about included the American landscape, the Vietnam War, as well as the Jewish and Buddhist religions. Coincidentally -- or not -- religion and landscape as well as democracy are usually the main ingredients of Whitman’s poetry as well. This clearly suggests that Ginsberg’s work was definitely influenced by Whitman. This is not to say that Ginsberg’s work was merely a reflection of Whitman’s prose and poetry, although many times they had the same ideas. Ginsberg chose Walt Whitman as a hero and guide because he is a poet of everything; Whitman loves diversity. Whitman too is a very well rounded person who drew from his past experiences to help him create some of his masterpieces. His participation in the Civil War took a dramatic turn in his poetry, which during the war was primarily prose. An example of such a work is that of Drum Taps. ‘Song of Myself’ is practically a great celebration of the experience of being an American. Most of Whitmans poetry illustrates what can be “accurately and appropriately described as that of a shared identity”(Miller, 14) but ‘Song of Myself’ makes the most proper connection between humanity, God, and country.

Although very distinct in their approach, Both Whitman and Ginsberg have fulfilled their obligation in adequately discussing the concept of the individual in American literature throughout their poetry (and prose). These two authors suggest that any individual in American literature must basically be an overachiever ready for anything in order to be achieve true individual status. Whitman writes in a very careful and expansive manner compared to Ginsberg’s concise and sometimes mocking poetry. It even appears that Ginsberg tries to go against everything Whitman would have done in his time only to avoid the likely comparison of his work to Whitman’s. Yet this effort on his behalf is almost pitiful along with his constant idolizing references to Whitman himself, within his poetry. Essentially these two authors strive for the approval of their audience on this delicate subject matter. Whitman’s smooth indirect approach definitely worked for him because I still have not yet come across one negative comment about Whitman’s ideas on Americanism. In fact I have only noticed how so many people tend to follow in his footsteps, such as Ginsberg. Now Ginsberg on the other hand, has been scolded over and over again about his narrow mindedness on certain issues. Because Ginsberg is so fearless in his work, he is able to get his point across fast without worrying about his audience’s approval. Many people do not approve of this method because they might feel that they are more deserving of what individualism and Americanism truly are.

The individual expectations of each of the authors are based on their personal experience, recognition of new ideas, acknowledgement of their own beliefs, and how each saw his solution to the complexity of his personal existence. As time goes on, this is a nation in which it has become increasingly difficult to find a suitable “ethnic identity”(Atlas, 1). In reality, both of these authors go to the extremes if the intention of their work was to adequately represent the concept of the individual in American literature as reality. Whitman is extremely too modest in his kind representation of the American individual and America itself. While Ginsberg’s work on the other hand, does a better job at connecting his concept of the individual in his work to the reality, perhaps he does so a little too much. However, if they were to even attempt to depict true reality, or true individuals in their work, it would probably be unexciting, and definitely not as fulfilling as the concept actually is. The truth is that the idea of individuality is so omnipotent, but in reality an individual person is just that �any individual person. Although, as Americans we tend to go for the ‘juicier’ of the two, the one that is more flattering to our egos. So we have a tendency to digress on the concept rather than the plain reality.

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