Defining Self-Awareness in the works of Emerson, Whitman and Poe
Literature in the American Renaissance influenced the Romantic sentiment that prevailed during this period: the emergence of the individual. This materialization evolved out of the Age of Reason, when the question of using reason (a conscious state) or faith (an unconscious state) as a basis for establishing a set of beliefs divided people into secular and non-secular groups. Reacting to the generally submissive attitudes predominant in America at this time, nineteenth century writers envisioned "the source of religion within consciousness itself" (Chai, 10). This "secularization of religion" ultimately led to the "isolation of the self from others" (Chai, 10), and manifested the persuasive theme in Renaissance literature that promoted independent thinking. The writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman all emanate from this Romantic spirit. "Trust thyself" asserts Emerson, do not remain "clapped in jail by [your] consciousness" (261), be "led [out] in triumph by nature" (542). Merging the individual and nature is a common motif in Romanticism, but these writers had contrasting views on the dynamics of this connection. While Emerson and Whitman were on one end of the Romantic meter proclaiming the potential greatness of the individual, Poe was at the other end questioning human nature. Indeed, the literature these authors produced are relative to the Romantic trend in elevating self-awareness, however their work demonstrates Emerson and Whitman differ with Poe regarding the ascendancy of the conscious and unconscious states of the mind.
Emerson and Whitman celebrated the conscious power of the individual, while Poe exposed the hidden fears repressed within the unconscious self. In each of their separate philosophies regarding the make-up of this individual, there is always a common quality of being separate but equal, someone who neither conforms to society nor rejects it completely, but stands apart, independent in thought. This individual is the Romantic hero, the one "who in the midst of a crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude" (Emerson, 263). Emerson explains how this transcendence from a dulled state of consciousness to a higher level of awareness is achievable if you "insist on yourself; [and] never imitate" (278). In his usual candid style, Whitman identifies himself as this hero in Song of Myself proclaiming, "I exist as I am, that is enough, / And if no other in the world be aware I sit content, / And if each and all be aware I sit content. / One world is aware, and by far the largest to me, and that is myself" (2759). Improbable as it seems, Poeâs hero begins to resemble the Îmeâ in Whitmanâs last line "who trustingly consults and thoroughly questions his own soul" (qtd in Rosenheim, 25). This correspondence in self-awareness links these authors to each other, and to Romanticism.
Clearly Emerson and...