Notions of freedom and captivity abound in the writings of Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman. As contemporaries both men wrote much on the issue of slavery in the United States, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass depicts his quest for freedom from captivity. Walt Whitman celebrates the freedom he sees as inherent in America through his verse. The work of both, however, can be seen to have been captive to political considerations of the period.
According to Carl Martin Lindner, “Freedom is central to Whitman’s vision of life – the artistic life, the individual life, and the life of the society.” The notion that freedom is intrinsic to American life is a central theme of Whitman’s writings. The preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass outlines his admiration of the American people and “their deathless attachment to freedom.” In his letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1856, he refers to the “free modes, characteristic of The States.”
This concept of “free modes,” seen in “Song of Myself” through the use of free verse, a poetic form Whitman is considered to have championed , signals Whitman’s intention to be free from the literary constraints of old Europe. As he declares in his preface, “[the poet] bestows on every object or quality its fit proportions neither more nor less.” Whitman is free to make his own choices concerning the form and subject of his poems.
“Song of Myself” presents the reader with a wide variety of subject matter. By joining with the reader from the outset:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Whitman implies that everything he celebrates in the poem is worthy of celebration by the reader also. Prostitutes, Indian weddings, blacks, suicide, and surgery are among the sights encountered in the poem; taboo subjects for the period, and their inclusion show a democratic ideal of America worthy of celebration in Whitman’s view. By claiming kinship and identity with all facets of the country, Whitman embraces his role as “the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself.”
These ideas of equality are extended to women’s rights in “Democratic Vistas”; he posits that one-day women may be “even practical and political deciders with the men.” Writing to Emerson he writes that American poets:
recognise with joy the sturdy living forms of men and women of These States, the divinity of sex, the perfect eligibility of the female with the male, all The States, liberty and equality… the noble southern heart.
Frederick Douglass describes the character of the southern states in a far different manner. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass presents a stark counterpoint to the democratic ideals espoused by Walt Whitman. Violence replaces democracy in Douglass’s account, “It is better that a dozen slaves suffer under the lash, than that the overseer should be...