Whitman and Hughes: The Personal and The Universal

Though poets of a different time in American history, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes have something in common in terms of subject matter: intertwining the personal and universal. Whitman volunteered with the sick and dying soldiers in a war that was pulling America behind and later in American history, Hughes was immersed in the poverty, prejudice, and hopelessness that was Harlem. Both Hughes and Whitman were fixated with a part of America that needed help and needed change and each poet dedicated much of their poetry to the problems America faced during their lifetimes. While Whitman and Hughes repeatedly address specific themes in their poetry, they similarily acknowledge humanity as a whole.

Hughes specifically addresses different groups of people who experience oppression in the poem “Relief” when he says, “My heart is aching / for them Poles and Greeks / on relief way across the sea / because I was on relief / once in 1933”. Here, Hughes relates his suffering with that of the Poles and Greeks, demonstrating that no matter what form racism takes, the oppression is no different. In the poem “Likewise”, Hughes addresses racism towards Jewish people and ends the poem with, “Sometimes I think / Jews must have heard / the music of a / dream deferred”, enveloping Jews into the same sort of injustice as African-Americans. Hughes confronts humanity as a whole in the poem “Color” when he writes, “Wear it/ Like a banner / For the proud- / Not like a shroud”. Here, Hughes portrays the universal experience of being persecuted as a result of race while focusing on the black experience at the same time.

In “Song of Myself”, Whitman moves from talking about and asking questions of individuals such as slaves, mothers, young women, Americans, children, Northerners, Southerners, and soldiers to addressing humanity as a whole in lines such as, “Were mankind murderous or jealous upon you, my brother, my sister?”, “What is a man anyhow?”, and “What behaved well in the past or behaves well to-day is not such a wonder, / The wonder is always and always how there can be a mean man or an infidel”. In “Song of Myself”, Whitman lists a large group of different kinds of people and follows it with, “And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them, / And such as it is to be of these more or less I am, / And of these one and all I weave the song of myself”. Whitman makes a point that every human- man, woman, black, white, rich, or poor is the same thing that he, himself is- a human.

While Whitman often wrote of American issues such as war and depicted individual groups of people and Hughes wrote of racism and African-American struggles in a white America, each poet goes beyond the individual and the nation in many of their poems, addressing humanity as a whole and acknowledging the likeness of every being.

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