Just another Looking for Whitman weblog
Final Project
Posted on December 10th, 2009 at 6:09 pm by ginam

Topic: Whitman’s Song of Myself as a Monomyth

Thesis: Whitman adopts techniques from the classic hero’s epic and manages to convey the existential experience as well as the journey of the monomythic cycle. His long poem follows the form described in Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and Whitman seems to see his narrator’s personal journey as a monomythic experience within the existential realm of his mind (The Hero With A Thousand Faces 66).

Scope: Specifically focusing on Song of Myself, existentialism, and Campbell’s monomyth.


Belasco, Susan. Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Essays. Nebraska: University of

            Nebraska Press, 2007.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. California: New World Library

            Press, 2008.

Campbell, Joseph. Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation.

            California: New Library World Press, 2004.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Books, 1988.

Greenspan, Ezra. Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition.

            New York, NY: Routledge, 2005.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass.

            Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Richter, Eva and Balin Song. Translating the Concept of ‘Identity’ Translation and Cultural

            Change: Studies in History. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Benjamins; 2005.

            (xvi, 193 pp.)

Sowder, Michael. Whitman’s Ecstatic Union: Conversion and Ideology in Leaves of

            Grass. New York, NY: Routledge, 2005.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York, NY: W.W. Norton Publishing Co., 2002.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1993.

Methodology: Existentialist analysis based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth frame.


The Hero’s Journey  
Birth: Fabulous circumstances surrounding conception, birth, and childhood establish the hero’s pedigree, and often constitute their own monomyth cycle. Existentialist Birth: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air, Born here of parents born here of parents the same, and their parents the same.” Whitman discusses the universal formation of humanity.
Call to Adventure: The hero is called to adventure by some external event or messenger. The Hero may accept the call willingly or reluctantly. Call to Adventure from an Inner Spirit: Whitman’s narrator finds his calling within the soul as he attempts to create an existential sensibility within himself.
Helpers/Amulet: During the early stages of the journey, the hero will often receive aid from a protective figure. This supernatural helper can take a wide variety of forms, such as a wizard, and old man, a dwarf, a crone, or a fairy godmother. The helper commonly gives the hero a protective amulet or weapon for the journey. Helpers/Amulet: Whitman’s series of tests are not even directly performed by him, instead two amulet characters (the boy and the woman at the bath) are observed interacting with their environment and the narrator analyses their reactions as an existentialist (Richter 31-5).
Crossing the Threshold: Upon reaching the threshold of adventure, the hero must undergo some sort of ordeal in order to pass from the everyday world into the world of adventure. This trial may be as painless as entering a dark cave or as violent as being swallowed up by a whale. The important feature is the contrast between the familiar world of light and the dark, unknown world

of adventure.

Nature/Spirit Connect-enters the subconscious: Whitman writes, “I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass” (Whitman 25). The narrator’s invitation of the soul and his examination of the “summer grass” show a connection with nature. The narrator is so strongly attuned with nature he appears to succumb to it entirely.
Tests: The hero travels through the dream-like world of adventure where he must undergo a seriesof tests. These trials are often violent encounters with monsters, sorcerers, warriors, or forces of nature. Each successful test further proves the hero’s ability and advances the journey toward its climax. Mental Tests: For Whitman, these tests are performed in the mind of his narrator and not in the physical world. The narrator is asked to examine his own thought process and in doing so he begins to questions his place within nature. The first test is in his encounter with the young boy. His second test occurs at the edge of the water as he observes the woman with the bathers.
Helpers: The hero is often accompanied on the journey by a helper who assists in the series of tests and generally serves as a loyal companion. Alternately, the hero may encounter a supernatural helper in the world of adventure who fulfills this function.



1.)    the boy examining the blade of grass

2.)    the woman watching the male bathers.

Climax/The Final Battle: This is the critical moment in the hero’s journey in which there is often a final battle with a monster, wizard, or warrior which facilitates the particular resolution of the adventure. Existential Climax: Whitman’s narrator reaches the climax at the end of the poem as he releases an animalistic “yawp” to signal his concession to the existentialist world, accepting he can not understand the science of life completely. Whitman writes: “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” (Whitman).
Flight: After accomplishing the mission, the hero must return to the threshold of adventure and prepare for a return to the everyday world. If the hero has angered the opposing forces by stealing the elixir or killing a powerful monster, the return may take the form of a hasty flight. If the hero

has been given the elixir freely, the flight may be a benign stage of the journey.

Flight: Whitman’s narrator ventures from the dream state of his existentialist journey to return to the ordinary world. Whitman equates the end of the journey with the narrators symbolic return to natural elements. In the lines at the conclusion of the play the narrator is described as “vapor and air” and his “flesh in eddies” and Whitman enforces the notion that the journey ends with a lack of total understanding but a connection with the natural world (Moon 88-95).
Return: The hero again crosses the threshold of adventure and returns to the everyday world of daylight. The return usually takes the form of an awakening, rebirth, resurrection, or a simple emergence from a cave or forest. Sometimes the hero is pulled out of the adventure world by a force from the daylight world.


Return: Whitman’s narrator exemplifies this stage as he returns to his normal mental relationship with nature. His awareness is heightened and his understanding of himself is far greater than at the beginning of the quest. Yet, for the existentialist in Whitman the narrator must remain ignorant to a complete understanding of the world (Belasco 70-3). Whitman’s narrator does gain a new understanding of the world and his connection to it, although he is not able to draw any distinct conclusions. Whitman describes this notion by equating the narrator with the grass he attempted to understand. He writes, “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, and filter and fibre your blood” (Whitman).
Elixer: The object, knowledge, or blessing that the hero acquired during the adventure is now put to use in the everyday world. Often it has a restorative or healing function, but it also serves to define the hero’s role in the society. Elixer: Campbell claims the elixir “defines the hero’s role in society” (The Hero With A Thousand Faces 179-84). For Whitman, this societal definition is comparably unimportant to the personal understanding his narrator gains from his journey. His existentialist approach places more significance on the mutual lack of understanding between the narrator and nature. Whitman writes, “Failing to catch me at first keep encouraged, missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you” (Whitman)
Home: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. Home: Whitman return from his existentialist journey brings him back to the normal world and out of direct communication with the soul.
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