The individual stands at the center of the works of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. Prompted to their reflections by the changing social, economic, and political conditions of nineteenth century America, they articulate two rich and distinct visions of individuality and the conditions that foster and frustrate its development. Whitman’s poetry and prose depicts a porous, malleable, internally plural self who experiences the world in largely aesthetic terms and ecstatic terms, whereas Thoreau’s writings depict a bounded, willful self who experiences the world through the mediating force of her individual ethical principles. Thus, while both valorized individuality they present competing ideals: Whitman’s was expansive and centrifugal while Thoreau’s was integral and centripetal. Furthermore, their respective accounts of democracy—the former’s laudatory, the latter’s critical—are profoundly shaped by these antecedent accounts of the individual. In this essay I argue that not only do these distinct visions of individuality continue to speak to us today, they stand to inform analysis of and attachment to modern democratic institutions and practices.


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pp. 601-621
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