Is Walt Whitman the Old Kanye?

by Emily McKinney

Credit: Pixabay | Edited: Emily McKinney

When Kanye West told us that he “missed the old Kanye” did he really mean the old Kanye? Or did he mean the old, old Kanyethe nineteenth-century Kanye?

Criticised for his politics, feuds and solipsistic ego, Kanye West is never shy of attention. His on-again, off-again presence on social media triggers speculation of his mental health: with scholars often discarding his lyrics as arrogant self-commentary. However, West holds an important position in a lineage of American self-reliance, making his lyrics more important to contemporary America than meets the eye.

Ralph Waldo Emerson defines ‘self reliance’ as “the need for each individual to avoid conformity […] and follow his or her own instincts.” Emerson influenced the self-exploration of writers Herman Melville, Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman.

The self-reliant man is independent, non-conforming and superior. He acts as a “guiding literary voice to stant as an avatar for the country,” according to Tina Jordan. Walt Whitman embodies this role. Whitman believes “[the poet] is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key / he is the equalizer of his age and land.” With the poet quashing the politician, it’s no wonder twenty-first-century West imagines a presidential campaign for himself. But, how can we accept Ezra Pound’s declaration of Whitman as ‘America’s poet’ if we continue to ignore West’s lyrics? Kanye West ‘represent[s] a new generation just trying to express themselves in a broken world.’ West aligns himself politically with his predecessors to comment on a ‘broken’ society. Be it controversial – we cannot ignore the political dualism of Whitman and West.

West raps, “I know Obama was heaven sent / But ever since Trump won, it proved that I could be president.” Here, his superior attitude mirrors Whitman’s ‘arbiter’ persona. Both believe their politics are absolute. America’s ‘first democratic poet’ would perhaps be received negatively in a similar way to pro-Trump West today. West erratically believes “wearin’ the [MAGA] hat’ll show people that we equal.” Obviously, most disagree with West’s (and Trump’s) sentients, but his disregard for common thought emphasises his self-reliance.

Another Emersonian quality: self-love. James Franco states that Whitman ‘holds just short of extolling himself as the greatest poet that ever lived.’ Similarly, West calls himself ‘the no1 living and breathing rock star.’ This arrogance is the ultimate tribute to Emerson. West’s best example is ‘I Love Kanye;’ often discarded as humour, the rap provides a self-analytical review of West’s lyrical history.

In this era, the self-love of the West’s is labelled eccentric. Where we quote Emerson, we question West: a true contradiction. But, according to Dan Zak’s ‘selfie reliance’ it’s simple to merge the two centuries: ‘we are transcendentalists with iPhones,’ Zak writes. In this era, Emerson would, like West, thrive on the ease to self-reflect on the internet.

So, in order to analyse American self-reliance, we cannot continue to discard the twenty-first-century. After all, no one applies more to Emerson’s self-love agenda than the man who regularly calls himself ‘God.’ Isn’t that right, Kanye?

Sorry – Whitman?

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