Week 12: Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass

Happy Thanksgiving and Wapanoag Week!!!

For this week, I wish to introduce two ardent supporters of true Democracy and equality: the famous poet Walt Whitman and equally famous abolitionist (and former slave) Frederick Douglass.

Please first view this brief biography of Whitman: HERE

Song of Myself - Wikipedia

Read excerpts from his poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” (1855): HERE

Listen to Harvard historian David Blight talk about his new book on Frederick Douglass: HERE

Frederick Douglass

Also view this video of James Earl Jones reading Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” (1852)

By Wednesday, Dec. 1, post a response to one of these readings or videos.

To end the semester, I will also be introducing Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, two of America’s greatest authors. 

I will ask that you watch a recent film version of Melville’s Moby-Dick

You may write your final essay on this film (or others I’ve briefly introduced).

Recommended films include: “Harriet”; “Little Women”; “The Scarlet Letter”; “Moby-Dick”; or perhaps the highly acclaimed “Glory” (on African American soldiers who fought in the Civil War); Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”; “Amistad” (a powerful film concerning a slave ship uprising).

By Dec. 1, please choose a topic (author or theme) that you would like to write about for your Essay Assignment (I am only requiring one essay for this class). You may focus on readings we’ve done (working from one of your earlier posts perhaps) or choose a topic from upcoming authors Hawthorne and Melville (you could also focus on a film I’ve recommended).  


HERE IS A SAMPLE STUDENT ESSAY (on Frederick Douglass)


  1. sumayah

    After reading the autobiography Fedrick dogless and the short video, I have gathered that Fedrick Douglass was one of the greatest influencers in history. Not to mention he was a very important leader in the ABOLITIONISM movement, let alone his memoirs and his works were the keys to the movement itself. He also created a powerful newspaper about anti-slavery, in addition, he advocated for the women’s suffrage movement in the 1800s, he also played a part in granting African Americans to vote which was beyond amazing.

    • Mark Noonan

      Yes, indeed, Sumayah. Frederick Douglass is one of the truly GREAT GREAT Americans who knew first hand how important equal rights were for all — as you point out.

  2. Mohammed Islam

    I never heard of the poet Walt Whitman before today. While reading excerpts from “Leaves of Grass”, the lines that stood out to me were “You

 ” I’m not entirely sure what he means by this but what I got from it was you shouldn’t let what other say persuade you to do things. You should do things based off what you see and know not what others tell you. I think these lines relate to today because so many people jump to conclusions and start attacking or thinking one way because they see other people doing it. Everyone has their own views and other peoples views should not be your own views if you don’t feel the same way. You should interpret things through your own eyes.

    • Mark Noonan

      Mohammed, I’m so glad you’ve now been introduced to the great Walt Whitman. You actually choose one of my favorite lines. As Whitman so wisely states: we all need to become original seers and readers.

  3. Ulises

    After watching the biography of Whitman, specifically at the end of the video there was something that caught my attention a lot, which is that people began to call him a poet, admire him, and to decipher his poems or appreciate them after his death. Another case of a legend that was not appreciated when he was alive, and it is something that is understandable because his topics were very controversial at that time, such as the equality about women, eliminating slavery and legal status about immigrants. When I mentioned that it is understandable that he became known after his death is because at that time people were still very naive, with orthodox thoughts, so his poems were not for people with an open mind, so it is disappointing since it was a way to make America independent and make legit its “Freedom” in less time through a effective way since he wanted a union between cultures, or rather as it is said in the video “brotherhood between nations.” Because of the acceptance between countries, people, and cultures through any medium is an effective way for any type of controversy, well at least that’s how I see it though.

    • Mark Noonan

      Well, Whitman did start getting some street cred in his last few years. But it’s true, the great ones are rarely appreciated until their gone. Whitman’s work has a way of lingering in one’s mind though long after reading him. He asks to return to his poetry every year (!)

  4. Karina

    I really enjoyed watching the videos on Frederick Douglas! He was such an extraordinaire individual who after being enslaved for 20 yrs, he did not act out physically/violently. Instead he was a very smart man in which he was able to convey his messages through strong and powerful speeches which eventually led to abolitionist movements and women’s rights. It was quite interesting to learn that his own children were all involved in the civil war one way or another and this was something that Douglas was fighting for which in the end had the results he always wanted. To this day, Douglas is such an inspiring figure due to what he had to endure as a slave (physical and verbal abuse), yet he was able to switch his life around and the lives of many others through his powerful words and actions that came after, which were the civil rights movements.

    • Mark Noonan

      Oh yes. Frederick Douglass was the best, most courageous, and most intelligent of them all — I totally agree!

  5. tenzin tsomo

    After reading, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?’’ Frederick Douglass not only convinced people of the wrongfulness of slavery but also make abolition more acceptable to Northern whites. Douglass also says that if the people of America believe that slaves are “men”, they should be treated as such. True Christians according to Douglass, should not stand still while the rights and liberty of others are stripped away. Douglass blames the churches for betraying their own Christian values. He is outraged by the lack of responsibility and indifference towards slavery that many things have taken around the nation. He says that, if anything, many churches actually stand behind slavery and support the continued existence of the institution. Douglass compares this to being worse than many other things that are banned such as books and plays that are banned for infidelity. I agree with Frederick in that why would Christians not support and be fighting for slavery when their rights are being taken away. Douglass wants to let his audience realize that they are not living up to their proclaimed beliefs. He talks about how people being Americans, are proud of the country and the religion and how they love the idea of freedom and liberty, and yet they do not offer those things to millions of people living in the country.

    • Mark Noonan

      You do a fine job here Tenzin capturing what Douglass saw was the hypocrisy of too many so-call Christians and Patriotic Americans. He (and those he spoke for) indeed demanded and deserved so much better.

  6. Zarif

    After watching the video of James Earl Jones, I felt as if the piece of writing was very powerful! It really shows how African Americans really feel about the 4th of July, treating people of color in America terribly in the early years of this country. The celebrations and prayers, all feel like mockery! How can a slave or a relative of a slave celebrate this country knowing the history upon it with discrimination and racism.

    • Mark Noonan

      Excellent post Zarif to this powerful video — as you capture so well.

  7. Brian Chan

    After watching the biography of Whitman, I feel that he was underrated and deserved more attention. This is especially so when I learned that Whitman was self taught and dropped out to help support his family. One thing that caught my attention was when the video mentioned, “He produced a small book of poems called Drum Taps. This is one of the only two accounts of the Civil War written by people who actually experienced”. With the amount of literate people, I expected there to be more accounts of the Civil War by people who participated in it, but only to find out there are only two, one of which was written by Whitman. So not only was this man a poet, but a gifted writer. It is very unfortunate that he was partially paralyzed because of a stroke.

  8. Amina Shabbir

    Walt Whitman’s biography seemed quite interesting to me as it states the struggles he went through. Whitman dropped out of school to support his family by working in the printing industry. He went on to educate himself and became a teacher at the age of 17. After teaching for a while, he got into journalism. What caught my attention was his strong opinions on women’s property rights, immigration, and slavery, which were major topics at the time, as he believed in equality. Furthermore, “Leaves of Grass” was his best-known work which “defied poetic and literary norms with its free language and encyclopedic lists, but it has impacted poets all over the world ever since.” The following quote from “Leaves of Grass” stood out to me: “I reject anything better than my own diversity, and breathe the air and leave plenty after me, and am not stuck up, and am in my place.” Whitman is attempting to convey that he has seen the world and all of its possibilities, as well as that he has finally proved his worth. He understands his personality and how this has gotten him to where he needs to be.

    • Mark Noonan

      You picked such a great line to quote from Whitman, Amina:

      “I reject anything better than my own diversity, and breathe the air and leave plenty after me, and am not stuck up, and am in my place.”

      Whitman truly celebrates the self and everybody, equally. An amazing philosophical poet, indeed.

  9. Enson Zhou

    After watching the biography of Walt Whitman, I learned many facts about Walt Whitman that I have never known before. He was a truly inspirational poet as he introduced new categories of poetry that no one had ever used before. Not only did he inspire other poets to use different categories in poetry, he also wrote many poems about slavery to try to bring attention to these problems. He wrote all his poems to achieve brotherhood and it is truly inspiring as he is trying to bring the world together with his poems.

    • Mark Noonan

      Excellent point Enson. Whitman really did aim to bring people from all walks of life together in his grand poetry.

  10. Ariel Montesino

    I had no clue who Walt Whitman was before watching the brief biography on him. Its interesting that his work didn’t receive the publicity it should have since this was around the period where there was still major biased that only men could make great literature. I did read a few excerpts from Leaves of Grass but I didn’t understand its significance . I think its cool that his poems had a notion of a universal brotherhood all throughout his career.

    • Mark Noonan

      I’m glad you’ve now been introduced the magnificent Whitman. If you go the ferry stop by the Brooklyn Bridge, the fence is completely covered with lines by Whitman. It’s a great summer trip, which I recommend.

  11. majoguadua

    It makes me excited to one more time read about American poetry and get to know someone like Walt Whitman. After reading Leaves of Grass I can understand why it was said that Walt Withman invented a new poetic form, and opened new topics to a wide range that nobody else would. Leaves of grass stand today as a rhapsodic celebration of individuality, freedom, democracy, sexuality, and nationhood. I liked this part from Leaves of grass.

    Was somebody asking to see the soul?
    See, your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the
    trees, the running rivers, the rocks and sands.
    All hold spiritual joys and afterward loosen them; How can the real body ever die and be buried?
    Of your real body and any man’s or woman’s real body,
    The item for item it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners and pass to
    fitting spheres,
    Carrying what has accrued to it from the moment of birth to the
    moment of death.
    Not the types set up by the printer return their impression, the meaning, the main concern,
    Any more than a man’s substance and life or a woman’s substance and life return in the body and the soul,
    Indifferently before death and after death.
    Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul;
    Whoever you are, how superb and how divine is your body, or any part of it!

    As someone who likes to read poetry about different topics and different kinds of inspiration, still, I would always keep looking to read the parts that the author connects these topics with the spiritual side of life. And I feel this is what I am reading here.

    It is a shame that it wasn’t until Walt Whitman died that his work was really known. This is something I was thinking recently when the Designer in chief of Louis Vuitton Virgil Abloh passed away this Sunday. It seems we all appreciate the work that others do when they are no longer with us more than when they are actually still here.

    For my essay, I decided to work on Benjamin Franklin. I am finishing the last details and I will submit my essay this week. Thank you, Professor.

    • Mark Noonan

      Thanks for sharing these great lines by the immortal poet Whitman, Maria. I look forward to reading your essay on Franklin.

  12. Nelson Estrella II

    After watching the biography on Walt Whitman, I was excited to know that Walt is from New York. Walt is considered one of America’s most talented poets and journalists. At the age of eleven he was forced to stop attending school to help support his family. When he was 17 his first job was as a teacher in a small school. After teaching for a brief period of time he began being a journalist. He had a major issues about immigration and the day of slavery. He later goes on to publish “Leaves of grass” which is considered a “landmark in the field of American literature. Walt also was a volunteer nurse during the civil war and would attend wounded soldiers. This led him to produce drum taps which were short stories on the experiences of the soldiers.

    • Mark Noonan

      Oh Yes! Whitman is Brooklyn’s very own original fantastic poet. He’s the coolest!

  13. haroodg

    After watching the video “What to the Slave is 4th of July?” read by Earl Jones made me feel the absolute distaste that Frederick Douglass must have felt while delivering his speech. For an accomplished man who has lived through the reality of slavery to be asked to deliver a speech for the independence of America must have been so horrid that voicing their hypocrisy was the only logical thing to do. To live in a time where your brothers and sister are still enslaved and to still be invited by statesmen who may not even consider you as equals was a grave misunderstanding on their part about who Frederick Douglass represents. To not only eloquently explain that this invitation was pure mockery, but that any representation of America or American culture was not for him or anyone like him. For Americans to uphold and celebrate things they do not practice was not just hypocrisy but an attempt to erase the truth as well. I believe this speech is timeless, and everyone who lives in America should listen to this once. Patriotism can be great and symbolic, but blind patriotism can lead to blissful ignorance.

    • Mark Noonan

      Very eloquent words Harood on the hypocrisy that infuriated Frederick Douglass so!

  14. Amy Li

    I’ve previously heard of Walt Whitman for his poetry during middle school. It was interesting to learn more about his story and how he came to be. I did not know that he was one of 7 siblings and that a lot of his life was self-taught. Whitman’s ideas included women and property rights, immigration, and slavery, which were unthought of during the time. I remember my teacher calling him America the greatest poem. His ideas of the book ‘Leaves on Grass’ were initially considered disgraceful, but towards the end of his life, people learned to appreciate it, giving him a title. I remember reading and analyzing the poem in middle school, and it was nice to reread it in many years. He was also one of two accounts that documented the experience of the civil war and experienced it firsthand. Due to his brother, who was sick in Washington, he was able to speak with several wounded soldiers. His poems revolutionized ideas and poetry.

    • Mark Noonan

      He was certainly revolutionary Amy. I wish we had a whole semester to go through his amazing work!

  15. Paulina

    When reading the autobiography Frederick douglass I can see that he was a very important leader that fought his way out of slavery. In the reading it states “ In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. After the war he sometimes argued politically with younger African Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights.” Speaking his mind and what he strongly believed in is what has gotten him far to where he wanted to be and escaped slavery.

  16. Mehreen Khanom

    Excerpts from “Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
    Book III– Song of Myself” starts off with Whitman celebrating himself and feeling joy by singing to himself. He then continues saying people should think the way Whitman does. To get to the heart of the matter, Whitman employs symbols and clever criticism. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is made up of vignettes. He works in little, carefully sketched situations. The poem addresses the potential for individual communion. Whitman seeks to show that he embraces the world and is inseparable from it. The grass has its own meaning in this poem. The grass I believe represents unity since everyone from all around the world shares it.

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