Questions for Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Sections 1-32

This poem is a vast territory to explore, so it will be useful to watch for echoes of earlier texts, especially in preparation for the final exam. Whitman responds to Emerson’s call for originality in American thought and literature, but he also shows an awareness of history, so “Song of Myself” is a very rich touchstone for nearly every conversation we’ve had this semester about the origins and evolution of American culture.


  • What does Whitman’s poem reveal about his understanding of American identity?
  • How does Whitman’s sense of self compare to the visions of self-reliance and non-conformity articulated by Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau?
  • How does Whitman’s view of human nature compare to Melville’s and Hawthorne’s?
  • The publication date for our text is 1855. Some of the major historical issues we’ve discussed for this period include race relations and women’s rights. How does Whitman address these themes?
  • What seems most distinctive about Whitman’s view of nature? How would you characterize his view of the natural world in relation to other authors we’ve read?
  • Stylistically, “Song of Myself” is groundbreaking for its experimentation with free verse, as opposed to the formal rhyme and meter used by all of the other poets we’ve discussed this semester. However, this doesn’t mean that the poem is formless. Two qualities to watch for are lyricism and juxtaposition. What examples of these do you find? What other literary techniques give this poem structure or purpose?

Questions for Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener”

  • So far, we’ve considered two branches of American Romanticism: Gothic literature and Transcendentalism. Where does Melville fit in this conversation? What is Romanticism, according to Melville? Where does his style seem most Romantic, in the literary sense?
  • What do you learn about the narrator from his observations of the other characters? What makes him reliable or unreliable? How does the narrator’s personal philosophy compare with Thoreau’s?
  • Bartleby is perhaps the most enigmatic character we’ve seen. What do you learn about Bartleby through the contrasts that Melville sets up with Ginger Nut, Turkey, and Nippers? How do you explain Bartleby’s behavior? What transformations do you see in his character throughout the story?
  • What do you think you would have done if you had been faced with the narrator’s dilemma? What do you think might have been the most ethical response to Bartleby’s situation?

Other themes we’ve been considering for exam topics:

  • Human nature: good, evil, conflicted?
  • Nature (Is there nature in “Bartleby”? If not, what does its absence suggest?)
  • Liberty and equality
  • Stylistic ancestry (Paine – Emerson – Thoreau or Franklin – Irving – Hawthorne)
  • Reason versus feeling
  • Conformity versus nonconformity

Film adaptations:

Questions for Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown”

Irving’s blurring of fact and fancy becomes even more complex in Hawthorne’s work. Hawthorne sought to take the reader to an imaginative space that he described in the prologue to The Scarlet Letter as a moonlit room of the mind “where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.” The Romantic writer, he believed, should “dream strange things, and make them look like truth.”


  • How can we distinguish fact from fancy, or the real from the imaginary, in “Young Goodman Brown”?
  • Some were saying today that Rip Van Winkle was a likable and perhaps comic character, but not a figure one would emulate. How does Goodman Brown compare to Rip Van Winkle in this regard? What does Hawthorne hope to illustrate through Brown’s character?
  • Irving’s images of the transformed hotel in “RVW” (George III – Gen. Washington) shows the emergence of symbolism nineteenth-century American fiction. What examples of symbolism do you seen in “Young Goodman Brown”?
  • Both Irving and Hawthorne illustrate the maturity of American literature, as the nation had finally begun to develop its own mythology or explanation of its origins. Why do you think “Young Goodman Brown” is an important American story? What is Hawthorne saying about Puritan culture in this story?
  • How does Goodman Brown’s view of nature compare to that of other characters and other authors we’ve discussed?
  • Hawthorne is a master stylist, as well. What do you admire about the literary artistry of this short story? How does Hawthorne compare, stylistically, to Irving? What stylistic contrasts do you see between Hawthorne and other writers?

For fun: Sometimes I use the following songs to illustrate Goodman Brown’s frame of mind. What might you add to the soundtrack of this story if you were filming it?

Questions for Irving, “Rip Van Winkle”

We’re backtracking historically here from Emerson and Thoreau to set up a discussion of Romantic fiction in Irving and Hawthorne. So be sure to check the biographical sketch and the historical info in the footnotes and at the end of the text. Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” marks a transition from the Enlightenment period to American Romanticism, though we’ll see some conventions from both periods in the text.


  • What elements of Gothicism or Romanticism do you find in Irving’s story? See this link for a definition of Gothic fiction (See other links to Romanticism on the right side of this page):
  • Among the writers we’ve studied, who do you think might have been Irving’s influences, stylistically? And which writers in the course readings contrast most dramatically with Irving’s style?
  • We began the course with discussions about myth and history that will help us notice some of the subtle nuances in Irving’s work. Why does Irving include the italicized preface and postscripts? What relevance do those authorial comments have to the story?
  • What does “Rip Van Winkle” tell us about American identity? Which moments in the story seem most symbolic of an emerging American identity? How do Irving’s views compare with those of writers from the Enlightenment period?
  • Nature is a theme that could encompass all of the course material. How does Irving portray the natural world in “Rip Van Winkle,” in comparison to other writers? What relationships exist between humans and nature, according to Irving?

Here’s a cartoon version for fun (what does this leave out from the original?):

And a big band song from the 1940s:

Questions for Thoreau, Walden, Day Two

  1. What reasons does Thoreau give for leaving Walden Pond? How persuasive are they? What do you think he learned from his experience?
  2. Where do you find Thoreau’s language most creative and powerful in this conclusion? Where do you question his ideas? Pick a few passages you find important and develop a thorough close reading.
  3. Link Thoreau’s concluding message in Walden to our ongoing discussion of American identity. If you were compiling a list of classic American texts, why or why not would you include Walden? What relationship do you see between Thoreau’s message about national identity and the views espoused by other authors after midterm?
  4. Use other examples from Thoreau’s conclusion to explain this statement: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth” (1785). How does Thoreau define truth? How might you define it similarly or differently, and how do other authors we’ve considered after midterm compare?
  5. Today we considered Walden as a hybrid text including elements of naturalism, memoir, religion, philosophy, lyricism, and metaphor. What do you find distinctive, stylistically, about Thoreau’s writing? How does he compare to other transcendentalists?

Questions for Thoreau, Walden, Day One

Thoreau embraces the notion of self-reliance and self-liberation as completely in Walden as any of our authors have. I hope you find some good food for the soul in this narrative. If you’d like a reading companion, consider Ann Woodlief’s fantastic study text of Walden at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Questions to consider:

  1. What reasons does Thoreau give for going to Walden Pond and living in solitude there? Based on these reasons, why or why not do you think he would be attending college if he were one of your peers?
  2. Map out one of your days hour-by-hour and compare it with Thoreau’s description of life at Walden Pond. How deliberately or mindfully are you living, in comparison to Thoreau? Why or why not do you believe his lifestyle is admirable? Why or why not do you believe it would be possible to live now as Thoreau did in the nineteenth century? Compare your own personal philosophy with Thoreau’s.
  3. Thoreau has many lyrical passages that might resonate with Emerson’s vision of the American Scholar and the self-reliant person. Where do you find his language most creative and powerful? Consider trying your own hand at a transcendental passage describing one of your typical days or perhaps your own personal philosophy.
  4. In terms of American identity, it might be useful to orient Thoreau in relation to other Romantic writers. How does Thoreau seem to define Transcendentalism, and what does his perspective contribute to the evolution of American identity in our readings? This could be an interesting article to compare to Walden: “Voters Want It All – Now.”

Questions for “Self-Reliance”

“Self-Reliance” is nearly as classic a reference in American Literature as Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity.” It’s fascinating that two iconic texts, which have shaped American thinking into the 21st century occupy such opposite philosophical poles, Winthrop stressing the submission of the individual to the social/spiritual body and Emerson emphasizing the preeminence of the individual in contradistinction to social convention.

Questions to consider:

  • What elements of Romanticism and/or Transcendentalism do you find in “Self-Reliance”?
  • Romanticism and Transcendentalism both have religious associations, though these tend to vary from author to author. What do you see as Emerson’s view of religion, based on “Self-Reliance”? He refers to Emmanuel Swedenbourg near the end of his essay, so this link to The Swedenbourgian Church could be useful for context.
  • What does Emerson mean by “the ever blessed ONE” and “the Supreme Cause”? Try to explain this with other examples from his essay.
  • Compare Farmer James or Linda Brent to Emerson’s principles of self-reliance. How is Emerson’s view of personal liberty and self-sufficiency similar to or different from the views espoused by the other writers we’ve covered after midterm? How does your own view of liberty and independence compare to Emerson’s?
  • What does “Self-Reliance” reveal about Emerson’s view of American identity?
  • What does Emerson mean when he writes that “Shakspeare [sic] will never be made by the study of Shakspeare” (1635). Explain this passage by connecting it to at least three other assertions or passages in “Self-Reliance.”
  • This reflection pulls together three themes from “Self-Reliance”: non-conformity, divinity, and nature. Is this a persuasive reading of the text? Where do you agree or disagree with this analysis?
  • What questions does Emerson raise for you that you’d like to talk about as a class?