“Above…or apart”

The idealized American reality of Whitman is one that completely contrasts the portrait of well-to-do life that James paints for the readers in Daisy Miller. Walt Whitman, in his extremely verbose way, illustrates an America that belongs to everyone. In Daisy Miller, the America of the wealthy and upper middle class seems quite different from that of the poor and underrated so celebrated by Whitman. Daisy, the ultimate flighty American heiress, has none of the drive and depth of the true American that Whitman extols in his poems.

In ‘Song of Myself’ Section 15, Whitman, as he tends to do, begins to list. He lists the ordinary and mundane as opposed to the extraordinary and resplendent. For him, America embodies the humdrum in a way more glorious than the sparkle of Europe. In his list, he includes everyone, regardless of social rank, or perhaps in spite of it. Not only that, but the one person Whitman chooses to include of any clear importance is the President, who typifies America in all her glory.

In clear contrast, James waxes loquacious on the pros and cons of higher American society and its resemblance to European society. He idolizes the virtues of Winterbourne, calling him “an extremely amiable fellow, and universally liked” (James p. 11) and describes Daisy as pretty a multitude of times and embellishes that with the claim that it was a natural beauty, one with “a want of finish.” (James p. 18)

Not only are the choices in cast of character different, the situations discussed are incompatible. For Whitman, the grit of America (‘Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field’, Whitman), the grime of her cities (‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’, Whitman) and the gallantry of her citizens (‘Song of Myself’ Section 21, Whitman ‘Song of Myself’ Section 48, Whitman), no matter how lowly and oft ignored, are the things that must be celebrated.

Daisy Miller is filled with the joyful escapades of the wealthy young adults flocking to Vivey and Europe at that time. James chooses not to show the reader the darker side of Europe. The readers see only what the characters see and the readers know only what the characters know. Everything in the novella should be taken with a grain of salt, an adjustment that acknowledges the fact that the world of Winterbourne and Daisy is one far from the bitter reality of Whitman’s American. For Winterbourne, his most pressing issue is to decode Daisy’s signals and emotional responses, something many men through the ages have found difficult. Daisy concerns herself simply with her own ability to manipulate men, namely Winterbourne, and her uncanny aptitude for ensnaring members of the opposite sex for her own gain. These needs seem paramount to Daisy, Winterbourne and their societal equivalents, but they have no prevalence in the poems of Whitman, or at least the emotional aspect of relationships are not mentioned, simply the physical aspects are. (‘Song of Myself’, Section 24)

The primary difference between Whitman and James is the focus. All subsequent irregularities seem to diverge from this original division. Where Whitman is the poor, James is the rich. Whitman focuses on the physical, all consuming aspect of relationships, and James hones in on the emotional turmoil present in all liaisons. Together, they are America. Separately, they embody America as well, but James and Whitman present quite disparate views on the America of their writing. America is a land of contrasts and only through the union of these contrasts can the true heart of the country be found.

 

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