Lifestyles of the Early 1900s

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“In the midst of turbulent times of racism and hatred, authors often insert their versions of society into novels and poems to help illustrate what life was really like for people in their respective eras. Two authors helped show these two opposite perspectives of the world in poems that helped explain the landscape between blacks and whites of the early 1900s. Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America” illustrate how the racist laws put in place after the Civil War affected the way Langston Hughes reacted to Walt Whitman’s poem.

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The first poem, “I Hear America Singing,” consists of one stanza, with eleven lines. The structure follows the simple list format that Whitman commonly uses in his poetry. One by one, he lists the different members of the American working class and describes the way they sing as they perform their respective tasks. He formats each line and sentence similarly. Many begin with the word “the,” and contain phrases that are variations of “as he ___” or “on his way to ___.” The tone of the poem is joyful and hopeful. Whitman celebrates the common American worker, magnifying his characters with descriptions such as “robust,” “friendly,” “blithe,” and “strong” (lines 2-11). He highlights individuals that often go unnoticed in classic poems. Ultimately, “I Hear America Singing” is a love poem to the nation. Whitman uses the small variations in individual experiences to craft a wholesome, honest, and hardworking American identity.

In the first line of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” Whitman introduced the theme of his poem, stating, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,” (Line 1). The use of the word “America” creates the assumption of American people in general. Although the use of the word “America” is figurative, the word “singing” is literal. The poem focuses on Americans singing songs, or in Whitman’s words, “varied carols,” as they work. Whitman shows that he acknowledges the fact that everyone sings different songs in different tones. In the next line, “Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,” (Lines 2-3) the poet explores these “varied carols” and explains that these Americans are singing the way they should be. The poet uses the word “blithe” to highlight how joyous their voices are while also emphasizing the strength of the carols being sung. These carols are pleasant to the speaker as they meet his expectations. The following lines, “The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam, The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work, The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-hand singing on the steamboat deck,” (Lines 3-5), introduce four more singing Americans: a carpenter, a mason, a boatman, and a deck-hand. Known for their manual labor, these men take pride in their work. As the carpenter makes his precise measurements, the boat workers responsibly carry out their unique jobs. This labor may be unglamorous, but through their singing, these workers display enjoyment in their individual responsibilities, and the speaker is proud to acknowledge them as hard-working Americans. By including these blue-collar workers, Whitman shines a light on those who do not often appear in poetry.

In lines six through eight, the author provides more examples of working Americans when he writes, “The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands, The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown, The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing.” Through these motion-filled lines, Whitman introduces to the audience an array of employees, presenting the actions being performed by the employees as they sing. These newly introduced employees include a shoemaker, a hatter, a woodcutter, a ploughboy, a mother, a young wife at work, a seamstress, and washerwomen. These people sing as if they possess the pride of working hard for their money. In order to survive, whether you are old or young, black or white, female or male, money is a vital asset to ensure survival is within the realm of possibilities. To acquire this money, you may need to work and get your hands dirty. Even though the work is strenuous and taxing on the body, the workers are committed to keeping their spirits high by singing. To efficiently complete the task, it is necessary to keep spirits up; the speaker acknowledges that the ploughboy works from “morning” to “sundown” and that singing is vital to his labor. Despite this, the ploughboy must endure a long day of hard labor, even if he sings songs to pass the time. Whitman also acknowledges the work of women, as well as the manual labor of men, completing laborious tasks such as woodcutting and plowing. The mother works, the young wife goes to work, and the girls wash and sew. This announces to the reader that the world of labor is also a woman’s world, and not limited to the strengths and abilities of a man.

Walt Whitman celebrates the work of women, even that of a stay-at-home mom. Finally, lines nine through twelve state, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.” The poem comes to its conclusion by uniting all these singing laborers, as illustrated when Whitman states, “each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else” (line 9). The speaker communicates the notion that each job is unique, implying each worker’s task belongs to that worker and is best executed by him or her. This includes women—a point Whitman underscores when he invokes, “him or her” (line 9). This poem was written in the early 1900s, before women even obtained the legal right to vote in the United States. As much as the speaker of the poem celebrates work, he also acknowledges there is a time for work and a time for play. The singing of the day differs from the singing of the night. Daytime signing is denoted as “what belongs to the day”, while at night the singing symbolizes the onset of party time. What transpires at party time? Well, “the young fellows, robust, friendly” sing with what Whitman characterizes as “open mouths their strong melodious songs”. Singing in the poem also serves a metaphorical function. The laborers sing songs to keep themselves occupied while working, but Whitman interprets this as a celebratory indication that these workers are happy to have their jobs, daunting as the labor may be, and love America as well.

The second poem, “I, Too” by Langston Hughes, is told in the present tense and in the first person. Its subject and time period broadly correspond with slave-owning America, based on its context. The speaker in this poem is depicted as a figure standing “representatively” for all Black Americans during that fraught period in American history. It seems as though a whole community, rather than a single individual, voices this poem. Considering the speaker as an individual, we might picture him as a Black domestic servant harboring ambitions, plans, and dreams for the future. He acknowledges his present position, but that does not discourage him from maintaining hope about where he and his entire race might stand in the future. Therefore, the speaker is a dreamer, steadfast in his belief in his imminent equality.

In line one of “I, Too, Sing America,” Hughes immediately restates the title of the poem. Singing is a particular kind of speaking, so perhaps for one to “sing America” means to convey something about America, or to discuss it. In Whitman’s poem, he creates a list of various Americans, including carpenters, mechanics, boatmen, shoemakers, a girl sewing, and indicates that all of them are singing. We conceive a picture such that America mirrors a song comprised of many unique voices singing. Consequently, Americans appear to formulate the composition of a chorus, where every individual has a crucial part to sing. As such, Langston Hughes’s speaker may be envisaging Americans as a vast chorus, collectively singing as a single entity, and asserting he’s part of this chorus too. He’s also contributing to this song of America. In the poem, line two articulates, “I am the darker brother.” By stating this, Hughes is identifying his skin color and notifying the audience he is African American. When he declares “the darker brother” and not something like “one of the darker brothers,” he seems to be representing the entire black community in America.

In lines three and four, the author postulates, “They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes.” This statement is a reference to the slavery era when house servants were restricted to their sections when guests visited, to keep the slaves (and, by extension, their race) concealed. Of course, even though slavery had concluded by Hughes’s era, racial segregation remained prevalent, making these lines accurately relevant to Hughes’s time. These lines could also suggest a 20th-century house with black servants, implying multiple layers of time and meaning. The subsequent three lines of this poem divulge the emotions the speaker experiences: “But I laugh, and eat well, and grow strong.” (lines 5-7). Immediately after two lines that convey the essence of slavery to the poem, the speaker simply laughs, eats, and grows stronger. The “I” in this poem represents a collective “I.” Hence, the speaker is not only speaking for himself but on behalf of his entire race, embodying the trials and history of that race. Despite being sent away while there is company due to his race, his appetite isn’t any worse off for it, nor is his sense of humor impacted. Imagery can depict the speaker and the other house servants having their own dinner party in the kitchen, growing strong with each other’s support. They enjoy each other’s company, having a fantastic time together. These minor lines establish the start of this poem’s “turn,” a shift representing the poet’s change of mood.

Lines eight through ten introduce an extended metaphor, and the “tomorrow” stated in line eight is actually alluding to a future time when blacks and whites will be equal. This equality is expressed through the speaker’s assertion that he too will “be at the table” the next time they have a party. “Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes. Nobody’ll dare say to me” (Lines 11-12). These lines continue in the same vein as the previous three, in which the speaker imagines a future in which he will be treated with the same level of respect as white people. In this case, the emphasis is even stronger; not only is he present at the table, but he will also have control over what people say and do not say to him. In other words, he will command respect. Lines thirteen through fourteen say, “Eat in the kitchen, then.” Being told to eat in the kitchen is, in this case, representative of the larger problem being tackled in this poem, the issue of racial inequality and injustice. Inequality manifests itself in everyday life, usually as an unbalanced power relationship. Hughes makes this more apparent by directly quoting the whites in power. Consequently, inequality takes the form of a direct command. The last few lines state, “Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed – I, too, am America” (Lines 15-18). This can be viewed as a realization on the part of white people. The speaker has not become beautiful over the course of the poem, but has instead been beautiful this whole time. It has just taken this long for everyone else to realize it.

Both poems, “I Hear America Singing” and “I, Too, Hear America Singing” possess the central theme of working Americans. Walt Whitman spoke about working men and women singing as they do their unique jobs. They have pride in their country and the work they do, even though the jobs may not be inherently exciting. Langston Hughes, an African American man responding to Whitman’s poem from his perspective, explains how he and all other African Americans are no different from the white working men and women Whitman depicted. Throughout Hughes’ poem, he expresses the speaker’s hope to obtain the rights that white people have, insisting that his people will eventually achieve equality in their society. Metaphors are used in both poems to convey their ideas. For instance, Langston Hughes states in lines eight through ten, “Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes.” The word “tomorrow” does not mean literally the next day, but represents what the future may hold for African Americans. This symbolizes the change the speaker is determined to effect in order to achieve equality. Walt Whitman states, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear” (Line 1). This is a metaphor showing the varied carols that the working Americans are singing. “America” is not actually singing. Rather, the American people are singing, each with a unique song and tone. These poems present different views of American rights using music and singing as their central theme.”

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Lifestyles of the Early 1900s. (2021, May 27). Retrieved from