Daisy Miller vs Song of Myself: Compare & Contrast
Daisy Miller by Henry James and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” are two of the most recognizable works of American fiction. Both were published in the nineteenth century and they were both received amidst controversy and popular success. Both these works of fiction are noteworthy for their employment of different forms of a narratorial voice to convey the author’s vision. While one introduced major changes in the way in which the narrator’s role was looked upon in poetry, the other introduced subtle changes in the way the realist narrator operated in short stories. This paper shall look at the similarities and differences between the two.
In Daisy Miller, the author looks to have an author who would present the true picture of how society operated. One may think that this is entirely akin to the social realist writers of Victorian England like George Eliot and Charles Dickens. This is not, however, true. James, an American, sought to introduce certain changes in the role of the narrator. The narrator is decidedly American and possesses qualities of being unreliable in spite of being in the third person. The narrator is aware of the prejudices that are held by Americans and the Europeans in the narrative and yet leaves the reader to make his or her own judgment regarding the events in the story. The protagonist and Winterbourne are judged by the reader and not the narrator, who remains throughout an outsider who is into the secrets of the characters (James).
“Song of Myself” is an entirely different form of a narrative. It talks of the poet himself and the narrator is in the first person. Unlike earlier writers who sought to erase themselves to a great extent from the narrative, Whitman’s poem is about himself and is however not entirely of the autobiographical genre. A work of art in itself, the poem differs from Daisy Miller in that it is able to employ the first-person narrative in a way that places the author directly in front of the reader without a mediating narrator. To say that the poem presents exactly what the author is would also, however, be simplistic as there are changes that Whitman introduces to the fictional Walt Whitman.
There are implications as to the difference between the narrative voices that have been talked about here. While James’ work does not acknowledge its own status as a work of art within the narrative, Whitman’s narrator is consciously aware of his place in the history of art. Whitman’s narrator is influenced by the Transcendentalist movement in American literature and thought while James shows more influences of the social realist fiction that was a part of continental and English fiction.
The voice in both the works remains, however, American as we know from the attitudes that are evinced by the narrator. The importance of this lies in the fact that both these writers were part of a period in American fiction that enabled the creation of a very distinct American identity. Breaking away from the traditions of the continent, these writers created works that could be called truly American while at the same time, being a part of the literature of the world.
James, Henry. Daisy Miller.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself”. Modern American Poetry.