This line is one of many where Whitman expresses the plasticity of his self, his ability to go beyond the limits seemingly assigned by one’s name and identity and to become those who surround him—to die when they die, to be born when they are. This poetic extension of the “self” is Whitman’s great invention, for which he was often mocked or criticized (“Walt wasn’t an Eskimo. […] But Walt wouldn’t have it, he was everything and everything was in him,” wrote D.H. Lawrence). Yet it also provided great inspiration to poets of the 20th century, such as Fernando Pessoa or Vladimir Mayakovsky. The Russian poet would in fact often quote the second part of this very line (“I am not contained between my hat and boots”).
I would like to suggest here a different reading, which I find very stimulating and equally central to Whitman’s poetics. The refusal to be contained within one’s own visible limits is also a way to accept and embrace the influence of others, be it the personal influence that people, friends, “camerados,” as Whitman would say, can have on you, or the influence that literature and arts can have on life or creation. This line is indeed quoted by the French philosopher Judith Schlanger in her book about the idea of influence, Le neuf, le différent et le déjà-là. Against the agonistic vision that Harold Bloom (a great Whitman scholar himself) developed through the concept of the “anxiety of influence,” Schlanger suggests a more pacific, even exhilarating, conception: “The charm of cultural constraints, what prevents them from being tragic, is that they are always permeable […]. Thanks to the capacity of memory and imagination to open the self to multiple possibilities, […] I am not, says Walt Whitman, 'contained between my boots and my hat'.” With Whitman, influence is not something we should be afraid of, something that distracts us from our orbit or our “true self”: there is indeed no truth outside change. I can put on your boots, I can let you influence me, and be myself even more.