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4. Faith in Sex

Leaves of Grass in 1855–56

Whitman's anxiety about “neuters and geldings” (LG 1855, p. 47) resurfaces in the open letter he addressed to his patron Emerson in August 1856.[1] While calling for “that new moral American continent without which … the physical continent remain[s] incomplete, maybe a carcass, a bloat,” the poet advanced revolutionary claims for the “empowered, unabashed development of sex.” “The courageous soul, for a year or two to come, may be proved by faith in sex,” he wrote to Emerson, “and by disdaining concessions” (LG, p. 740). “Of course, we shall have a national character, an identity,” he stated, and since he was considering a lecture tour modeled after Emerson's lyceum lectures,[2] he promised “to meet people and The States face to face, to confront them with an American rude tongue” (LG, pp. 732–33). Yet as he began to specify his intentions, he expressed contempt for the “nonpersonality and indistinctness of modern productions,” claimed that the present age was an anomaly, and reaffirmed what he called “common human attributes.” The recovery of sexual “facts” rather than the perpetuation of sexual fictions seemed to be his goal. But what were the facts and what were the fictions? For whom did he claim to be speaking? Was “sex” exclusively heterosexual? So it appeared, for he complained vehemently, “In the scanned lives of men and women most of them appear to have been for some time past of the neuter gender … In orthodox society today, if the dresses were changed, the men might easily pass for women and the women for men” (LG, pp. 739).


The lecture tour never happened, and it is not clear what Whitman would have said had he had the opportunity to confront the American people with a rude tongue. As we saw previously, rudeness was only one of his guises, and in this chapter I would like to look further at his use of the defamiliarized body as a symbol of democratic community. As described by Whitman in 1855–56, democratic sexual desire is only loosely bound to individuated personal relationships. I will therefore proceed to examine both “democratic” and “undemocratic” elements in the poems, which attempt to renegotiate traditions of literary authority for modern times.[3]


In an extended self-introduction in the 1855 poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman issued a challenging invitation, in which he tried to use literature to demonize the category of the literary. That is, he set himself an impossible task.

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?

Have you practiced so long to learn to read? Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, You shall possess the good of the earth and sun. … there are millions of suns left, You shall no longer take things at second or third hand. … nor look through the eyes of the dead. … nor feed on the spectres in books, You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

I have heard what the talkers were talking. … the talk of the beginning and the end, But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now, Nor any more youth or age than there is now; And will never be any more perfection than there is now, Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge, Always the procreant urge of the world.

(LG 1855, p. 26)

In this exemplary passage, Whitman evidently rejects poetry as it had previously been written, othering it as insubstantial and elitist. His poetry

was to affirm common human attributes, and to do so he would need to keep himself as a distinct individual out of the big picture. He thus continues,

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance. … Always substance and increase,
Always a knit of identity. … always distinction. … always a breed of life.

(LG 1855, pp. 26–27)

The life of poetry emerges not just from identity and not just from distinction but from their mutual relationship to some as yet unnamed third figure. That third figure is the democratic poet as autobiographical presence. Neither identity nor distinction has priority in Whitman's sequence; neither identity nor distinction is real without the other. Ideally, the relationship of poet to reader defamiliarizes reading conventions based on authoritarian models of unity. Grounding his literary authority in gender archetypes that include masculine and feminine elements, Whitman wrote to Emerson, and to his own readers, “The mothers and fathers of whom modern centuries have come, have not existed for nothing; they too had brains and hearts.” “Of course all literature, in all nations and years, will share marked attributes in common,” he asserted, “as we all, of all ages, share the common human attributes.” He added, confidently, “What is to be done is to withdraw from precedents” (LG, p. 735).

Romancing Emerson as “dear Friend and Master,” Whitman did not resolve the tension between “distinction” and “the knit of identity” to which his poetry alludes. The project becomes clearer, however, once we take Whitman's family archetypes seriously as models for reading. “Have you ever loved a woman?” he asks provokingly in “I Sing the Body Electric.” “Your mother. … is she living?. … Have you been much with her? and has she been much with you? / Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations and times all over the earth?” (LG 1855, p. 122). The last question in this loaded series is the giveaway. It is too extreme, and the “knit of identity” is less interesting than the “distinction.”

“Wording the future” by showing “the true use of precedents” (LG, p. 740), Whitman angrily sought to withdraw from precedents. Though in Benedict Anderson's terms he was seeking to establish an “eroticized nationalism,”[4] and though in his own terms he was seeking to create a “new [sexual] Bible” (NUPM 1:353), as a poet who believed that he lacked intellectual authority (compared, say, to Homer or Shakespeare or Tennyson) he felt that the emotional power of his own distinct experience

had to be important. We have seen that Whitman lived closer to laboring men than most other poets of his time. We have also seen that Whitman distrusted his own body because it housed an emotionally vulnerable self. If “an American rude tongue” was to express his faith in sex and the people, his poetry would suggest that the various kinds of love and friendship he had experienced—including familial love—were both sociable and socially isolating.

In the 1855 and 1856 Leaves of Grass, Whitman's populist “faith in sex” revealed both the confidence and the confusion of a self seeking to redeem an ambivalent personal past. For despite the constancy of his desire to sight that new moral American continent without which the physical continent remained incomplete, maybe a carcass, a bloat, in proliferating masculinities Whitman was unsure what precedents that new moral American continent might sustain. And so, at his most anxious, he seemed to cram his notebooks and his poems with all words, to be afraid of leaving any thing or person out. “Literature is full of perfumes,” he noted, reminding himself that “I follow animals and birds” (NUPM 1:79). And always the lists, looking for a new, purer, and more unbroken language of love: “Breathjuice—Airscents—Airsmells—Air-odor—Loveodor—Airdrifts—Breathsmoke—Airjuice for you—Air-sough” (NUPM 1:195).

In earlier chapters, we observed that Whitman's critique of nervousness about the body, sex, and gender emerged not only out of shrewd readings of popular, mid-nineteenth-century American texts (as David S. Reynolds has described them), but also out of his specific experience of family, work, and friendship.[5] For example, though Whitman never directly acknowledged that his early experience, including his reading, inhibited his ability to feel unselfconsciously valued as a person and for himself, he approaches such a confession through figural indirection in “There Was a Child Went Forth.”[6] Moreover, as we have seen, his early fiction provides a more detailed (though also screened) account of his role in absorbing his original family's emotional burdens, specifically their inability to meet and fuse. His early fiction indicates that in childhood and adolescence he felt called upon to assuage his mother's loneliness, as he was to do quite consistently in later life: not only after his father's death in 1855 and the marriage of his younger brother Jeff in 1859, but much earlier on. Yet this fiction screens other emotional realities as well. During adolescence especially, Whitman felt that his own inner realities had been insufficiently responded to by both of his parents. They had not, in his terms, “really absorb'd each other and underst[oo]d

each other”; the “dividing line” was too deep; they had not “met and fused” (SD 797). Thus his revisionary poetics of the democratic and sexual body emerged first out of his own need for a new language of love, a need shaped by the various impediments he had encountered during his “long foreground,” as son and brother, friend, worker and lover. These distinct experiences influenced his imagination of himself as public intellectual, rebounding from the political and economic uncertainties of the Jacksonian era to preach a new gospel of the body without fear, the expanding body politic and poetic, secure in its various “natural” appetites, whatever they might happen to be.[7]

As an autobiographical poet with an ambitious social mission, Whitman sought to describe a procreative community to which, in theory, anyone might belong. In 1855 and 1856, this community included men and women working together, as well as men working with and loving men, as well as self-loving men and self-loving women. That the health reformer and poet stigmatized “onanists” (LG 1855, p. 105), venerealees (LG 1855, p. 113), “roues” (LG 1855, p. 120), drunkards, and prurient romances is not necessarily inconsistent with my argument. Partly Whitman favored chastity in the sense of self-regulation, partly he tolerated prostitution. Partly he believed that not all could or would marry and that unmarried people such as himself were entitled to a sex life. Partly he understood that the familiar material body was always subject to silencing, not least by death; partly he believed that the more ghostly spiritual body might realize itself in unknown future spheres. Thus Whitman's attitude toward the defamiliarized body was inconsistent. He was fascinated by the “procreative” potential of the female womb, by the promiscuous power of the hot and sweaty male lover, the “truant” who could not be counted on for very long, and by the darkness he identified with a gentler third term, possibly someone of the neuter gender (LG 1855, p. 107). This mysterious figure was responding to a psychological emergency of ambiguous origin. He was “double,” as was the Whitman who wrote of “my soul and I,” who felt that he was leading both a familiar and an unfamiliar life, and who wanted the one to accommodate the other (NUPM 1:63). Both were necessary to his poetry, with its knit of identity, its distinctions, and its unprecedented “breed of life.”

Both in and out of the game of love and watching and wondering at it, Whitman was influenced by his observations of family life, of the communities of work and friendship to which he had belonged, and of available languages of power. As I have been suggesting, he often translated

these languages into family archetypes, which fail to accommodate his interest in the androgynous gender. For example, in the 1856 letter to Emerson, Whitman regroups the disparate (United) States for an imagined family portrait. “Up to the present,” he explained,

the people, like a lot of large boys, have no determined tastes, are quite unaware of the grandeur of themselves, of their destiny, and of their immense strides—accept with voracity whatever is presented them in novels, histories, newspapers, poems, schools, lectures, every thing. Pretty soon, through these and other means, their development makes the fibre that is capable of itself, and will assume determined tastes. The young men will be clear what they want, and will have it. They will follow none except him whose spirit leads them in the like spirit with themselves. Any such man will be welcome as the flowers of May. Others will be put out without ceremony. How much is there anyhow, to the young men of These States, in a parcel of helpless dandies, who can neither fight, work, shoot, ride, run, command—some of them devout, some quite insane, some castrated—all second-hand, or third, fourth, or fifth hand—waited upon by waiters, putting not this land first, but always other lands first, talking of art, doing the most ridiculous things for fear of being called ridiculous, smirking and skipping along, continually taking off their hats—no one behaving, dressing, writing, talking, loving, out of any natural and manly tastes of their own, but each one looking cautiously to see how the rest behave, dress, write, talk, love—pressing the noses of dead books upon themselves and upon their country—favoring no poets, philosophs, literats, here, but dog-like danglers at the heels of the poets, philosophs, literats, of enemies' lands. (LG, p. 737)

“Submit to the most robust bard till he remedy your barrenness,” he counselled. “Then you will not need to adopt the heirs of others; you will have true heirs, begotten of yourself, blooded with your own blood” (LG, p. 734).

Ironically, as Whitman sought to democratize models of reading based on the hierarchical relationship of father to child, he found himself mimicking aggressions which in their threatening intensity he associated with the quick loud word of the authoritarian father (“strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, angered, unjust” [LG 1855, p. 139]). He saw this irritable, obtuse, uncaring father everywhere: in the Congress, in the President's house, in the schools and churches, and in the phallogocentric traditions of an elitist Eurocentric literature which did not understand the first word of the true meaning of love. Turning to the American nation that, in his more pessimistic moods, he experienced as an unreal aggregation of immature individuals with whom he had nothing in common, Whitman emphasized the sacramental status of the human body: anyone's body, but most especially his own. Radically leveling distinctions

between socially constructed types, his imagination carried him back to an aboriginal state in which the liquid might marry the solid, and he himself might be singled out for exceptional good fortune. In linking physical robustness and poetic authority, Whitman was determined to free himself from the disempowerments he associated with a morbid culture, with the shallowness of his friendships, and with his own uncertain (even to him) erotic history. Thus in the 1856 “Poem of The Sayers of The Words of The Earth,” he commanded, exhorted, and complained,

Accouche! Accouchez!
Will you rot your own fruit in yourself there?
Will you squat and stifle there?
The earth does not argue,
Is not pathetic, has no arrangements,
Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise,
Makes no discriminations, has no conceivable failures,
Closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out,
Of all the powers, objects, states, it notifies, shuts none out.

(LG 1856, pp. 324–25)

Like the sudden eruption of the “strong, selfsufficient, manly, mean, angered, unjust” father who isolates the poet-hero in “There Was a Child Went Forth,” this unexpected attack on the ambiguously sexed reader/ writer is the poem's emotional center. It resumes the personal and national family usages that have estranged Whitman from the model of serenity he seeks to emulate, as exemplified by the mythologized “eloquent dumb great mother” who “never fails” (LG 1856, p. 325). As a child, Whitman longed to be transported into another environment, in which the harsh line dividing person from person might suggest “contact, junction, the solid marrying the liquid—that curious, lurking something” (SD 796). As an adult, he wished to be shielded from the emotional still-births and psychological abortions produced by the disorder of his many and shortlived homes.

The outraged but also heartsore rhetoric quoted above is taken from the poem later called “Song of the Rolling Earth,” which states flat out that “Human bodies are words” and that “I myself am a word” (LG 1856, pp. 322, 323). In textualizing the body, the poet seeks to reaffirm common human attributes. He also seeks to rob the specifically male body of its masterful social sting. “Were you thinking that those were the words—those delicious sounds out of your friends' mouths?” he taunts us. “No, the real words are more delicious than they” (p. 322). The drive

is evidently to reconfigure inner and outer realities so that the dangerous psychological elements may be expelled, or translated into a new tongue. The poetry of 1855–56 enacts an incomplete drama of transference from one family to all families, from fathers (and brothers and sisters) who are loved only by allowance to fathers (and brothers and sisters) who are loved by “personal love” (LG 1855, p. 118). Intermittently but powerfully, this poetry uses family relationships as the model for nonfamilial male-homoerotic love.

Both as an antebellum American dissatisfied with his country, and as an erotically curious man adrift with his globalized “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world,” in the first two editions of Leaves of Grass the poet famously celebrated his own “live body” (LG 1855, pp. 25, 123) rather than the historical, philosophical, or psychological consistency of his project. Dismissing sexual, familial, national, and literary precedents, he hoped “to cease not till death” but also hoped not to cease as his bitterly disappointed and disappointing father did in the very month in which the first Leaves of Grass was published. Although America could be rhetorically reconfigured as an earth mother who “does not withhold” and is “generous enough,” the first two editions of Leaves of Grass mandate the death of the harshly critical father who could not or would not quell the competing lusts by which his children were driven. In part, then, “faith in sex” is intended to displace a more traditional fear of the avenging Father.

Powerfully repressing personal and national narratives of “[im]perfect health,” in the 1855 Leaves of Grass Whitman sought to meld various discrete audiences into an emotionally unified, organically connected interpretive community: a nation of nations. Living in what Benedict Anderson reminds us was “a society fractured by the most violent racial, class and regional antagonisms,”[8] Whitman further repressed narratives that perpetuated the association between manliness, individuation, and aggression. Indeed, the Whitmanic speaker finds psychic wholeness by surrendering to the “feminine” need to re gress. These unifying, unaggressive regressions take many different forms, including the use of the sexually transgressive body as “the origin of all poems” (LG 1855, p. 26). For example, a potentially feminizing body-logic dominates the opening of “Song of Myself.” “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes,” Whitman writes, “the shelves are crowded with perfumes, / I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it, / The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it” (LG 1855, p. 25). Poised here at the start of his great career, the poet/speaker presents us with a multivalent

image which accrues meaning only in relation to what follows. These perfumes probably represent books or culture, in association with woman's sphere, the home, but this association is not subjected to close scrutiny, since Whitman's style, with its nervous profusion of images, tends to move us away from any particular scene or gender or erotic desire before we have had a chance to examine it fully.

In fact it might appear that these excessively crowded houses or rooms have no particular owner, and that in belonging to everyone, they belong to no one. Clearly, these spaces are not identified with a particular city or nation, and they would seem oppressively isolated from each other, were they not organized by a common symbolic language whose endpoint, absorption by the maternal night, is death. Though he claims to like this all-pervading, common language as much as the next person, the more highly individuated persona quickly escapes into the out of doors, where he finds a reason for being. That the persona is looking for some kind of authenticating love becomes clearer as we read on into the poem. “The atmosphere is not a perfume,” he writes, “it has no taste of the distillation. … it is odorless, / It is for my mouth forever. … I am in love with it, / I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, / I am mad for it to be in contact with me” (LG 1855, p. 25).

In a number of important ways, this opening departure scene in “Song of Myself” anticipates the subsequent voyage and vision of the erotically deprived twenty-ninth bather who owns the “fine house by the rise of the bank” but who does not own herself. In each instance, love-making occurs in a pastoral setting which liberates both the Whitman persona and the twenty-ninth bather from a home-bound life. Both personae select fantasy lovers who are unaware of their presence, a point to which I will shortly return. In the opening scene, Whitman claims to be in love with the atmosphere; analogically, he implies the boundlessness of his love for human beings undifferentiated by gender. This claim is not fully persuasive; that is, he himself is not fully persuaded by it. Yet his unconventional lovemaking prepares him to violate other erotic taboos, for example the prohibition against anonymous, male-homoerotic sex. Thus in Section 11, the speaker/poet identifies with a woman who wants to make love with twenty-eight undifferentiated young men whom she has never met, whom she knows only through observation, and who are unaware of her presence. The speaker/poet authorizes her anonymous, indiscriminate lovemaking, while inviting readers to eavesdrop on her frustrations. “Which of the young men does she like the best?”

he inquires, “Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.” Because her desire is also his, has no independent life of its own, and serves as a screen for homoerotic pleasure, in fantasy he fuses his body with hers when he remarks on the multiply desirous “unseen hand” which passes over the bodies of the young men, descending “tremblingly from their temples and ribs” toward their genitals (LG 1855, p. 34). This hand may be hers, or his, or both. The nervous but also devotional caress he shares with this figure of his reforming imagination suggests that Whitman does not intend to cast himself as either a man or a woman. Rather, he indicates that gender is a cultural imposition that art is bound to shrug off, sooner or later. In violating the bourgeois convention that love-making take place in the home among people who know each other—heterosexual marriage being the legitimating social structure—Whitman moves away from the norms of middle-class propriety into a more thoroughly anonymous and fantasy-ridden mode.

When the persona projects his desire onto such figures as the atmosphere, the magnetic nourishing night, and the coolbreathed earth, he successfully reforms erotic encounters he may have had with particular men and women. The caressable young men of Section 11, for example, are shockingly unaware of the poet/lover's presence. Each unthinking individual is taken unawares, and each is part of a homogeneous group that is equally and unknowingly taken. The fantasy figures are all so friendly. Contrary to what we might expect, there is no enmity between them. Nor is conflict introduced by the speaker and his womanly persona, the twenty-ninth bather.[9] Here fantasy authorizes erotic cross-dressing and the speaker remains “the caresser of life wherever moving” (LG 1855, p. 35), a self-conception consistent with his belief that the American bard has nothing to do with special interests, including special sexual interests. As the caresser of life wherever moving, Whitman exposes what Michel Foucault has mockingly called Puritanism's “triple edict of taboo, nonexistence, and silence.”[10] But his bathing scene also dramatizes the homoerotic poet's imposition of a further taboo, since male-male desire can be expressed only if depersonalized and negotiated through a female participant-observer. The twenty-eight young men “do not know … [and] they do not think.” Were they to know and think, this scene would have a different outcome.

In the 1856 letter to Emerson and in the first two editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman begins to claim same-sex desire only to disown it. Consider, for example, the curious dynamic in Section 32, where the speaker moves into his notable French mode, the English language being

associated with the Puritanism of Foucault's tricky repressive hypothesis.[11] In this empowering homoerotic episode, the speaker and his “amie,” a “gigantic beauty of a stallion,” cavort briefly. Then the speaker abandons this exciting companion who is “fresh and responsive to [his] caresses,” and we are perhaps not likely to ask why, since we can always assume that a horse is just a horse. But as symbol-readers, we see something else. At first choosing to go with the stallion “on brotherly terms,” the speaker ends up feeling that he has exploited this potentially perfect mate, whose “well built limbs,” “trembl[ing] with pleasure,” recall the trembling unseen hand of Section 11. In the later episode, Whitman converts his fear of exploitation into an assertion of autonomy, but does not purge competition from his model of erotic exchange. “I but use you a moment and then I resign you stallion,” he writes, “and do not need your paces, and outgallop them, / And myself as I stand or sit pass faster than you” (LG 1855, p. 56).

Though he has previously been tempted to turn and live with the animals because they are so placid and self-contained, the Whitman persona is unable to let go of civilization and its discontents. The animals whom he has observed, “sometimes half the day long,” have always brought him magical tokens of himself, unlike the people he knows all too well, who lie awake in the dark, weeping not only for their sins but also for their worldly failures, including their failures to gratify the deeply inculcated mania for owning things. Escaping from the city into the country temporarily enables him to move out of this overly demanding, competitive mode, but return visits constitute an aberration. The restless “Song of Myself” persona rarely finds any scene worth lingering over, since he prefers erotic anonymity, for the reasons we have been considering. Adventures into which he enters avidly quickly reinscribe the speaker's need to be in control, as fears of exploitation coincide with fears of being exploited—even in male-homoerotic relationships that are later praised, in 1860, for their democratic potential.

Its wit notwithstanding—the horse-loving speaker describes himself as “not too exclusive”—Section 32 is an overdetermined example of the Whitman persona's inability to shrug off the intrusive, exploitative social structure by which his passional life has previously been marked. The speaker who earlier fancied himself “Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical” (LG 1855, p. 27) prefers muscular men, but in 1855–56, all of his erotic relationships are represented as transitory. In “Song of Myself,” for example, changes of scene express Whitman's need to abandon thoughts and feelings he cannot endure. He takes his

leave of others, including his feminized “amie,” before they can take their leave of him. Leaves of Grass: the title itself suggests departure. Or a backward glance o'er traveled roads. Or, as he called some of his poems later on, “Songs of Parting.”

In Section 3 of “Song of Myself,” the departure dynamic is temporarily reversed, when “a loving bedfellow sleeps at [his] side all night and close on the peep of the day, / And leaves for [him] baskets covered with white towels bulging the house with their plenty” (LG 1855, p. 27). Whitman compares this loving bedfellow to God, who symbolically impregnates him and leaves behind an exquisitely clean food-relic (something like a perfect baby, a perfect homoerotic memory, a perfect book). The speaker, however, is not unambivalently willing to accept this gift because of the psychological vulnerability with which it is associated. Gazing after his departing lover, the speaker's voice turns shrill and he accuses his hungering eyes of prolonging a desire his mind cannot understand. The rational alternative is to “forthwith cipher and show me to a cent, / Exactly the contents of one, and exactly the contents of two, and which is ahead?” Such impersonal exactitude reduces him to despair. This episode, then, defines the sleeping Whitman as an erotic victim and justifies the defensive structure that governs the poem. Abandoned by his beloved male muse, Whitman can only describe himself as “Both in and out of the game [of love], and watching and wondering at it” (LG 1855, p. 28).[12]

There's no point in loving an unreliable god, and I am suggesting that the traumatized speaker takes himself out of the game of love even when it appears that there are particular versions of this game he might win. However, the reality-testing in which he engages is limited, and he collapses “the real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love.” Probably Whitman means to suggest that when gender does not signify, neither does reality, by which he means history. But when the real determines which differences matter, he himself is not in love. Consequently, he concludes Section 24 with the lines, “Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you, / Broad muscular fields, branches of liveoak, loving lounger in my winding paths, it shall be you, / Hands I have taken, face I have kissed, mortal I have ever touched, it shall be you.” Evidently none of these fantasy figures responds to him as a coherent person, and this imagination of a psychologically scattered self leads him to say, “I dote on myself. … there is that lot of me, and all so luscious,” and then, “Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy” (LG 1855, p. 49).


Many of these imaginary interactions have a vaguely or explicitly sacramental quality, especially when the speaker is most thoroughly impregnated, as in the brief encounter in Section 3 with a lover who comes “As God,” and in the longer lasting, soulful encounter in Section 5, which is introduced with the plea, “the other I am must not abase itself to you, / And you must not be abased to the other” (LG 1855, p. 28). These lines thematize Whitman's concern with exploitation and humiliation, even when he is alone. In general terms, the speaker is unable to realize himself; in more specific terms, he is unable to trust himself to other men.

In Section 3, for example, the rounded baskets that cause his “house” to bulge prefigure the abnormally swollen white bellies of the twenty-eight caressable young men in Section 11, a passage in which, as we have seen, male-male desire is subordinated to and constructed by the female gaze. In Section 5, as the persona finds himself seized by both the “hand” and the “spirit” of God, he represents this spirit as his own soul, which extorts nothing from him except the willingness to submit. As a consequence of this devotional compromise,

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers. … and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love;
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder and mullen and pokeweed.

(LG 1855, p. 29)

But this feeling does not last. Feminization cannot be a permanent mode. The “neuter gender” is too threatening.

In “Song of Myself,” physical intimacy does not often produce spiritual intimacy. This point is further emphasized by the triangulation of Section 11, in which the poet/speaker watches a desiring woman who watches the floating, bulging men; the mutuality of the gaze is frustrated, doubly frustrated. Just as the twenty-eight young men are completely unaware of being observed, let alone “seize[d] fast” by the woman's longing, so too the love-starved woman whom they “souse with spray” is completely unaware of the speaker who voyeuristically watches her. The anonymous mode prevails, as does unrealization.


Whitman locates the most fully visionary scene of sexual instruction early in the poem; the marriage of body and soul in Section 5 is never again so fully rendered. From a biographical perspective, one of the interesting features of this passage is its recuperation of the figure of the violent elder brother who rarely, if ever, enters into Whitman's descriptions of his youth but who uncannily reemerges at crucial moments in the poetry: both here and at the conclusion of “Passage to India,” in which Whitman's image of a successful spiritual quest terminates as follows.

Reckoning ahead O soul, when thou, the time achiev'd,
The seas all cross'd, weather'd the capes, the voyage done,
Surrounded, copest, frontest God, yieldest, the aim attain'd,
As fill'd with friendship, love complete, the Elder Brother found,
The Younger melts in fondness in his arms.

(LG, pp. 419–20)

In writing these lines, which were much noticed by Hart Crane,[13] Whitman was probably not thinking specifically of his brother Jesse, who ran away to sea when Whitman was about the age of the confused adolescent in “The Sleepers.” The “Sleepers” protagonist searches for his sexual identity on what he calls the “Pier out from the main” (LG 1855, p. 108), strangely imploring, “let me catch myself with you and stay. … I will not chafe you; / I feel ashamed to go naked about the world, / And am curious to know where my feet stand. … and what is this flooding me, childhood or manhood. … and the hunger that crosses the bridge between” (LG 1855, p. 108). These lines have never been effectively glossed, but we would do well to recall Whitman's curious suggestion in “Song of the Rolling Earth” that “Human bodies are words, myriads of words” and that “In the best poems reappears the body, man's or woman's, well-shaped, natural, gay, / Every part able, active, receptive, without shame or the need of shame” (LG, p. 219). Looking to his shameful older brother Jesse as if to a missing pier/peer, Whitman needed to fold this overly passionate missing person back into his songs of the growth of his own emotional and other nature. That he should choose to do so directly in “Passage to India” and indirectly in Section 5 of “Song of Myself” suggests something of the power of the Elder Brother's hold on his imagination, early and late. Suffused with the songs of the second son, Jesse is represented as a composite psychological possibility rather than as a unique historical being. This troublesome brother's ghostly presence continues to inform the text, however, as Whitman piles up “mossy scabs of the wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder and mullen and pokeweed” in a brilliantly improvised ceremony which soothes

and displaces the anger he continued to feel toward Jesse and which anticipates some of the underground torment of Robert Frost's “Home Burial,” a homely pastoral Whitman would have admired.[14] “Elder.” The elder brother. “Mullen.” Rhymes with sullen. “Pokeweed.”[15] The name is phallic, but is it playful or hostile or both? Though my dictionary tells me unequivocally that a worm fence is “a zigzag fence with each section consisting of usu. six to eight rails that interlock with the rails of adjacent sections and are supported by crossed poles—called also snake fence, Virginia fence,” the wormfence in this passage also signifies Whitman's interest in the death or decay of ego boundaries.[16] Do good fences make good neighbors? It's hard to tell. In the case of Jesse, whom Whitman subsequently committed to an insane asylum, without any obvious remorse, probably yes.

Following this astonishing but short-lived integration of body and soul, the speaker moves immediately into the extended meditation beginning, “A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands” (LG 1855, p. 29), a meditation which circles around the themes of procreation and death. The child's apparently casual question unrepresses an attitude toward “nature” the speaker wants to investigate, and the ontological crisis subtly suggested by Section 5 becomes the main theme of Section 6. In dialogue with each other, Sections 5 and 6 underscore the persona's need to be reconciled to the hurtful father we encountered in “There Was a Child Went Forth,” who propels the “fatherstuff at night” before inflicting other blows on his unsuspecting household intimates. The residual language of the soul stabilizes Whitman's faith in sex. Without access to this traditionally authoritative vocabulary, men may propel the fatherstuff at night, but they can never earn the trust of the child who asks, “What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands.” Though Whitman says that he cannot answer the child, he hopes to counteract the excesses of individualism by reanimating the “soul” of a democratic culture.

As a sexually and psychologically transformative figure not yet translated into anyone else's language, Whitman's “soul” is associated with traditional understandings of the Muse and with what we would now call the preconscious mind. This totemistic figure has the power to reconcile him to his experience of “the other I am,” the self-in-society defined by its phantasmal, rather than its real and consequential existence. Sections 5 and 6 of “Song of Myself” thus reflect the visionary poet's uncanny ability to reform himself as part of a crowd, whether that crowd be understood as an eternal religion, an eternal family, an eternal nation,

or an eternal profession. This, too, emerged out of his unhappy and restless youth. He learned that no one person could ever permanently define or dominate any significant social undertaking: not his father, not his brother Jesse, surely not his smiling sister Mary (only eighteen months younger than he), and not even his hard-pressed mother, though if any one might prevail, it was she. Still, the erotic vulnerabilities which were his by temperament and by experience mandated the subsequent anonymity of his passional life. Just as in “There Was a Child Went Forth” the Whitman persona suggests that he cares for and understands the people he loves much more deeply than they care for or understand him, so Whitman felt. He said as much to Horace Traubel late in life and he indicates as much in the passages we have been reading. Early on, he experienced a loss of passional identity at home, which continued to plague him during his youth and early manhood. Leaves of Grass, which he often described as his child, was an inspired attempt to recuperate this loss. Its birth was accelerated, as Paul Zweig has suggested, first by his father's social eclipse, which was empowering for Whitman, and then by his father's lengthy dying.[17] Small wonder that Whitman always exaggerated the degree to which he was ignored by the critics and that he tried to block comparisons with other writers by exaggerating his ignorance of literary conventions. Given that the project originated in the traumas and rivalries of his youth, family-obsessed traumas and rivalries not assuaged, and in some instances intensified, by his subsequent “quickbroken” relationships (LG 1855, p. 139), Whitman turned to his readers for continuing affirmation of his identity. If readers could understand and accept him, they could undo the blindness of the patriar-chal gaze.

This was Whitman's erotic double bind: he wanted to be understood but he was afraid of being understood. He had been conditioned to relative anonymity at home during his childhood and youth and he perpetuated this relative anonymity as an adult lover.[18] Inconstant in his affections, quick to anger and despair, for Whitman the important issues were connection and control. Cultural prohibitions against male-male physical intimacy may explain some of his anxiety, but Whitman makes the more general point, even in his 1860 Calamus poems, that men and women living in a generationally fragmented culture will need to fight against their depersonalization as lovers. Thus at that moment in “Song of Myself” when a child turns to the speaker, inquiring “What is the grass?” the fullness of the poet's response is therapeutically telling. His willingness to admit what he doesn't know makes him the perfect confidant;

the child who asks this question is affirmed by a nurturing textual environment in which skepticism is tolerated, vulnerability shared. Unfortunately, the Whitman family never developed a narrative to explain itself to itself; the experience of the family remained to a significant degree unspoken and beyond comprehension except that, in Christopher Bollas's terms, Whitman made it his life work to remember for others.[19] In his struggle to celebrate vulnerability as well as strength, the poet provides a powerful critique of the feeling “the body gives the mind / of having missed something.”[20] Ambivalently positioned in relation to the multiple narratives, spoken and unspoken, which had informed his early life, he remained unsure of what that unifying something was. In attempting to reintegrate a social self always threatening to break down into its acutely autonomous parts, Whitman turned toward his own body as an object of desire, listening to its rippling echoes and buzzed whispers, exploring the multiple uses of its loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine. Disappointed in his early quest for loving comprehension, he rewrote the story of those disappointments as a song of his faith in sex, and in so doing resisted the melancholy tide that had submerged his father and driven his elder brother from home. Throughout the first two editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman is searching for those profoundly remembering feelings the body gives the mind and the mind gives the body of having found something. That something, he insisted, was himself, loving himself body and soul and waiting for “you” to do the same.


Through poetry, Whitman entered into a psychologically restorative lyric world in which scenes of erotic initiation could be reconfigured. In this lyric utopia, “the smoke of my own breath” is a sufficient origin, whereas in the tobacco-stained, working world of taverns and farms and houses with which Walter Senior had actually been associated, any working-man's control of his body (and by extension of his social role) had been very limited indeed. Although estrangement between fathers and sons was a common fate in Jacksonian and post-Jacksonian America, Whitman felt it more than most. Ideally, his faith in sex linked him to the past, as well as the future, and he hoped that his poetry of the flesh and the appetites would not betray its domestic, working-class roots.

As the antebellum Whitman resisted the power of the genteel literary classes to shape his professional life, he tirelessly promoted his books, carefully controlling the circumstances of their production and publishing

the first two editions of Leaves of Grass himself. During this time he frequented Pfaff's, the artsy beer cellar he visited with physicians from the New York Hospital and where he met such friends as Henry Clapp, who as editor of the Saturday Press was to help Whitman secure a publisher for his 1860 volume. Pfaff's was one of the places Whitman took his musical brother Jeff, as well as such young, working-class friends as Fred Vaughan, the stage driver to whom he was much attached. So far as we know, however, Whitman's personal and professional correspondence in 1855–57 was extremely limited. Whereas Emily Dickinson, for example, is known to have shared poems-in-progress with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson and to have rewritten at least one of them in response to Sue's criticism,[21] Whitman did not usually share unpublished poems with his intimates, either through the mails or in person. The “passionate friendliness” he described in the 1856 open letter to Emerson did not extend that far (LG, p. 741).

The following atypical episode, then, is worth pausing over. It sheds further light on Whitman's sense of “democratic” audience. In 1858, Whitman brought the manuscript of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” to an admiring and unconventional domestic circle dominated by Abby Hills Price, a radical feminist reformer whom he had met through a mutual friend in 1856. Abby shared many of Walt's political values, as Ellen O'Connor and Anne Gilchrist were later to do, and her Brooklyn home provided a restful and stimulating alternative to his own. Although he was not eager to be lionized and resisted Abby's attempts to show him off to her guests, he made an exception for George B. Arnold, a former Unitarian minister who dabbled in spiritualism and who lived in the other part of the house. Thus, on the day when Whitman shared the new poem Abby had coaxed him into bringing along, no outsiders were present. (Abby's husband was a self-effacing businessman who seems to have played no part in their teas.) Diffidently, Whitman insisted that Abby and Arnold each read the poem aloud before he agreed to do so himself. When the three readings were over, the poet turned to Abby Price, then to Arnold, then to Abby's astonished teenage daughter Helen, asking each one of them what they would suggest “in any way.” Whitman, who preferred Abby's reading, had already mentioned that the poem was based on a “real incident,” but he did not tell them what it was.[22] Even with an intelligent and admiring private audience he trusted, Whitman felt the need to conceal the poem's occasion.

Those assembled probably sensed that his verse, which was “all about

a mocking bird,” was also, at several removes, all about romantic frustration. And in the early days of their acquaintance, Abby Price dared to ask Walt directly whether he had ever been in love. According to her observant daughter Helen,

After a long pause he answered somewhat reluctantly, I thought, “Your question, Abby, stirs a fellow up.” Although he would not admit that he had ever been “really in love,” he took from his pocket a photograph of a very beautiful girl (remember, he was still in his thirties) and showed it to us. That is all we ever knew about the original of the picture either then or afterwards, but I well remember the girl's exceptional beauty.[23]

On yet another occasion, when, as Helen Price recalled, the assembled group was talking about friendship,

[he] said that there was a wonderful depth of meaning (“at second or third removes,” as he called it) in the old tales of mythology. In that of Cupid and Psyche, for instance; it meant to him that the ardent expression in words of affection often tended to destroy affection. It was like the golden fruit which turned to ashes upon being grasped, or even touched. As an illustration, he mentioned the case of a young man he was in the habit of meeting every morning where he went to work. He said there had grown up between them a delightful, silent friendship and sympathy. But one morning when he went as usual to the office, the young man came forward, shook him violently by the hand, and expressed in heated language the affection he felt for him. Mr. Whitman said that all the subtle charm of their unspoken friendship was from that time gone.[24]

Despite the poet's personal reticence with George B. Arnold and the Prices, there is a correspondence that takes us further into the talk about friendship in which Whitman was participating during these extraordinary times. For in March 1860, while he was in Boston seeing the third edition of Leaves of Grass through the press, the poet offered to send his young stage-driver friend Fred Vaughan some proof sheets in advance of publication. More than any other single gesture, this “kind offer,” as Vaughan called it, indicates the seriousness of Whitman's attachment to him. While Whitman was in Boston, Vaughan heard Emerson lecture on manners and touch on the theme of friendship. According to Vaughan, Emerson said that “a man whose heart was filled with a warm, ever enduring not to be shaken by anything Friendship was one to be set on one side apart from other men, and almost to be worshipped as a saint.”[25]“There Walt,” he wrote,

how do you like that? What do you think of them setting you & myself, and one or two others we know up in some public place, with an immense placard

on our breast, reading Sincere Freinds! Good doctrine that but I think the theory preferable to the practice.

The friendship between Whitman and Vaughan did not survive the various pressures—Vaughan's marriage, Whitman's move to Washington—to which it was subjected, but Vaughan's distinction between the theory and practice of friendship seems crucial. Apparently Whitman later felt that he had crossed some boundary with Fred or that Fred had crossed some boundary with him, for when he was at a crisis point in his relationship with Peter Doyle in 1870, he cautioned himself to remember Fred (NUPM 2:890). All we can know for certain is that in Leaves of Grass in 1855 and 1856, Whitman was still working to divest himself of loyalties to any personal audience that might narrow his poetic range, impede his well-publicized love affair with himself, or constrain his aggressive courtship of his country. Most consistently, he wanted to present himself as an American original who was not too original. How this desire played out in terms of his evolving and reforming faith in sexualities rather than in “sex” remains to be considered.

If Whitman's body defines him in the 1855 and 1856 Leaves of Grass, his body, like the American landscape with which it is associated, is not a constant signifier on whose continuity of meaning either he or we can count. For example, he cannot depend on its gendered stability. Whereas male gender is usually defined in terms of erotic choice, there are numerous scenes in the 1855 Leaves that undo that choice: to name but one, the ride with the sexy stallion. In the 1856 volume, as Whitman introduced a more direct vocabulary of male-homoerotic desire, he also gendered himself more emphatically, and it was this latter project that provoked the most contemporary indignation. When he wrote “A woman waits for me—she contains all, nothing is lacking, / Yet all were lacking, if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right man were lacking” (LG 1856, p. 240), his contemporary audience was not pleased. Even if some of Whitman's avantgarde allies enjoyed his scandalousness, ordinary American readers were intent on maintaining a sex/gender system which was emotionally familiar. We may wonder whether Whitman intended to satirize misogynist sexual norms, but he paid a high price for his uncensored speech.

Even before the 1855 Leaves had been published and reviewed, Whitman was well aware that he was asking readers to reexamine their own sexual values and that this challenge was likely to provoke a literary scandal. After all, when he described his robustly masculine poet in the 1855

“Preface,” Whitman placed him “where the future becomes present,” glowing a moment “on the extremest verge.” But this same virile poet is “most wonderful in his last half-hidden smile or frown.” “By that flash of the moment of parting,” Whitman contended aggressively, “the one that sees it shall be encouraged or terrified afterwards for many years” (LG 1855, p. 12). Should the poet transgress the gender boundary that links him to his equally bounded audience in the present? Whitman was inconsistent on this point, but he knew full well that to challenge an audience was thrilling and frightening. He himself had found it so.

During the 1850s, Whitman's attempts to dismantle a binary sex/gender system and to embody male-homoerotic theories and practices were empowered and constrained by the response of his friends to the risks he was taking. For example, his project was defined by an idealizing discourse of the soul about which he professed not to be curious but which he was reluctant to abandon. The relationship between body and soul was one of the topics he discussed in 1856–57 with George B. Arnold, Abby Price's spiritualist friend, and in 1857 he told a Dutch Reformed minister who admired his poetry that he had “perfect faith in all sects, and was not inclined to reject one single one” (Corr 1:43). This rejection of religious orthodoxy was compatible with Whitman's vision of an inclusive rather than an exclusive audience for his poetry and with his purported indifference to conventional forms. Be that as it may, friends such as Fred Vaughan, whom Whitman romanticized in the poetry as “roughs,” were in fact deeply concerned with keeping up appearances. Because of Fred's importance as a representative of Whitman's personal audience during the 1850s, I would like to return to his 1860 letters to Whitman, which include allusions to religion and to money.

Laughingly, Fred described himself and Walt as freethinkers, but when angered by Walt's sluggard manners as a correspondent, he wrote impulsively, “What the devil is the matter,” a phrase that echoes Whitman's language to Abraham Paul Leech some twenty years earlier. When filled with the sentiments of a sincere friend, Fred exclaimed, “I hope to God it [the 1860 Leaves] may be not only a success as regards its typography, appearance and real worth, but also pecuniarily a success.” When Vaughan criticized Emerson's delivery of the “Manners” lecture as strained, hesitating, and repetitious, he noted that Emerson had spoken in Father Chapin's church, a statement suggesting that Fred already knew the minister and that Walt would recognize his name.[26] When Vaughan humorously described himself as “under the painful necessity of telling a lie to keep up [Whitman's] reputation,” he demonstrated his

ability to manipulate the moralistic vocabulary in which he had been instructed. And when Vaughan quoted poetry to Whitman, this is what he wrote: “A well filled pocket, now & then, is relished by the best of men.” Vaughan was apparently Whitman's romantic obsession of the mid-1850s. If he believed in the flesh and the appetites, he also believed in hard work and its ability to produce results. Fred hoped to prove his father wrong. (His father had accused him of being lazy, but his mother denied it.) Although Fred felt that he had disappointed both his father and mother, to say nothing of himself, he was identified with the poet who had justified Louisa's faith in his work. “I used to tell your Mother you was lazy and she denied it,” Fred wrote. He subsequently remembered that Emerson had refused to lend Whitman money, pleading “impecuniosity.[27] This solicitation probably occurred in 1857, when Walt was in debt and before he returned to a full-time editorial position. In short, Fred could not afford to ignore the moral boundaries maintained by the people who employed him, and it is possible that Walt himself employed Fred when he was editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times in 1857–59.[28]

Small wonder, then, that the Whitman who wanted poetry to express the flesh and the appetites also wanted his poetry to exhibit caution. Fred and people like him were an important part of the audience Whitman cared about, the audience that influenced his sense of social mission. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the major new poem of the 1856 volume, Whitman asks whether it is possible to live fully in one's time and body while maintaining a purchase on the future. Together, Vaughan and Whitman traveled the ferry route many times. When Whitman accuses himself of erotic cowardice in the poem's most memorable passage, he suggests that his ability to sublimate desire links him to readers yet unborn: to you and me. Although Whitman also subverts this line of argument, as we might expect, the Vaughan who later described himself as “now cursing now praying” was more impulsive than the Whitman who expressed male-homoerotic desire at several removes in verse. Vaughan's later life was filled with tragedy.[29] In the 1850s, however, he was hoping to rise in the world and he was hoping that Whitman would help him do it. Fred genuinely wanted the 1860 Leaves of Grass to be a financial success. Here, then, is a nice irony. Vaughan, whom Whitman could romanticize as a “rough,” was deeply conflicted about the “seize the day” undercurrent in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the poem he or someone like him helped to inspire. By 1862, when he was desperate to have Whitman attend his wedding, Whitman would have been the only guest. Did Whitman support him in yet another hour of chronic need? Was this

why Whitman cautioned himself in 1870 to remember Fred Vaughan? Was Fred Vaughan his prime example of someone he had already helped too much and who had become an overly demanding friend and lover?

During the 1850s, Whitman's immediate personal audience included Fred Vaughan and people like him, whose imagination of the future was sharply bounded by the material limitations of the present. The Whitman persona, however, has a more fluid relationship to the present and to his own body, which is seemingly as variable as the words he uses to describe it. Depending on relational context, Whitman seeks to become more or less embodied, to have a more or less historically situated social identity, and to have a more or less individuated sense of himself as a person not inscribed by language within the postoedipal symbolic order. For example, at the conclusion of “Song of Myself” the speaker tries out the idea that he can outwit death by escaping from his body. Identifying himself with his poem, he imagines that his poem's ending signals his death, voice and life being coequal and coterminous. Working his way around this unfortunate coincidence—for poems do need to end, whereas desire is fantasized as immortal—Whitman claims to shed his body, to effuse his flesh “in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.” “If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles,” the materially decomposing persona explains, anticipating that moment in Dickinson's “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” when mourners “creak across [her] Soul / With those same Boots of Lead, again.”[30] The effect in Whitman, however, is very different; he feels affirmed, rather than imposed upon, by the loss of corporeal, emotional, and intellectual identity, since he imagines a rebirth into some larger All. Once the speaker sheds his body, which is conceived as a social limit, his problems of longing and belonging disappear. Whitman hints, however, that these problems will recur, for “I stop some where, waiting for you.”[31]

Dying authenticates Whitman's claim, announced at the poem's inception, that “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (LG 1855, p. 25). Atomized into his component parts, he shares in a universalized, ungendered identity to which everyone and everything potentially belongs. In seeking to divest himself of the ideologically marked male body, Whitman aimed to liberate himself from the culturally produced, discursively constructed masculinity that it symbolized. Thus if Dickinson was afraid to own a female body because femininity could be read as a grotesque divergence from a masculinized norm, Whitman could represent freedom from the fate of gendered identity as an escape from time and history. To escape from a unique body might be to step

out from behind a screen, to enter a more authentically human sphere. As he announced in the poem “So Long!” which concluded the 1860 volume,

Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here together alone?)
It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth.

(LG, p. 505)[32]

Just as a “camerado” does not correspond to a word found in any dictionary, a man who is a book is no longer defined by the corporeal limitations of his sex. Equally, a living book or a living imagination is no longer confined by literary convention. In Leaves of Grass, collapsing the distinction between life and death can encourage other minglings. That is why “To die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier” (LG 1855, p. 30).

The pattern of symbolic death and rebirth I have been tracing in Whitman as in Dickinson indicates the need urgently felt by both poets to forge new ways of being in the world. To the extent, however, that Whitman's project depended on his desire to actualize himself in an immediate human community, there was little future for him in disembodiment. More often than not, he suggests that “the supernatural [is] of no account” and that the imagined loss of corporeal presence does not facilitate “perpetual transfers and promotions” (LG 1855, pp. 72, 84). Here we move further into one of the more curious features of Whitman's project: his protestations against technologies of the book that supposedly prevented him from fulfilling his promise of unmediated presence. Let us recall that Whitman served as his own publisher for the 1855 volume, setting some ten pages of the book's type himself. On the first page of the first untitled poem, addressing readers and his ungendered “soul” as one, he moved somewhat abruptly to dissolve the cultural identity that he associated with strangely anxious mappings of the male body. Heartbeat, breath, music, speech, and nonhuman sounds originating in nature provided him with models of erotic and authorial authenticity. These models, like the belched words of his own voice loosed to the eddies of the wind, could not be constrained within existing literary convention. Seeking to undo the constitutive oppositions embedded in the undemocratic language of his culture, at the personal level Whitman was looking for the kind of unoppositional relationship that, as he said, was not

in any previously published book. The problem was how to include it in his book. Allusions to sexual intercourse were one solution.

Thus at the start of the second poem in his 1855 sequence of twelve, the poet of “Song of Myself” issued a curious invitation to readers whose own need for democratizing “contact” might be almost as great as his own:

Come closer to me,
Push close my lovers and take the best I possess,
Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess.
This is unfinished business with me. … how is it with you?
I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.
I pass so poorly with paper and types. … I must pass with the contact of bodies and souls.
I do not thank you for liking me as I am, and liking the touch of me
… I know that it is good for you to do so.

(LG 1855, p. 87)

As Ezra Greenspan points out in Walt Whitman and the American Reader, “A more cautious Whitman would later remove these lines from the poem, but in 1855, his fervor far outpaced his common sense.”[33] This is a shrewd observation, and as Greenspan further notes, Whitman was pursuing more than one kind of “unfinished business” in protesting against paper and types. Seeking to alert us to the relationship between typecasting, in the modern sense of stereotyping, and the institutions of authorship, Whitman attacked idealized traditions of reading, hoping to clear the deck of impossible types, who falsely model what we, as a society, are and can be. “Because you are greasy or pimpled—or that you was once drunk, or a thief, or diseased, or rheumatic, or a prostitute—or are so now—or from frivolity or impotence—or that you are no scholar, and never saw your name in print. … do you give in that you are any less immortal?” (LG 1855, p. 88). These are the perfectible people Whitman includes in his democratic community of readers, whereas other authors leave them out.[34]

We are nevertheless dealing with “a large poet's large inconsistencies.”[35] In “A Song for Occupations,” Whitman offers to restore other people's false and fractured lives to an originary wholeness, as he did in “Song of Myself.” But in this later, more pressured narrative, Whitman's anxiety about his ability to reform literary and social convention is more apparent, and he is not content with suggesting that he would like

to have sexual contact with readers, whoever they are. “If you have become degraded or ill,” he writes, “then I will become so for your sake.” In relieving others of their personal burdens, he also offers to substitute himself for the reader's “lover or husband or wife.” “If your lover or husband or wife is welcome by day or night,” he suggests, “I must be personally as welcome.” The trope of turning husbands out of bed was part of the nineteenth-century women's friendship tradition, but the coerciveness of Whitman's “must” is jarring. Erotic coerciveness, however, emerges out of a sociohistoric context in which the male friendship tradition as Whitman understands it is underdeveloped. “If you meet some stranger in the street and love him or her, do I not often meet strangers in the street and love them?” he asks (LG 1855, p. 88). In “Occupations,” these street meetings do not lead anywhere; they are the product of a society in which art has no social function and the poet's imagination of social intimacy is correspondingly impoverished.

M. Wynn Thomas has argued that “the loss of the conception of the complete human being is what Whitman vehemently charges his society with,” and that “what Whitman encourages, therefore, is the carrying of preoccupations that characterize private life into the wider public domain.”[36] Carrying over those preoccupations involves perpetuating pains as well as pleasures, and we have seen that there was no unwounded private life to which Whitman could unambivalently appeal.[37] Emerging from the poem, he felt that his was a thankless task. He had been unable to find his true occupation in fantasies of sexual closeness with other people's lovers or husbands and wives. He needed someone of his own and feared that he was prostituting his talent. As he explained harshly in another self-review, “If health were not his distinguishing attribute, this poet would be the very harlot of persons” (CH 39–40).

Protesting any barrier to intimacy with readers whom he was trying to imagine as perfectly responsive to his desires, Whitman took on the transparent identity of “the largest lover and sympathizer that has appeared in literature” (CH 39). But this was a phantasmal existence, in which the poet experienced himself as a “gigantic embryo or skeleton of Personality” (Corr 1:246). Singing the flesh and its appetites, he warily underscored his physical and emotional remoteness from the very readers on whom he was depending for identity. “My final merit I refuse you,” he announced firmly, “I refuse putting from me the best I am. / Encompass worlds but never try to encompass me, / I crowd your noisiest talk by looking toward you. / Writing and talk do not prove me, / I carry

the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face, / With the hush of my lips I confound the topmost skeptic” (LG 1855, p. 51).

As Tenney Nathanson has suggested, “It would clearly be illegitimate to treat biographical material, in the particular form of Whitman's personal anxieties, as the exclusive determinants of the poet's presence. But we can point to such material as one crucial source of Leaves of Grass.[38] We can never understand all of those personal relationships that produced either Whitman's “faith in sex” or the anger he expresses toward the audience addressed within the 1855 and 1856 poems. It is nevertheless worth remarking (as Paul Zweig has beautifully done) that even before Walter Whitman Senior's death in July 1855, Walter Whitman, Junior, was functioning in all but name as the head of his family—together, of course, with his mother. In some ways, Whitman's role as surrogate father and, by extension, surrogate husband was inconsistent with his role as emerging poet; in other ways, the psychological pressures attendant on this role intensified his quest for an ampler life of his own. As Whitman began to impersonate his working-class father in his persona as working-class poet, the impersonation recreated not the father he had known, but the father he wished he had known, who could authorize

Words of approval, admiration, friendship. This is to be said among the young men of These States, that with a wonderful tenacity of friendship, and passionate fondness for their friends, and always a manly readiness to make friends, they yet have remarkably few words of names for the friendly sentiments.—They seem to be words that do not thrive here among the muscular classes, where the real quality of friendship is always freely to be found.—Also, they are words which the muscular classes, the young men of these states, rarely use, and have an aversion for;—they never give words to their most ardent friendships.[39]

It is also worth remarking that Whitman's younger brother Jeff, whom he took to New Orleans, and whom he described to Traubel as his only “real brother” and “understander” (WWWC 3:541), had begun to seek an ampler life of his own.[40] Jeff turned twenty-three in July 1855, and while still sharing many of Walt's enthusiasms, including the Italian opera, he too associated music, vocalism, and love.[41] We do not know when Jeff began to court Martha Mitchell (Mattie), whom he married in February 1859 and whom he then brought to live in the Whitman home on Classon Avenue, but Jeff and Mattie were engaged for several years before their marriage.[42] Afterwards, Jeff continued to interest himself in Walt's career and, inspired by Walt, the young couple named their first

child “Manahatta.” Walt, however, was no longer as important to this only “real brother” as he once had been.[43]

Whether or not Whitman's sense of social isolation was intensified by Jeff's marriage, his hunger for words of “approval, admiration, friendship” had certainly preceded it. An exclusively domestic audience could never satisfy him; his ambitions had always been larger. “The pay on Saturday night,” he wrote in the 1855 “Song for Occupations,” “the going home, and the purchases; / In them the heft of the heaviest. … in them far more than you estimated, and far less also, / In them, not yourself” (LG 1855, p. 96). Whitman's nighttime excursions to New York provided one avenue of escape from the “not yourself,” from the potentially depressing domestic pressures to contribute and conform. So too did visiting hospitals, walking in the city, opera-going, reading, and writing poetry, praised by Emerson for its originality, in which he promised to offer “no representative of value—but [to] offer the value itself” (LG 1855, p. 89).[44]

As he successfully defended himself against the merger of his personality into the limiting occupations of the Whitman family, the “friendly” poet hoped to see infinite possibilities in ordinary men and women and in himself. “This is what you shall do,” he wrote in the 1855 “Preface” to Leaves of Grass, “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families” (LG 1855, pp. 10–11). The pressure is palpable, the solution absurd. In the following year, Whitman continued to renegotiate his strained relations with “the muscular classes,” and with the well-to-do. Thus in The Eighteenth Presidency! he addressed himself “To Editors of the Independent Press, and To Rich Persons”:

Circulate and reprint this Voice of mine for the workingmen's sake. I hereby permit and invite any rich person, anywhere, to stereotype it, or reproduce it in any form, to deluge the cities of The States with it, North, South, East and West. It is those millions of mechanics you want; the writers, thinkers, learned and benevolent persons, merchants, are already secured almost to a man. But the great masses of the mechanics, and a large portion of the farmers, are unsettled, hardly know whom to vote for, or whom to believe. I am not afraid to say that among them I seek to initiate my name, Walt Whitman, and that I shall in future have much to say to them. I perceive that the best thoughts they have wait unspoken, impatient to be put in shape; also that

the character, power, pride, friendship, conscience of America have yet to be proved to the remainder of the world.[45]

The pamphlet was never published, James Buchanan was elected, and the “government sublime” Whitman hoped to inaugurate remained a distant dream.

Seeking to free himself and his country from economic tyranny and political confusion, Whitman insisted that good feelings could be inspired by “A few light kisses. … a few embraces. … a reaching around of arms, / The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag, / The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hillsides, / The feeling of health. … the full-noon trill. … the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun” (LG 1855, p. 26). Such feelings could not be purchased. Nor could even more powerful sexual feelings be predetermined, disciplined, or contained. “The words of the Body!” he wrote, “The words of Parentage! The words of Husband and Wife. The words of Offspring! The word Mother! The word Father!” (Primer 4). Then, further on, “The blank left by words wanted, but unsupplied, has sometimes an unnamably putrid cadaverous meaning. It talks louder than tongues. What a stinging taste is left in that literature and conversation where have not yet been served up by resistless consent, words to be freely used in books, rooms, at table, any where, to specifically mean the act male and female” (Primer 20).

Likely there are other words wanted.—Of words wanted, the matter is summed up in this: When the time comes for them to represent any thing or any state of things, the words will surely follow. The lack of any words, I say again, is as historical as the existence of words. As for me, I feel a hundred realities, clearly determined in me, that words are not yet formed to represent. Men like me—also women, our counterparts, perfectly equal—will gradually get to be more and more numerous—perhaps swiftly, in shoals; then the words will also follow, in shoals.—It is the glory and superb rose-hue of the English language, any where, that it favors growth as the skin does—that it can soon become, wherever that is needed, the tough skin of a superior man or woman. (Primer 21)

Toughened by words, whose therapeutic force he freely acknowledges, Whitman traced the origin of sexual feelings back to childhood; linking sexual frankness and moral courage, he sought to attribute his book's self-declared healthy-mindedness to his physical and spiritual intimacy with his mother, with mothers in general, with children, and with everything humble, inarticulate, and unformed. “The little one sleeps in its cradle,” he wrote perfectly unobtrusively, “I lift the gauze

and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand” (LG 1855, p. 31). “On women fit for conception I start bigger and nimbler babes,” he wrote jocularly, “This day I am jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics” (LG 1855, p. 71). And, magically, this:

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues! And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

(LG 1855, p. 30)

As Whitman tracked the career of a blade of grass from the hands of a child into the realm of pure symbol, he thought of the grass as itself a child, “the produced babe of the vegetation,” and as “the flag of [his] disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.” Yet this “uniform hieroglyphic” also resembled “the beautiful uncut hair of graves” (LG 1855, p. 29). As hope and despair interpenetrate in the lines quoted above, even the little one sleeping in its cradle needs a fuller defense against social aggression than the poet alone can provide. Lifting the gauze to take a closer look and becoming the child's protector—or, in the words of his early story, the child's “champion”—the poet is nevertheless responsible for introducing the danger he makes it his mission to deflect. Paradoxically, those silent brushes with social aggression and death (as exemplified by the flies) speak to us of feelings we can only guess at. For example, would Whitman like to be the sleeping babe? Is that why he lifts the gauze? Does he secretly resent the little one's access to the mother, or his lack of a consciousness of danger, especially those dangers associated with the adult eye and hand?[46] What happens to the sleeping babe once the silenced speaker departs? In Whitman's imagination, is the emerging child permitted to have a life independent of him? These emotional issues are similarly vexed in the longer passage quoted above. As the speaker directs our attention to his tenderness, he hints at darker feelings attached to those whom he cannot both know and protect. The “offspring taken [too] soon out of their mothers' laps” are like the young men whom he has inexplicably lost. Will others follow?

Was Whitman imagining a postsexual life or a more vigorous life of the body to come? If the poet cannot protect, it seems that he cannot know. But knowing is a form of intrusion; the poet's loving and thirsting gaze is not neutral. Whatever the emotional realities, Whitman indicates that brushes with death have inspired his central symbol. The knowledge of what he calls death has forced him to try to make language and love coincide.

Despite the urgency of his “language experiment” (DBN 3:729 n), which tries to brush away death—to disperse its emotional power—without perpetuating Christian conventions of a God-centered afterlife, in the passage quoted above the poet emphasizes that he has no effective guides in his struggle. The fathers and mothers are victims, too, and their surreal language has no meaning. Enormously enlarged details aside, all that resonates is a shared, domesticated helplessness. Under these circumstances, small wonder that many of Whitman's critics were unwilling to credit either the intelligence or the morality of his project. Whitman's struggle against death was dependent on a secular life force he associated with “Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers. … loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine” (LG 1855, p. 25). His critics, believing in their own superior solidity and soundness, needed, as Whitman too sometimes did, more literally to “get what the writing means” (LG 1855, p. 43).

“His language is too frequently reckless and indecent,” noted the first official reviewer, Charles A. Dana, in the New York Daily Tribune, “though this appears to arise from a naive unconsciousness rather than from an impure mind. His words might have passed between Adam and Eve in Paradise, before the want of fig-leaves brought no shame; but they are quite out of place amid the decorum of modern society, and will justly prevent his volume from free circulation in scrupulous circles.” Dana granted that there was “much of the essential spirit of poetry beneath an uncouth and grotesque embodiment” (CH 23). “Politeness this man has none, and regulation he has none. A rude child of the people!” protested an anonymous reviewer in 1855 (CH 46). (The reviewer turned out to be Whitman himself.) “For the purpose of showing that he is above every conventionalism,” Edward Everett Hale explained in the North American Review, “Mr. Whitman puts into the book one or two lines which he would not address to a woman nor to a company of men” (CH 51). Writing to James Russell Lowell in an 1855 letter, Charles Eliot Norton observed decisively, “There are some passages of most vigorous and vivid writing, some superbly graphic descriptions, great

stretches of imagination,—and then, passages of intolerable coarseness,—not gross and licentious but simply disgustingly coarse. The book is such indeed that one cannot leave it alone for chance readers, and would be sorry to know that any woman had looked into it past the title page” (CH 30). Comparing Whitman unfavorably to a female prostitute, the scurrilous Rufus N. Griswold ranted hysterically against Leaves of Grass as “a mass of stupid filth” (CH 32–33). A British reviewer asked brutally, “Is it possible that the most prudish nation in the world will adopt a poet whose indecencies stink in the nostrils? … The depth of his indecencies will be the grave of his fame, or ought to be, if all proper feeling is not extinct. The very nature of this man's compositions excludes us from proving by extracts the truth of our remarks; but we, who are not prudish, emphatically declare that the man who wrote page 79 of the Leaves of Grass deserves nothing so richly as the public executioner's whip” (CH 57).[47] “Impious and obscene,” written with “an ithyphallic audacity that insults what is most sacred and decent among men” (CH 62–63), Leaves of Grass was roundly condemned as unreadable, and especially unreadable by women, though Henry David Thoreau scoffed, “As if a man could read what a woman could not. Of course Walt Whitman can communicate to us no experience, and if we are shocked, whose experience is it that we are reminded of?” (CH 67–68).

Unlike Thoreau, most early readers had no doubt whose experience they were being reminded of. An anonymous reviewer (Whitman again) announced that “To give judgment on real poems, one needs an account of the poet himself”:

Very devilish to some, and very divine to some, will appear the poet of these new poems, the Leaves of Grass, an attempt, as they are, of a naive, masculine, affectionate, contemplative, sensual, imperious person, to cast into literature not only his own grit and arrogance, but his own flesh and form, undraped, regardless of models, regardless of modesty or law, and ignorant or silently scornful, as at first appears, of all except his own presence and experience, and all outside the fiercely loved land of his birth and the birth of his parents, and their parents for several generations before him. (CH 45–46)

It was characteristic of Whitman to introduce his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents into an anonymous self-review to authorize his offenses against “politeness and good breeding.”[48] “A Bachelor, he professes great respect for women,” Bronson Alcott noted with some wonderment after meeting Whitman in the fall of 1856. “Of Scotch descent by his father; by his mother, German. Age 38, and Long Island born” (CH 65). Alcott got some of his facts wrong: the Scotch, the German,

the age. But in other respects, his account of visiting the Whitmans on Classon Avenue, where they were then living, is more interesting. Alcott went on to describe an unmade bed shared by Whitman and his brother Eddy, a barely concealed chamber pot, and startling unframed prints—a Hercules, a Bacchus, and a satyr—“pasted … upon the rude walls”:

He had told me on my former visit of his being a house-builder, but I learned from his mother that his brother was the house-builder, and not Walt, who, she said, had no business but going out and coming in to eat, drink, write, and sleep. And she told me how all the common folks loved him. He had his faults, she knew, and was not a perfect man, but meant us to understand that she thought him an extraordinary son of a fond mother. (CH 65–66)

This account eerily juxtaposes the “naive” domestic values represented by Louisa Whitman with the aggressive “masculine” values represented by Whitman's lusty Greek prints. Taking us into forbidden territory, Alcott depicts a talkative mother who turns aside her son's most provocative statements, who nevertheless hints that she knows more than she lets on, and who, if Alcott's language is to be believed, is a secret snob. Airily excusing Walt's faults, whatever they may be, Louisa insists on her own zone of privacy, while correcting his misrepresentations of his contributions to the family. So what were Walt's faults? His failure to make the kind of money the family needed to escape from being “common folks,” as he pursued the poorly paid business of poetry rather than the potentially lucrative business of house-building? Or his failure to share the rich inner life that informed those poems with her? For Louisa, with her intuitive worldliness, surely knew that a poet's life consisted of more than eating, drinking, writing, and sleeping. Yet if she had any thoughts of her own about the provocative prints on the rude walls of the male dormitory with the unmade bed, Walt's mother certainly never hinted to Alcott or to anyone else that she had any interest in the sexual thematics of her son's life or work. Later, though, in a letter written from Burlington, Vermont, where she was visiting her daughter Hannah and still following her own inner light (a house in the country), Louisa raised the unlikely but to her threatening idea that Whitman might marry.[49] This letter illuminates Whitman's interactions not only with his mother but with other members of his personal audience, the audience of unidentified family members, friends, and lovers transfigured and rewritten into the imaginary planes of the poems we have been examining. In particular, this letter brings Whitman's sister Hannah, with whom he was closely identified, back into the family picture from which she is usually erased. As he explained in “A Backward Glance O'er

Travel'd Roads” (LG, pp. 573–74), “It must be carefully remember'd that first-class literature does not shine by any luminosity of its own; nor do its poems. They grow of circumstances, and are evolutionary. The actual living light is always curiously from elsewhere—follows unaccountable sources, and is lunar and relative at the best.”


As Whitman struggled to place his faith in sex as a source of pleasure rather than pain, and to free himself from the role of erotic victim, the example of his sister Hannah's tormented marriage was much in his mind. Hannah Whitman Heyde, the younger sister to whom Whitman was deeply devoted, was married in March 1852 when she was twenty-eight years old. Born on November 28, 1823, she is a possible model for the reclusive, fantasy-ridden “twenty-ninth bather” in “Song of Myself” we visited earlier in this chapter. For no apparent reason, Whitman surrounds this figure with iterations of the number twenty-eight, which he described as the age at which he began to write Leaves of Grass, and critics have exercised their ingenuity in explaining its allegorical significance. Many of these explanations link the number twenty-eight to the female menstrual cycle or to the lunar calendar. I would like to propose that the number twenty-eight was further determined because of its association with Hannah's birth date and age at the time of her marriage, and to see where this speculation takes us. I intend to suggest that Whitman's empathic identification with Hannah as an erotic victim influenced his understanding of the democratic poet's social mission, and that the healing touch he attributed to his “unseen hand” in Section 11 of “Song of Myself” was partly inspired by his desire to free his sister from the false body of her married life.

Shortly before he resigned from the Brooklyn Daily Times in late June 1859, and at the very moment when (it appears) he was returning to intensive work on the Calamus sequence, Whitman published an editorial on the theme of sexual repression, which examined the frustrations of single women. Attributing to them “a shameful sense of ignorance—a vague, eager desire for knowledge,” he suggested that “It is hard to fast when so many are feasting,” and he inquired whether we can really expect unmarried women “to drown forever the reproaches of Nature, that will make herself heard.” “If not,” he continued, “surely the most phlegmatically proper of her sex does sometimes feel sad and

dissatisfied when she thinks that she has never been able to care for any one more than for her own brother.”[50] In this editorial, familial rhetoric provides an important vocabulary of erotic desire, as it does throughout Leaves of Grass, but Whitman's sexualization of the sister-brother relationship is unusual. Moreover, because Hannah married late, he had ample opportunity to consider the erotic longings of the single woman with whom he had grown up and whom he knew better, so far as we can tell, than any other single woman then or later.

In asking “Can All Marry?” Whitman asserted that unmarried men have a “thousand and one safety-valves to superfluous [erotic] excitement,” such as “the counteracting resources of bodily and mental exertion,” but in Section 11 of “Song of Myself” these masculine resources seem far from sufficient. In fact the emotional power of the story depends on our awareness of the narrator's dilemma, which links him to his richly dressed heroine and triangulates the scene. Like her, Whitman as narrator wears a mask, the mask of the detached observer who seems to accept heterosexual norms for young, friendly, and unthinking men. In his “lonesome” lyric, Whitman's designated audience expands to include a woman who is structurally unable to hear him when he addresses her. As a literary character, she is unable to respond to the poet who “see[s]” her, and in seeing her, tries to imagine a way to make her desire visible to others.

Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life, and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.
Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glistened with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams passed all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also passed over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies swell to the sun. … they do not ask who seizes fast to them,

They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch, They do not think whom they souse with spray.

(LG 1855, p. 34)

Splashing in her room while bathing as Hannah Whitman might have done and as Whitman might have seen her do, the twenty-ninth bather becomes the poet who becomes her in the line, “An unseen hand also passed over their bodies.” This hand (writing) reconfigures erotic identities that are both culturally and personally specific. Identities fuse as they disintegrate, turning on a word, “hand,” which includes the first syllable of her first name, Hannah, and which forms an off rhyme with her last, Heyde. So far no one has considered Hannah (Heyde) as a possible source for this (hiding) vignette, perhaps because Hannah owned no fine house at the time of her marriage, did not live on a river, was not known to engage in group sex, did not literally share a hand with Whitman, and so forth. More generally, biographical critics have not found Hannah a compelling figure and have been content to write her off as neurotic and hysterical.

As Whitman tried to rewrite traditions of the body that separated men from men, women from women, and women and men from each other, Hannah's actual experience provided a formidable challenge. For by the time the 1855 Leaves of Grass was published, she was beginning to settle into a life of mutual torment with her husband Charles, a French-born landscape artist to whom she had been introduced by Walt, her adored older brother. At one time Walt thought well enough of Charlie Heyde to bring William Cullen Bryant to his Brooklyn studio, but eventually he came to see Heyde as “a serpent,” “a viper,” “a damned lazy scoundrel,” a “constant spear in his side,” a “skunk,” a “bug,” a “leech,” and “the bed-buggiest man on the earth” (WWWC 3:500, 2:493, 7:369, 7:23, 3:498). Little is known about Hannah's life before this disastrous marriage, except that she liked flowers, had an interest in fashion, was probably good-looking, and was more of a reader than the other Whitmans except for Jeff. We also know that while he was in New Orleans, Whitman trusted her with money (Corr 1:33, 36). Hannah was eager for an education, but her subsequent claim to have attended a “select school in Brooklyn” and a girls' boarding school in Hempstead, Long Island, was probably a reverie rather than a reality.[51] Like her mother, she was very conscious of what might have been, and she remembered all those rich acres the ancestral Whitmans had, over the years, lost.[52] Ironically, Hannah, who survived her husband and who

inherited money from both Walt and George, did end up owning a “fine house” near the water—ironically, that is, if we credit the “twenty-ninth bather” model—but her life was emotionally impoverished. In the 1860s, for example, she was often too depressed to write home, and was ashamed of her failure to accomplish even simple tasks, such as crocheting the scarf she had intended to present to Walt, who was always sending her gifts: books to read, letters from their mother he had received and then passed along to her, magazines, money, encouragement. But Hannah, described in her obituary as “a woman of keen intellect, of broad culture, of great independence of mind … a delightful conversationalist,” had qualities of heart and mind that could cause her to seem glamorous in her need.[53]

As early as 1844, Whitman seems to have been predicting trouble for Hannah. In the sketch “My Boys and Girls,” which he published in the aptly titled Rover, the narrator mentions an untrustworthy “child of light and loveliness” who makes him uneasy because he finds her blooming before her time and sexually provocative. This fantasy child is described as “a very beautiful girl, in her fourteenth year.” “Flattery,” we are told, “comes too often to her ears.” Working within the sentimental convention that associates sexual experience, childhood, and death, Whitman notes, “From the depths of her soul I now and then see misty revealings of thought and wish, that are not well. I see them through her eyes and in the expression of her face.” Here he prefigures his later knowledge of sexual fantasy in the 1855 Leaves of Grass, in which he comments on his ability to see through other people's masks and disguises, whether they want him to or not. But in this early sketch, the narrator is afraid to merge his point of view with Hannah's or to express his sexuality through hers. He remarks paternally and fraternally,

It is a dreary thought to imagine what may happen, in the future years, to a handsome, merry child—to gaze far down the vista, and see the dim phantoms of Evil standing about with nets and temptations—to witness, in the perspective, purity gone, and the freshness of youthful innocence rubbed off, like the wasted bloom of flowers. Who, at twenty-five or thirty years of age, is without many memories of wrongs done, and mean or wicked deeds performed? (EPF 248)

There is some question as to when this sketch was written, but Hannah's subsequent fate, coupled with her tales of a romantic elopement at sixteen, as well as her other self-representations and misrepresentations, would seem to justify Whitman's concern. Interviewed by Horace Traubel

after the poet's death, George Whitman was asked to comment on Walt's relations with his siblings and ventured the opinion, “He was fondest of Han if he had any preference.”[54] Building on George's remark, Clarence Gohdes and Rollo G. Silver describe Hannah as the favorite sister of all the brothers.[55] And viewing family relations through his careful study of George's Civil War letters and diary, Jerome Loving further suggests, “The fourth child, Hannah was—for no obvious reason—the favorite of all the family members, including Walt. Perhaps she shared, to some extent, Walt's aesthetic bent.”[56]

In fact Hannah prided herself on having participated in the artistic circles frequented by both Walt and her future husband, who had already met William Cullen Bryant even before Walt brought Bryant to Heyde's studio. Eventually Heyde became an artist of some modest distinction, and according to Katherine Molinoff had written “a small volume of very bad verse” by the time Whitman brought him home to meet Hannah.[57] But Heyde's personality deteriorated during his marriage, a deterioration abetted not only by his problems with Hannah but also by his problems with alcohol and his career. The change in Heyde's personality can be seen in his correspondence with Whitman. For example, just after Whitman had been in Boston in 1860 seeing the third edition of Leaves of Grass through the press, Heyde wrote to him pompously but encouragingly,

Dear Walt.

Recieved your book, also a letter for Han.—Feel proud myself—the copy I now have is just the thing to handle frequently—I like the poems better than those issued first. I like the portrait, it looks very much as you do at the present time. It has a little air of a foreign savan—however—but it is a good likeness.

I think that some of the poems open splendid—grandly—there is a fault or eccentricity however, in some, that is, they diverge too abruptly from a lofty theme or elevating imagery into common place—ordinary—and repulsive object, or subject matter—But they are poems of the thourough-fare of life passions and emotions of the universe and humanity—on all sides taken—as they approach and appear—without selection—sympathies utterd and communion held with all in turn and none rejected—Poems of glorious, liberal, soul filld emotion. They will be read—they must have a place—But you'l write a perfect poem one of these days, filld with nature sublimely—Your thoughts are true thoughts—Common sense is the best philosophy—Cant has too long ruled the world and judged the case of erring humanity—Your Poems are sustaining—I hope that there will be a jolly

good fight over them—The public are lazy—and need some disturbance to arouse them [. …]

Give us more poems Walt—I hope there'l be a genearl big row—in the papers—Stir em up well—I look for it.

Charlie (Clews 215–16)

As his own troubles intensified, Heyde began to bombard the Whitmans with abusive letters. He was also excruciatingly jealous of Walt's growing reputation, and by 1866 “that fool Heyde,” as Walt told his mother, had written a “long letter to [Henry Jarvis] Raymond, editor of the N. Y. Times,” identifying himself as Whitman's brother-in-law and disparaging Leaves of Grass. “In it he said ‘Walt was a good fellow enough-but’—& then he went on to run down Leaves of Grass, like the rest of 'em. … Raymond seemed to think the man was either crazy or a fool, & he treated the letter with contempt. … The puppy thought I suppose that he could get his letter printed, & injure me & my book” (Corr 1:303). (Heyde had apparently been provoked by William Douglas O'Connor's spirited public defenses of Whitman [Clews 224].) Months before writing to the Times, however, he had intemperately written to Whitman, complaining bitterly about his wife,

Perhaps I would not look upon “Leaves of Grass” with so much melancholy regard, if I was not experiencing a practical version of it: Irregular—disorderly: indifferent, or defiant—the lower animal instincts—no accountability, no moral sense or principle—No true, inherent, practical sympathy for anything; myself; disappointments, or endeavours. Nothing of me, or of the future to arise for me, out of my labour, and progressions.

Han has no more moral sense of marriage than an Ethiopian, of the field—Gives herself to a man and nothing more. (Clews 222–23)

Hannah never learned to cook and she was an erratic housekeeper at best, but Heyde's self-pitying invective left the Whitmans in no doubt about his character. “Walter i have had a letter from heyde the most awful one yet,” Louisa reported in March 1868. Then, three weeks later, “Walter. … i had a letter or package from charley … three sheets of foolscap and a fool wrote on them.” That little conceited fool, she called him. The same old Charley.

Though partly silenced, Hannah left enough of a written record to suggest that she had a lively mind, a sympathetic heart, and a fatal fascination with self-recrimination. Abject and depressed, she unburdened herself to the Whitmans through the mail, and during the recurrent crises which surrounded her, she longed to leave her controlling, irritable,

and withholding husband and to return to her loving “Mammy” and “the boys.” In response to her vivid descriptions of Heyde's “violent angry fits,” the Whitmans often thought of rescuing her, but those plans never came to anything. At the last minute, Hannah's fears of being even more socially dislocated as a woman separated from her husband always got the better of her, and she turned back to Heyde. Heyde, in turn, threatened to leave Hannah many times, reporting to Louisa that she had unjustly accused him of having sexual intercourse with his female students, that Hannah was a “she devil, to men,” and that “all the pleasure he has is with his fellow artists.”[58]

As a childless, unhappily married woman with, in her own view, “no talents [and] very little education,” Hannah depended on her family for emotional support.[59] Visits were few and far between, but her brother's career was crucial to her self-esteem.[60] Just as Whitman's narrative of personal and national identity was informed by an audience that included her, so Walt as the author of Leaves of Grass wanted Hannah Whitman Heyde to believe in the coming day of the “organic equality” of the sexes, without which, as he noted in his open letter to Emerson, “men cannot have organic equality among themselves” (LG, p. 739).[61] In the 1855 “Song for Occupations,” the poet characteristically insists that “The wife—and she is not one jot less than the husband” (LG 1855, p. 89). Heyde thought differently and told Hannah as much, though not so much at the level of abstraction as at the level of personal attack. Hannah vividly described their quarrels in her letters home, and despite her self-distrust, she tried to believe that a husband and wife were, in her words, “one as good as another.”[62] As she struggled to accept the “ups and downs” of a marriage that all too often brought out the worst in both partners, Hannah Whitman Heyde lamented the fact that she had placed her whole dependence on a single volatile individual who seemed unaccountably intent on humiliating her. In the early years of her marriage, she told the story of a romantic escapist who loved a certain person ardently and whose love was not returned. The 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass do not linger long over the plight of a vulnerable individual, ill at ease with the “uppertendom,” who suffers from jealous despair.[63] Appropriately reconfigured, that story would unfold in the next book as Whitman's own.

While the twenty-ninth bather in “Song of Myself” emerges out of Whitman's imagination, as do the twenty-eight young men who are to some extent based on his brothers, I have tried to show that the poet identified with his sister Hannah, that he did see her, as he claimed to

see the reclusive bather, and that he saw some of her problems as mirroring his. Whitman's faith in sex took many forms, but it was always a competition with social disease, a fate exemplified by Hannah. In one of her most poignant letters, written some time after her father's death in 1855 and before Jeff's marriage in 1859, she remarked, “How much I used to think of home, long ago, when I lived home, I mean. I used to think I was entirely killed if one of the boys talked of going away.” And “dont see any body here as good looking as Jeffy,” and “Mammy … I often immagine I see you going about,” and “I think I shall come home this fall,” and “I am alone much of the time,” and “I stay in my room much of the time,” and “tell Walt to write to me,” and “give my best love to all my brothers.” In this emotionally gripping letter, Hannah's desire to “seize fast” shines through, even though, as she explains, after breaking out of her fear of Charley by attending a concert with a “good clever woman,” a Miss Smith, where she had a “conspicuous” seat and felt underdressed amid “the uppertendom” of Burlington, “I was down down considerable, for going out with one that used to be a pastry cook, I dont suppose I shall ever rise again, I hope I shall have your sympathy,” and “I expect you say enough of art and Artists.”[64]

As an artist in words, Whitman tried to give his readers something other than a sentimental token of home to which they could “seize fast.” In his 1856 open letter to Emerson, he suggested, as we have seen, that “the courageous soul, for a year or two to come, may be proved by faith in sex, and by disdaining concessions.” The conditional tense of this statement is interesting, for a year or two to come is not so very long, and the idea that as a faith healer he could move easily between the body politic and the body personal was going to be difficult to sustain. Whitman concluded his blustery apologia with an allusion to “passionate friendliness,” and with obsequious flattery of his “dear Master.” In the 1855 and 1856 Leaves of Grass, Whitman had not decided on the meaning of sex in his own life, but his faith in himself as an experimental poet with an ambitious social mission had been firmly established. And so he signed off boldly, as “walt whitman,” and as one still curious about why “manly friendship, everywhere observed in The States,” remained so “unseen” in language (LG, p. 739).

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