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7. “In Loftiest Spheres”

Whitman's Visionary Feminism

Of these rapidly-sketch'd hiatuses, the two which seem to me most serious are, for one, the condition, absence, or perhaps the singular abeyance, of moral conscientious fibre all through American society; and, for another, the appaling depletion of women in their powers of sane athletic maternity, their crowning attribute, and ever making the woman, in loftiest spheres, superior to the man.

Democratic Vistas

This chapter describes Whitman's disruption of his claims to empower women by situating them in social roles in which they are always poten-tially subordinated to men.[1] For complex personal and cultural reasons, Whitman tended to collapse the many possibilities contained in the word “Woman” into the single word “Mother,” and then to extol the preemi-nence of maternal work over other contributions that women might make to culture, especially those that depend on self-determining thought and self-determining language. As we have seen, the erotic idiom of Leaves of Grass is rich and varied, but the idea of motherhood typically suggests a positive identity to the poet who resists “anything better than [his] own diversity” and who “moisten[s] the roots of all that has grown” (LG 1855, pp. 41, 46). I will argue that however necessary the figure of the good mother-muse was to Whitman's “scattering” psyche, for women readers this motherist function can be oppressive as well as empower-ing.[2] Consequently, this chapter examines both Whitman's feminism and his antifeminism, his resistance to linguistically totalizing norms and his reaffirmation of the mid-nineteenth-century American cult of the mother, which celebrated maternity as any woman's supreme destiny and which, to a significant degree, depended on a code of silence about the unloftiness of the lives many women were living. The tension between Whit-man's embrace of the new (for example, the fully audible female voice)

and his embrace of the old (for example, the institution and practice of idealizing maternity as a depoliticizing, universalizing trope) has, I be-lieve, interpretative power for other vexed issues in Whitman's poetry, all of them having to do with his ambivalence toward the cultural changes that he himself was helping to inaugurate.

Rather than turning to Whitman's biography to explain the personal origins of his conflicted literary feminism, I want to advance this dis-cussion by considering the intersection of race and gender in Democratic Vistas, the 1871 prose work in which he repeatedly acknowledges the appeal of what another writer, Henry Clarke Wright, called “the empire of the mother.”[3] Participating in the tradition of the American jeremiad that has been eloquently described by Sacvan Bercovitch, Whitman, as we have seen, complained of the “absence … of moral conscientious fi-bre all through American society” and of the “appaling [sic] depletion of women in their powers of sane athletic maternity, their crowning attribute … ever making the woman, in loftiest spheres, superior to the man.”[4] The idea that women were superior to men was not inherent in Whitman's original project. For example, at the conclusion of the sec-ond paragraph of the 1855 “Preface,” the poet notes that “men beget children upon women.” This is the first mention of women in that docu-ment and the statement confers agency upon men rather than women. Similarly, in Whitman's 1856 open letter to Emerson, the focus is on male agency, even though any programmatic prose piece of any length written by Whitman is likely to contain references to the maternal role. (An exception is the unpublished Eighteenth Presidency!)

I will show that although Whitman's maternal family romance was more or less emphasized at different rhetorical moments, the cultural and psychological work of the Democratic Mother was thoroughly embedded in his original poetic project and was not merely the product of his postwar middle age. Thus, even in the 1855, 1856, and 1860 Leaves of Grass, as the poet worked to articulate a radical social vision in which differences might flourish without destroying a national erotic union, his claim to speak for women and to understand their experience better than they understand it themselves emerges as the most problematic element of his feminism.

Democratic Vistas was written over the course of several years, beginning shortly after Thomas Carlyle's essay “Shooting Niagara” appeared in the New York Tribune on August 16, 1867.[5] Whitman's deeply conflicted defense of the theory if not the practice of American democracy

was, as he freely acknowledged, a “collection of memoranda … open to the charge of one part contradicting another,” in whose emotional, moral, and intellectual unity he nevertheless and somewhat miraculously continued to believe (DV 930). Whitman composed the article (“Democracy”) which was the first installment of this strongly impassioned yet disjointed and “wandering … argument” while on short-term leave from his moderately lucrative job as a Record Clerk in the Attorney General's office.[6] Transcribing official documents, answering correspondence, abridging and abstracting legal material, he made at least sixteen hundred dollars a year while working intermittently from nine to three in pleasant physical surroundings. This was more money than he had ever made before or was ever to see again; on a regular basis, he sent some of it home to his mother, who, as we have seen, depended on him for financial support.

From New York, where he was taking his annual vacation in September, he wrote back to Ellen O'Connor, the wife of his pen-wielding “champion,” William Douglas O'Connor, “I am well as usual, & go daily around New York & Brooklyn yet with interest, of course—but I find the places & crowds & excitements—Broadway, &c—have not the zest of former times—they have done their work, & now they are to me as a tale that is told.” He added, “I am trying to write a piece, to be called Democracy, for the leading article in the December or January number of the Galaxy—in some sort a counterblast or rejoinder to Carlyle's late piece, Shooting Niagara, which you must have read, or at least heard about” (Corr 1:342).

Several months later, Whitman completed his first response to Carlyle's offensive essay, which had condemned the American Civil War as a useless slaughter. “Half a million … of excellent White Men,” Carlyle wrote, “full of gifts and faculty, have torn and slashed one another into horrid death, in a temporary humour, which will leave centuries of remembrance fierce enough: and three million absurd Blacks, men and brothers (of a sort), are completely ‘emancipated.’” “Essentially the Nigger Question was one of the smallest,” he had written,

and in itself did not much concern mankind in the present time of struggles and hurries. One always rather likes the Nigger; evidently a poor blockhead with good dispositions, with affections, attachments,—with a turn for Nig-ger Melodies, and the like:—he is the only Savage of all the coloured races that doesn't die out on sight of the White Man; but can actually live beside him, and work and increase and be merry. The Almighty Maker has appointed him to be a Servant.[7]


And so on. The language still hurts. Carlyle's diatribe against American democracy was prompted by the proposed passage of Disraeli's 1867 Reform Bill, which extended the suffrage in Britain to most working-class men. Carlyle likened this extension to “Shooting Niagara,” to a head-long leap down Niagara Falls, to cultural suicide.

As we saw in the last chapter, Whitman, too, had expressed reservations about the politics of the War, and in an elegiac passage previously examined, he reluctantly consigned “the white skeletons of young men” to an irrational Dark Mother, death.[8] “I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,” he wrote in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,”

And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer'd not,
The living remain'd and suffer'd, the mother suffer'd,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer'd,
And the armies that remain'd suffer'd.

(LG, p. 336)

This is no vision of meaningful personal sacrifice, since Whitman specifically withholds the “masculine” consolation of effective military martyrdom. For white women, children, mothers, brothers, and brothers-in-arms, the war's legacy is a “feminized” consciousness of collective futility. Focusing on the dramatic and in some ways reassuring binary life versus death serves to obscure degrees of vitality and power among the living, as do sentimental appeals to a national family consciousness and to a national family tragedy that suppresses the distinction North versus South. Similarly, these depoliticizing tropes function to minimize the im-portance of race, as well as degrees of whiteness or blackness among persons of the same race (the binary white versus black remaining constant). When color is introduced into this scene in the phrase “white skeletons,” we tend to experience it as a cliché, but the effect is to reinforce, albeit covertly, the racial status quo. Though it could be argued that whiteness is the universalized color of death, that the human body, deprived of its particularizing fleshly hues, is in fact bleached of its living colors, one ef-fect of Whitman's language in this context is to suppress the contribu-tion of black soldiers and civilians to the war effort.[9] The historian James McPherson observes that without the two hundred thousand blacks who enlisted in the army and navy, thirty-eight thousand of whom were killed, “the North could not have won the war as soon as it did, and perhaps it could not have won at all.” According to McPherson, “The enlistment

of black soldiers to fight and kill their former masters was by far the most revolutionary dimension of the emancipation policy.”[10]

So it may be, as Whitman explained in his 1856 “Poem of the Road,” later called “Song of the Open Road,” that “The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas'd, the illiterate person, are not denied” (LG, p.150). But having lived through the War's bloody confusions, he dreaded further strife. “The fear of conflicting and irreconcilable interiors, and the lack of a common skeleton, knitting all close, continually haunts me,” he noted in Vistas (935). As a war poet, Whitman was re-luctant to turn his attention to racial matters.

Although Drum-Taps is haunted by a crucial ellipsis, when Whitman revised Leaves of Grass in 1871 he added “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors,” in which race and gender intersect to produce a grotesquely aged woman who is described as “hardly human.” We might expect Whitman to focus on the generativity of her body—as he does in celebrating the humanity of the female slave in the 1855 poem “I Sing the Body Electric”—but the postwar Whitman sidesteps this to-be-expected move. Instead, he grants his “Mammy” a childlike voice of her own, although it is a voice con-strained by pidgin English and by the traditional, full-end-rhyme clo-sure, internal rhyme, and stanzaic regularity of Whitman's pre–Leaves of Grass verse. The 1867 version of “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors,” then called “Ethiopia Commenting,” was rejected by The Galaxy, despite the fact that Whitman coupled it with his article “Democracy,” whose sub-ject he described as “opportune” (Corr 1:338). When he offered the poem to the magazine, he reserved the right to use it in a future volume, and in 1871 he included it in Leaves of Grass in a section subtitled Bathed in War's Perfume. In 1881, it became part of the Drum-Taps sequence, where it has remained ever since. Remarkably, Whitman's postsexual woman is the only African American in this Civil War memorial section.

“I will not gloss over the appaling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States,” Whitman explained in his reactive Vistas. “In fact, it is to admit and face these dangers I am writing” (DV 930). Universal male suffrage was a desirable goal but not yet a practical one, he believed. Be-cause he favored gradual rather than immediate extension of the suffrage to freed men (italics mine), Whitman opposed the Fifteenth Amend-ment,[11] which passed in 1870, and which held “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”[12] On occasion, his letters were peppered with derogatory

references to “nigger waiters” (Corr 2:109) and to “darkeys.” “Dearest Mother,” reads one,

We had the strangest procession here last Tuesday night, about 3000 darkeys, old & young, men & women—I saw them all—they turned out in honor of their victory in electing the Mayor, Mr. Bowen—the men were all armed with clubs or pistols—besides the procession in the street, there was a string went along the sidewalk in single file with bludgeons & sticks, yelling & gesticulating like madmen—it was quite comical, yet very disgust-ing & alarming in some respects—They were very insolent, & altogether it was a strange sight—they looked like so many wild brutes let loose—thousands of slaves from the Southern plantations have crowded up here—many are supported by the Gov't. (Corr 2:34–35)[13]

Yet if in the post–Civil War period Whitman's racial prejudice became more pronounced, he was also becoming more open to the possibility of arming white women with the vote. As editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times in 1858, he had written contemptuously of the view that “woman ought to be placed politically and industrially on a level with man and to be allowed to swing sledge-hammers, climb the giddy mast, and hit out from the shoulder at primary elections.” Reporting on “One of the queerest conventions on record even in this land where all extremes of belief meet upon a common ground and all sorts of odd-fishes do most congregate,” he attributed to these antebellum feminists gathered in Rutland, Vermont, whom he characterized as “amiable lunatics,” the view that “The marriage relation … was a detestable humbug.”[14] In Vistas, however, he began to revise his earlier prejudice against female suffrage. “The day is coming,” he explained, “when the deep questions of woman's entrance amid the arenas of practical life, politics, the suf-frage, &c., will not only be argued all around us, but may be put to de-cision, and real experiment” (DV 968). Women might be developed, he affirmed, to be “robust equals, workers, and, it may be, even practical and political deciders with the men.” But how their potential careers as practical politicians might be reconciled with “their divine maternity, always their towering, emblematical attribute” (DV 955), Whitman left it to the future to decide.[15]

In Vistas as published in 1870, Whitman has little to say about the realities of race in the Reconstruction era. Instead, as one critic has noted, “he appears to substitute a lengthy discussion of women's elevation for any mention of racial equality.”[16] Searching for “a great moral and religious civilization—the only justification of a great material one,” Whitman

felt compelled to rehearse his personal discovery of the tragedy of American culture. “Confess,” he wrote, returning to the world-weary mood of his letter to Ellen O'Connor,

that to severe eyes, using the moral microscope upon humanity, a sort of dry and flat Sahara appears, these cities, crowded with petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms, playing meaningless antics. Confess that everywhere, in shop, street, church, theatre, bar-room, official chair, are pervading flippancy and vulgarity, low cunning, infidelity—everywhere the youth puny, impu-dent, foppish, prematurely ripe—everywhere an abnormal libidinousness, unhealthy forms, male, female, painted, padded, dyed, chignon'd, muddy complexions, bad blood, the capacity for good motherhood deceasing or deceas'd, shallow notions of beauty, with a range of manners, or rather lack of manners, (considering the advantages enjoy'd,) probably the meanest to be seen in the world. (DV 939)

Whitman mentions “the capacity for good motherhood” only in pass-ing, but this capacity is the redemptive focal point of the passage. In the cities, where an “abnormal libidinousness” prevails, colors and forms bleed into each other to produce degeneracy. “Good motherhood” thus functions as a categorical absolute that distinguishes sex from sex and race from race. A return to the traditional preindustrial, rural values sig-nified by this trope will, Whitman hopes, arrest the unhealthy prolifera-tion of sexualities and the allied hybridizations of race that concern him here. In this urban wasteland, morally astute men such as himself are marginalized, whereas women can still aspire to an indispensable social, economic, and biological role. Perhaps, though, if women return to their destined maternal mission, men too will find meaning in living. In short, “good motherhood,” an unamplified and I shall argue unamplifiable trope, is the later, more conservative Whitman's solution to the problem of modernity, figured here as the suspension of meaningful sexual, racial, and social norms.

“The capacity for good motherhood” on which so much seems to depend had long been central to Whitman's thinking about women, a subject about which he had once asserted his total ignorance, perhaps in jest. As we recall, in one of his earliest essays, when he was still Walter Whitman Junior, the unhappy schoolteacher, he emphasized his desire to write a “wonderful and ponderous book,” surveying “the nature and peculiarities of men.” But he added, “I would carefully avoid saying any thing of woman; because it behoves a modest personage like myself not to speak upon a class of beings of whose nature, habits, notions, and

ways he has not been able to gather any knowledge, either by experience or observation” (UPP 1:37). Subsequently, he made it a point to abandon modesty and to proclaim himself the poet of the woman the same as the man. Since the women in whom he invests himself emotionally often seem so self-contained, he goes some distance toward situating them outside the system of marriage exchange which, as described by Claude Levi-Strauss, Gayle Rubin, and others, subordinates women to men.[17] But just as Whitman could overestimate his access to the experience of Blacks—witness “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors,” with its embarrassing approximation of pidgin English—so too when Whitman claimed to speak for women who had been culturally silenced, he reinforced a politics of dependence on the male voice. Thus Joanne Feit Diehl reproves him for chauvinist imperialism when she observes that “essential as the Whitmanian Mother may be, she remains an instrument, as through her the poet reaffirms his own priority.”[18]

In his own time, however, the poet was not merely anxious about the state of American society, as Democratic Vistas might suggest, but anxious about his place within it. When he wrote to Nelly O'Connor in Sep-tember 1867, telling her about the essay he was trying to write, in addition to describing his boredom in New York (“a tale that is told”) he returned instinctively to the internal geography of the 1860 crisis poem, “As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life.” Comparing his “never placid, never calm” currents of thought and feeling to the “real sea-waters” of his youth, Whitman referred to “this uneasy spirit, Me, that ebbs & flows too all the while, yet gets nowhere, & amounts to nothing” (Corr 1:342).[19] The traumatized “I” of “As I Ebb'd” has been quelled by two equally demanding gendered traditions, each of them fiercely unrespon-sive to the other. His shame and his glory is that he is unwilling to iden-tify exclusively with either one.

Consequently, although Diehl's point is well taken, it is a partial truth. Whitman always believed that his career was in crisis, and there were times when he wanted to “retreat from competition [with other men] into a protected female sphere.”[20] In the poetry, this female-identified haven in a heartless world is typically exemplified not by a wife but by a mother, and in “As I Ebb'd” we see what happens once the Whitmanic mother abdicates her traditional defensive role. The son, victimized by a harsh and uncaring father and rejected by his cruel mother, concludes that he understands nothing and that “no man ever can” (LG 1860, p. 197). The poet's dilemma in “As I Ebb'd” is that no woman ever can either. Neither exemplary parent is interested in tales not yet told, since

such tales threaten both of them with the loss of the status to which each separately and rigidly clings.

Given the authorial Whitman's struggle with aggressive masculinity, we should probably not be surprised that, so often in the poetry, he needs to instantiate a happy mother, a mother exempt from “the politics of male suffering.” As he attempts to negotiate between aggressive and femi-nized masculinities, Whitman is curious about his position in relation to structures of male dominance, but he is understandably wary of being too curious. For example, in the 1855 poem “There Was a Child Went Forth,” he appears to celebrate the mother at home, “quietly placing the dishes on the suppertable” (LG 1855, p. 139). This too-perfect mother has no dissatisfactions, at least none that Whitman is willing to pursue. “Mild,” “clean,” and “wholesome,” she is apparently fulfilled by what he calls, in another 1855 poem, “womanly housework” and “the beau-tiful maternal cares,” as are the even blurrier daughters by whom she is at times surrounded (LG 1855, p. 101). This archetypally gratified mother appears throughout the poetry, but in “There Was a Child Went Forth” she does not produce an emotionally resilient son. We will never know what would have happened had she not been associated with “The father, strong, selfsufficient, manly, mean, angered, unjust,” for he is her fate, just as it is the son's fate to experience

The doubts of daytime and the doubts of nighttime … the curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so. … Or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding fast in the street. . if they are not flashes and specks what are they?

(LG 1855, p. 139)

Assuming that this is a poem about Whitman's complicated response to feminization—its appeal, its danger—it is all the more remarkable that he resists the temptation to blame the unavailing mother for his emotional vulnerability. Yet it is probably true—for these are the tears of things—that the poet-hero's identification with his mother's mildness condemns him to what Stephen Gould Axelrod calls “a lonely, bitter struggle for his own strength and self-sufficiency.”[21] As Whitman re-works the role of the uncaring father in both his life and poetry—“The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure”—he seeks to reconcile the power positions the poem imagines. The dominant mas-culine position is unjust, but the “wholesome” feminized position, espe-cially for a man-child, is untenable.

In any event, as Whitman explained to his own mother in 1868, he

found writing Democratic Vistas, his “little book … on political & lit-erary subjects … a real pleasure” (Corr 2:39), although writing to in-stantiate a socially acceptable and internally purposeful self was not his first choice. His first choice was to feel real off the page, in his own per-son, in the nineteenth century—as he did in the hospitals and among his variously wounded young male lovers. But in the crowds and excitements of New York he too often felt unreal, and New York (or Brook-lyn) remained his home. And so when he ended Democratic Vistas with an image of a self-poised mother, swinging her way through time, he was projecting an ego-ideal for himself and for the home-person he con-sciously loved the best, who, of course, caused him no end of trouble.

We have seen that in the 1860 Leaves of Grass, notably in “As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life” and in the Calamus sequence, a chastened Whit-man looked back on his career and seemed to disavow it. Perhaps he was claiming to have abandoned not only the much remarked sexual ar-rogance of the 1855 and 1856 volumes but also the lesser-known fears which he had expressed in passages such as the following, from “To Think of Time.” For if Whitman had restricted himself to this secretly panicked style, he would be a very boring poet indeed.

To think how much pleasure there is!
Have you pleasure from looking at the sky? Have you pleasure from poems?
Do you enjoy yourself in the city? or engaged in business? or planning a nomination and election? or with your wife and family?
Or with your mother and sisters? or in womanly housework? or the beautiful maternal cares?
These also flow onward to others. … you and I flow onward;
But in due time you and I shall take less interest in them.

(LG 1855, p. 101)

Abstracted from time, “motherhood” functions as premature clo-sure, a resolution to social anxieties that are insufficiently voiced. Other critics have hinted that the unreality of Whitman's “good” mothers is re-lated to his sexual love for men. Lewis Hyde, for example, remarks that “as in those churches in which sex is tolerated only as an instrument of procreation, it is a persistent quirk of Whitman's imagination that heterosexual lovemaking always leads to babies. His women are always mothers. No matter how graphically Whitman describes ‘the clinch,’ ‘the merge,’ within a few lines out pops a child.”[22] Let us grant that Whit-man's use of the equation woman/mother to collapse perceived differences between himself and other men can have the opposite effect. But

the question remains, in a gender-polarized society, how can relationships develop that nurture the deeper self? and more specifically, can Whitman risk identifying himself with female discontent? As we saw in a previous chapter, listening to his mother's story of erotic frustration in “The Sleepers” makes him intensely uncomfortable, and retelling his mother's story does not resolve his crisis of gender identification.

Given that Whitman saw himself as responding to a spiritual as well as a gender crisis in his time, it is not surprising that his recurrent near-obsession with the maternal body persisted, for he hoped that the trope of the maternal body might provide an alternative to the violence of pa-triarchal language. According to this line of argument, all men are first “Unfolded out of the folds of the woman,” however unique their subsequent sexual and psychological development. Thus, in the programmatic 1856 poem “Unfolded Out of the Folds,” Whitman suggests that his poems emerge out of maternal rather than paternal traditions of language. “A man is a great thing upon the earth and through eternity,” he writes, “but every jot of the greatness of man is unfolded out of woman; / First the man is shaped in the woman, he can then be shaped in himself” (LG, p. 391). In this weirdly logical utterance, whose unfolding seems at first glance abstract and merely schematic, Whitman celebrates an archetypal Poem-Mother who is “brawny,” “arrogant,” “strong,” “well-muscled,” but also complete in and of herself. Reworking that moment in “There Was a Child Went Forth” in which he had praised a personal father for propelling the fatherstuff at night, to whom he had given chronological priority over “she that conceived him in her womb and birthed him” (LG 1855, pp. 138–39), Whitman now eliminates the difficult partner and expands the idea of conception to include a maternal imaginary.

In “Unfolded Out of the Folds,” the fecund Poem-Mother transmits her “friendliest” and most “perfect body” to the disciplined hierophant, “duly obedient.” Having written the male symbolic order out of his (psychic) state, Whitman contends that the female dynamo who provides him with “the strong and arrogant man I love” also transmits such utopian social values as superior wisdom, sympathy, and justice. Conventional readings of this highly elliptical 1856 poem, which was then called “Poem of Women,” link it to Whitman's interest in eugenics.[23] But as the poet of women, Whitman writes most effectively of himself. The utterance of “a Person” (LG, p. 573) whose literary politics include his sexual love for other men, here Whitman represents himself as bound to the logic of the “feminine.” Beginning in a vaguely pornographic vaginal

economy that compels strict obedience to sexual and moral abstractions in which, with his love of shapely particulars, he cannot truly believe, the poet delivers himself to still other realms of abstraction where, while much is “unfolded,” much is concealed.

At the very least, then, there are several “dread” mothers whom Whitman, linking his speech and male ejaculate, (re)conceives.[24] One of them testifies to the “athletic” power of maternity, while the other exemplifies a more conventionally “conscientious” and self-effacing social role. These differently gendered personae can merge in the poet's imagination and in his own self-representation. In the 1855 “Preface,” for example, the outsetting bard refers to “all the vast sweet love and precious suffering of mothers,” to “self-denial that stood steady and aloof on wrecks and saw others take the seats of the boats,” and to the furtherance of “fugitives and … the escape of slaves” (LG 1855, p. 20; ellipsis mine). In these schematic formulations, Mother-love becomes the physical and cultural type of androgynous heroism. Elsewhere, in “Poems bridging the way from Life to Death,” Whitman describes a maternal origin and ambiguous end that he needs to contain and dominate. In “Proud Mu-sic of the Storm,” for example, which was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869, he masterfully alludes to “My mother's voice in lul-laby or hymn” (LG, pp. 410, 405), but his mother's voice, like all the other sounds in this self-regarding tribute to art and artists, is relegated to a footnote in his own career. “The manly strophe of the husbands of the world,” he writes, “And all the wives responding” (LG, p. 405).

As my examples are intended to suggest, the life of the Democratic Mother is not a topic that Whitman usually explores very deeply, but if he exaggerated her power to restrain male-identified aggression, he did so in part because of his desire to mobilize discontent with, in Christopher Newfield's fine phrase, a “patriarchy constructed by other men.”[25] This patriarchy was not a separate sphere, as some would have it, and Whitman did not imagine that he had a stable relationship to its productions. Consider the following famous self-definition:

I am the poet of the body, And I am the poet of the soul.
The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are with me, The first I graft and increase upon myself. … the latter I translate into a new tongue.
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,

And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man, And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

(LG 1855, p. 44)

As Whitman attempts to translate conventional codes of pleasure and pain into “a new tongue” and to dissolve the distinction between the here and the hereafter that organizes other binaries, he goes too far to suit himself, and in the end his “chant of dilation or pride” reinforces the op-positional pairing (male/female) he seems to wish to deconstruct. “What is a man anyhow?” the speaker has been asking, “What am I? and what are you?” (LG 1855, p. 43). In this section of “Song of Myself,” the “I” has been describing his own feminization, whose symbolic equivalent is social powerlessness, or the death of the masculine ego and the hier-archical language that sustains it. While we may honor the poet's desire to imagine alternatives to the traditional belief that men are the supe-rior sex, what emerges is indeed, as Alicia Ostriker has suggested, one of Whitman's “crudest statements on gender.”[26] Superficially at least, the new story—that the mothering of men is the supreme goal of any woman's destiny—has too much in common with the old one, and one effect of such language, D. H. Lawrence has apocalyptically contended, is to reduce any woman to a biological function and to objectify her as a womb.[27]

More recently, however, Betsy Erkkila has urged us to read mother-hood as a trope for other forms of creativity, rather than as a purely bio-logical or narrowly familial role. In Whitman the Political Poet, she writes that

Although Whitman insisted on the superiority of the mother, he did not limit the female to a maternal role, or trap her in what Simone de Beauvoir would later call biological “immanence”. … Whitman sought to revive the mother not as a biological function only but as a creative and intellectual force. … His mothers do not exist as wives in relation to individual husbands, nor are they pious, pure, domestic, or self-sacrificing in any limited sense of the terms. Like feminist works ranging from Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nine-teenth Century (1845) to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) to Adri-enne Rich's Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience and Institution (1976), Whitman sought to remove motherhood from the private sphere and release the values of nurturance, love, generativity, and community into the culture at large. Exceeding the bounds of home, marriage, and the isolate family, Whitman's “perfect motherhood” is motherhood raised to the height of solicitude for the future of the race.[28]

In one sense, Erkkila is right, for in such lines as “And I say there is noth-ing greater than the mother of men,” Whitman suggests that culture is

founded on the relationship between sons and mothers, rather than on the more conventionally gendered, patrilineal model of cultural trans-mission from father to son. Certainly, too, mothers do transmit some of their values to the future through their sons, though those values cannot automatically be equated with “nurturance, love, generativity, and com-munity.” Indeed, in a subsequent work Erkkila herself deconstructs this romanticization of womanhood, as she challenges the historically neu-tral, unifying trope of sisterhood. In The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord, she seeks to reclaim “women's literature and women's literary history as a site of dissension, contingency, and on-going struggle rather than a separate space of some untroubled and es-sentially cooperative accord among women.”[29] But these are precisely the sorts of historical and psychological tensions that Whitman's moth-erhood tropes are designed to repress. So even though Whitman at one point described himself as the medium for his own mother's (presum-ably coherent) moral vision and credited Louisa Van Velsor Whitman with generating Leaves of Grass (WWWC 2:113–14), many feminist critics will, as Ostriker has done, resist the Whitman who speaks in the passage from “Song of Myself” quoted above.

What are we to make, then, of Ostriker's further contention that even Whitman's most problematic statements on gender “are revolutionary compared to the sentimental conventions of his own time”?[30] Discussions of antebellum and postbellum literary sentimentality within the past decade or so have highlighted the antipatriarchal, matrifocal elements contained within the so-called Cult of True Womanhood. Under pressure of such analysis, categorical distinctions between revolution-ary, socially subversive, and socially conservative styles tend not to stand up to close scrutiny. As Robert Leigh Davis notes in his insightful discus-sion of Whitman's Civil War nursing, sentimental writers such as Har-riet Beecher Stowe “had a more profound effect on Whitman than is usu-ally recognized, a fact owing to the poet's determined effort to distinguish himself from a tradition of literary sentimentality.” As Davis further notes, “Under his touch, the male body becomes less monumental, less rigidly centered and symbolic.”[31] This line of inquiry is fruitful, and male feminization evidently held considerable appeal for Whitman, even though he was inconsistent about what it might mean. Whitman's fa-mously heterodox style—with its extraordinary linguistic, psychologi-cal, and intellectual range—makes it even harder to define definitively the shifting relationships between language, on the one hand, and the institutions that regulate social power, on the other, that attentive readers

encounter within any single version of Leaves of Grass, let alone within the multiple published versions that constitute his variants.

Contending with this long life, this multigenre career, and these com-plex textual issues, poet-critic Sandra M. Gilbert, while comparing “The American Sexual Poetics of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson,” suggests that

We cannot … ignore the fact that both poets assimilated experimental passages … into extended sequences whose sexual modalities appear continu-ally to reiterate and reinforce traditional definitions of masculinity and femi-ninity: lapses of gender, indeed, seem to occur because of lapses of genre rather than the other way around. In fact, it is likely that the subversions of stereotypical sexuality which do mark Whitman's and Dickinson's writings are consequences, rather than causes, of these poets' mutual disaffection from stereotypical “poetry,” specifically from its coherent “voice,” its cohe-sive “form,” and its conventional language, rhyme, and meter. It is arguable, in other words, that for both poets the wellspring of all alienation was a pro-found literary alienation.[32]

Gilbert's cogent analysis nevertheless leaves unanswered the question of what, other than literature, motivates literary alienation. And for a poet such as Whitman, who identified his body as his inspiration, literature seems an insufficient (though a necessary) source. Whitman's poetry was shaped by his gendered ambivalence to personal, political, and literary history. The effect of such deeply disturbed, creative ambivalence on women readers, including women poets, has been far from uniform.

When Whitman writes, “What exclamations of women taken sud-denly, who hurry home and give birth to babes, / What living and buried speech is always vibrating here. … what howls restrained by decorum” (LG 1855, p. 32), or when he writes “My voice is the wife's voice, the screech by the rail of the stairs, / They fetch my man's body up dripping and drowned” (LG 1855, p. 61), is he preempting women's speech or encouraging it? Perhaps, as Adrienne Rich has suggested, “The issue of the writer's power, right, obligation to speak for others denied a voice, or the writer's duty to shut up at times or at least to make room for those who can speak with more immediate authority—these are crucial questions for our time.”[33] The line between sympathetic identification and erasure of the other's personhood is a fine one, as is the line between sympathetic identification and living as another because one cannot live as oneself. “Carrying the crescent child that carries its own full mother in its belly” (LG 1855, p. 60), the Whitman persona carries us along in his exuberant wake—representing himself as male and female, impersonating

a bridegroom, and then a wife. He “turn[s] the bridegroom out of bed and stay[s] with the bride [himself], / [He] tighten[s] her all night to [his] thighs and lips” (LG 1855, p. 65). And then the wife screams. And the husband is lost, as is Whitman's wifely role. Such flights of fancy work best when we understand their interior logic, and this logic is often deeply disguised. As Whitman explained to his not entirely baffled English admirer Edward Carpenter,

What lies behind “Leaves of Grass” is something that few, very few, only one here and there, perhaps oftenest women, are at all in a position to seize. It lies behind almost every line; but concealed, studiedly concealed; some passages left purposely obscure. There is something in my nature furtive like an old hen! You see a hen wandering up and down a hedgerow, looking apparently quite unconcerned, but presently she finds a concealed spot, and furtively lays an egg, and comes away as though nothing had happened! That is how I felt in writing “Leaves of Grass.” Sloane Kennedy calls me “artful”—which about hits the mark. I think there are truths which it is necessary to envelop or wrap up.[34]

Despite the fact that Whitman saw himself as the poet of the woman as well as the man, that he once described Leaves of Grass as “essen-tially a woman's book” (WWWC 2:331), and that many nineteenth-century women readers such as the Englishwoman Anne Gilchrist were tantalized, encouraged, and fortified by his writings, there were many nineteenth-century American women who ignored, rejected, or other-wise problematized his claims.[35] In April 1862, for example, Emily Dick-inson told Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist activist, wom-en's rights advocate, and literary critic with whom she had just begun to correspond, “You speak of Mr Whitman—I never read his Book—but was told that he was disgraceful.” Possibly she was being ironic in rep-resenting herself as the docile recipient of received ideas. Possibly not, for she may also have wanted Higginson to know that she was at least somewhat aware of current big-city literary gossip and not nearly so rus-ticated as she was pretending to be. As she continued to play the game of ranking writers in her correspondence with Higginson over the years, other names surfaced. “Of Howells and James, one hesitates,” she later wrote. This was long after their first meeting in 1870, when she startled him with such comments as “I never had a mother. I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled,” a theme she picked up in a subsequent letter when she explained punningly, “I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none.”[36] Dickinson enjoyed being

disgraceful herself—or at least playing at disgrace. Possibly this fasci-nation with social, sexual, and linguistic transgression accounts for the emphasis of her Whitman disclaimer to Higginson in 1862. Possibly not.

In addition to Josiah Gilbert Holland, a close family friend who as the editor of Scribner's Monthly later rejected Whitman's poems with insult-ing letters, there were many people who might have cautioned Dickinson against Whitman, including Higginson, a conflicted genteel critic who eroticized his relations with men but who also repeatedly attacked Whit-man's political, sexual, and literary morals in print. So what is surprising here, in April 1862, is that Higginson appears to have been directing Dickinson toward Whitman as the forerunner of a new kind of experi-mental poetry that she herself was engaged in writing. Higginson also advised her to “delay ‘to publish,’” which she did, and when Dickinson's posthumously published poems began to appear in the 1890s, reviewers were somewhat prepared for her deviations from the genteel norm by Whitman's innovations and scandalousness. For all her formal and psychological subversions of the culture's grammar, at least she wasn't Whitman, they thought. Her rhymes might be offrhymes, but they were rhymes nevertheless.[37]

We don't know if Dickinson ever read Whitman's “Book,” although she is likely to have read “As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life” when it appeared in April 1860 in the Atlantic Monthly, to which she and her family subscribed. There, under the title “Bardic Symbols,” she would have encountered that “fierce old mother,” the Whitmanic sea, “end-lessly” crying for her “castaways,” including the corpse of the earlier poet who believed in his ability to “condense—a Nationality” without sacrificing his real life to do so.[38] Dickinson almost certainly read brief excerpts from “As I Ebb'd” and even briefer excerpts from “Song of Myself” in Holland's paper the Springfield Daily Republican in 1860, as well as a derisive long column entitled “‘Leaves of Grass’—Smut in Them.”[39] But she never mentioned Whitman elsewhere in her corre-spondence and so far as we know there were no books by Whitman in her library at her death or in the library of her sister-in-law and brother next door.

One of the people who might have warned her against Whitman was her sister-in-law and best friend, Susan Gilbert Dickinson. Sue advocated the passionlessness that enabled American Victorian women not to be-come the mothers of many children, and erotic fondling, at least with men, made her nervous. At one point in the early 1880s she cast Dick-inson herself in the role of a fallen woman, after having stumbled upon

the poet “reclining” at home in the arms of Judge Otis Lord, a widowed suitor and friend. Ironically, Sue warned the sexually venturesome Ma-bel Loomis Todd to safeguard her husband against the Dickinson sisters, explaining, “They have not, either of them, any idea of morality.”[40] Sue's sense of sexual morality was prudish by modern standards and perhaps even by the standards of her day, but in other respects she was an en-lightened woman: a thinker and a doer. She participated in an important nineteenth-century social movement, the movement to limit the size of families, which was crucial in liberating women from motherhood as a totalizing social role. In Whitman's poetry, however, fecundity is better.

As I have been suggesting, Whitman too often represents motherhood as a uniform and unifying role. His mothers do not disrupt, challenge, provoke, or disappoint conventional expectations. Although biologically “teeming” (LG 1855, p. 122), they represent social limits, whereas the Whitman persona is free to go to self-indulgent extremes. In the 1856 open letter to Emerson, for example, the maternal body potentially resolves the problems of the political body. Despite “the threats and screams of disputants,” the maternal body, which is hostile to coteries, including “the owners of slaves,” is invested with the power to preserve “the union of These States” (LG, pp. 733, 736, 735). As depicted by Whitman, fatherhood is a less all-encompassing role. For instance, “I Sing the Body Electric” collapses the difference between African Ameri-can male and female bodies, in that both are spiritualized (they are priceless) and valued for their “divine” generativity. In “Electric,” there are nevertheless important differences between the imagined occupations of white fathers and mothers. White fathers farm, hunt, fish, sail, build ships, and pursue other trades, whereas for white women, conceiving “daughters as well as sons” is an all-encompassing task. This imputed work-restriction links the white woman to her unacknowledged double, the African American male slave whose only job is to “start … populous states and rich republics” (LG 1855, p. 122).

If these symmetries and asymmetries accurately reflect some of the realities of Whitman's time, they also reflect Whitman's need to ground his project in a parenting ethic that deeroticizes his representation of women. As the feminist reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton noted in her diary in 1883, “He speaks as if the female must be forced to the creative act, apparently ignorant of the great natural fact that a healthy woman has as much passion as a man, that she needs nothing stronger than the law of attraction to draw her to the male.”[41] Thus whereas Whitman's vision of a human community in which women might reclaim their selfpride

not in spite of but because of their bodies was powerfully persua-sive for Gilchrist, Stanton criticized Whitman's understanding of female eroticism, objecting particularly to the “Poem of Procreation,” later re-titled “A Woman Waits for Me,” in which Whitman seemingly forces himself on “impassive” women, “to start sons and daughters fit for these States” (LG, p. 102).[42]

As the self-proclaimed poet of “sane athletic maternity,” Whitman aggressively endorsed an ideology of Real Womanhood, modeled some-what after the radical speeches and writings of his firebrand heroine Frances Wright. In her Views of Society and Manners in America (1821), Wright had suggested that “The American women might, with advan-tage, be taught in early youth to excel in the race, to hit a mark, to swim and in short, to use every exercise which would impart vigor to their frames and independence of their minds.”[43] In the scandal-producing “Poem of Procreation,” Whitman characterized the women with whom he hoped metaphorically to mate in similar terms:

They are not one jot less than I am,
They are tanned in the face by shining suns and blowing winds,
Their flesh has the old divine suppleness and strength,
They know how to swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run, strike, retreat, advance, resist, defend themselves,
They are ultimate in their own right—they are calm, clear, well-possessed of themselves.

(LG 1856, p. 241)

Whitman's poem was riddled with ideological inconsistency, for his self-dependent women were clearly dependent on him for identity. A coer-cive heterosexism is both the poem's mode and the target of its satire: the shameless speaker is being shamefully coerced by the situation he is describing. Perhaps Whitman's reference to “semitic milk” in stanza two was not altogether a mistake, since linguistic and sexual im purities con-tinued to fascinate him,[44] and the Cult of True Womanhood struck him as an ideological distortion of nature's more inclusive project. Writers who emphasized the difference between men and women and the cor-responding difference between their social talents and missions often sought to confine women within the middle-class home, whereas Whit-man wanted to bring both men and women out into an atmosphere of freer self-development.[45]

Undraping himself and encouraging readers to do the same, in his 1856 “Clef Poem” he asked, “Do you suppose I wish to enjoy life in other spheres? I say distinctly I comprehend no better sphere than this

earth, / I comprehend no better life than the life of my body” (LG 1856, p. 249). To prove the point, he included the following lines, which he later deleted:

I am not uneasy but I am to be beloved by young and old men, and to love them the same,

I suppose the pink nipples of the breasts of women with whom I shall sleep will taste the same to my lips,

But this is the nipple of a breast of my mother, always near and always divine to me, her true child and son.

(LG 1856, p. 250)[46]

Mortality, he suggests, does not disturb him, for love exists in other spheres. The argument anticipates the closing line of Calamus 11 (“And that night I was happy”); the 1856 “Clef Poem” begins “This night I am happy.” In both poems, the speaker's happiness depends on a sense of connection with a beloved other, but the 1856 utterance makes the grander assertion that “A vast similitude interlocks all” (LG 1856, p. 250). Moving from man to man, breast to breast, nipple to nipple, he has had the key to the universe all along, since his own mother's divin-ity has been justifying him. Whitman is proclaiming his freedom from gender anxiety and gesturing toward a Protestant cult of the Virgin Mary that was embedded in nineteenth-century American literature and exemplified by such canonically central works as The Scarlet Letter.[47] Nevertheless, fetishizing his “divine” mother's breast and returning to it is a drastic solution to Whitman's anxiety about “good housing” in the future. To the extent that his body is like a house, with its “studs and rafters,” Whitman fears its demise, as well as the death of the fragile loves that have sustained it. “Clef Poem,” then, reminds us inadvertently of the whole web of circumstances that separates people from each other, and the “I am not uneasy” lines quoted above produce discom-fort because they are the product of discomfort. The poet was right to excise them.

Although the 1856 “Clef Poem” suggests that Whitman experienced considerable sexual guilt, he wants to believe that loving a personal and cultural mother who “span[s]” the “interlocking” spheres will draw generations of men closer. At a less abstract level, the Whitman who was willing to cede women practical and moral authority within the home, as he does, for example, in Democratic Vistas, was not always willing to grant them power in the public sphere. If “the best culture will always be that of the manly and courageous instincts” (DV 962), then the best culture will tend to silence women. Without necessarily intending this result—his

admiration for some women artists was indisputable—Whit-man suggests even in the 1855 poem “There Was a Child Went Forth” that domestic morality is woman's special province and that mild words are necessary to her peacekeeping mission. “One genuine woman is worth a dozen Fanny Ferns,” he remarked succinctly in 1857, after he had quarreled bitterly with Sara Willis Parton, the popular journalist and satiric novelist who was the first woman to praise Leaves of Grass in print. “The majority of people do not want their daughters to be trained to become authoresses and poets,” he observed in this Brooklyn Daily Times editorial, while he was arguing against “Free Academies at Public Cost.” The majority of people, he added, want for their daughters “only that they may receive sufficient education to serve as the basis of life-long improvement and self-cultivation, and which will qualify them to become good and intelligent wives and mothers.”[48] He must have been right, but more than a hundred years later it is distressing to hear this antiprogressive message from the poet of Leaves of Grass. At the same time, then, that Whitman was actively championing eco-nomic equality for women, deploring their low wages, and representing them in his journalism in a variety of economic roles, in his poetry this larger social context tends to be erased. Except for those rare moments when he identifies with women artists and with women as frustrated lovers, the life of women as he imagines it is simply less various than that of men. They contain fewer multitudes economically, intellectually, and psychologically, though on them, granted, the future of the race is said to depend. Challenging the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity and the allied doctrine of separate spheres, Whitman also tended to reinscribe the emotional power of “the mother at home.” Of such fundamental contradictions is his poetry made.

“The direct trial of him who would be the greatest poet is today,” Whit-man explained in the 1855 “Preface” (LG 1855, p. 21), and in this book I have attempted to describe the social generosity of Whitman's vision in relation to the immediate trials by which his life was defined. For ex-ample, Whitman wanted to affirm the role of the mother in nineteenth-century America but he also wanted to liberate himself from the anxieties associated with his actual familial role as dutiful son. Similarly, Whitman tried to think of himself as “an example to lovers” but was deeply ambivalent about his erotic experience with men. As a poet who encouraged others to follow his example without emulating it too

closely, he urged his readers not to surrender to appearances: to pursue the life beneath the life.

In a late essay on “The Death of Abraham Lincoln,” Whitman asked, “Strange, (is it not?), that battles, martyrs, agonies, blood, even assassi-nation, should so condense—perhaps only really, lastingly condense—a Nationality.”[49] Throughout the Leaves of Grass project, the poet wondered whether the power of love could enable Americans to tran-scend privatizing traditions of moral worth and what the place of liter-ature might be in this transformation. Walt Whitman did not want to choose between the unities his culture associated with masculinity and the personalisms of the feminine. During the most inspired parts of his career, he tried to imagine alternatives to the violent antagonisms of his age and to open a space for himself as an erotically experimental writer.[50] Whitman did not know what of lasting value would emerge from his language experiments or how “poets to come” would receive him. But he continued to hope that the intimate fears and fears of intimacy that had been for him “the real reality” (LG 1860, pp. 186, 344) would be transformed by “a new tongue,” one in which, in certain moods, it would be possible to believe that “All goes onward and outward. … and nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one sup-posed, and luckier” (LG 1855, p. 30).

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