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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.

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