previous sub-section
Faith in Sex
next sub-section


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

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

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Dickinson and to have rewritten at least one of them in response to Sue's criticism,[21] Whitman did not usually share unpublished poems with his intimates, either through the mails or in person.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(LG, p. 505)[32]

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

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

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

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

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

(LG 1855, p. 87)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(LG 1855, p. 30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

previous sub-section
Faith in Sex
next sub-section