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

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

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

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

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

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

(LG 1855, p. 34)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Walt.

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

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

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

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

Charlie (Clews 215–16)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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