previous chapter
The Politics of Love in the 1860 Leaves of Grass
next sub-section


Of course, the Enfans d'Adam sequence has no exclusive purchase on apparent illogicality, for the volume as a whole has little in common with the hierarchically organized “cathedral” structure recommended by Tyndale as a model. But considered as an inquiry into the relationship between desire and social forms, the Enfans d'Adam sequence is unusually subject to multiple interruptions, or silencings, even for Whitman. For example, in the second poem of the sequence, the speaker moves from “singing the phallus, / Singing the song of procreation, / Singing the need of superb children, and therein superb grown people” to “Singing what, to the Soul, entirely redeemed her, the faithful one, the prostitute, who detained me when I went to the city, / Singing the song of prostitutes.” The first poem had concluded with a seemingly lovely image of democratic sexual politics: “By my side, or back of me, Eve following, / Or in front, and I following her just the same.”[12] In the mental and physical space between poems one and two, Eve disappears, as do all women, along with the image of Whitman as a follower. After a brief excursion into phallic preening, praise of procreation, veiled homoerotic tenderness, and veiled autoerotic shame, the speaker's diffuse “muscular urges” are now located within a desiring but degendered body. From this mythic location Whitman produces the “true song of the Soul, fitful, at random” (LG 1860, p. 288).

This dehistoricized, disembodied speaker searches for some essential

value “yet unfound,” having “diligently sought it, ten thousand years.” But in lines Whitman eliminated in 1881, a new historical identity is constituted around the idea of female prostitution. Since “The Soul” is associated with “her,” “the faithful one,” “the prostitute,” “me” and “I,” these figures all seem like parts of the same person. That is, the idea of prostitution has the effect of regendering the speaker. There is no attempt to describe the prostitute as an individual and in that sense the speaker has not found a lover and perfect equal. But by insisting on her fidelity to him, he has begun to collapse the distinction between leader and follower that made it impossible for him to pursue his idyll with Eve. Collapsing this distinction is crucial to his sexual and political project and, as I will suggest, works best in the poems on male-male love, where gender inequalities can seemingly be banished to the margins of his discourse.

Whatever his conscious ideological intent, Whitman recounts a turning away from rather than toward emotional and sexual intimacy, even as he seeks ontological clues that will focus homoerotic longings he is not yet willing to claim as his own. Appropriating biblical myth, and comparing himself both to Adam and Adam's descendants, he calls for “Potent mates, daughters, sons” (LG 1860, p. 287) without quite calling for potent wives. Because women cannot really be trusted, he addresses himself to “the perfect girl who understands me—the girl of The States” (LG 1860, p. 290). Yet throughout the Enfans d'Adam sequence, which emerged out of a dense and densely sexist historical context, Woman functions mainly as an inferior power position; the title itself diminishes Eve's importance. Whitman had first introduced Adam and Eve, those traditional exemplars of patriarchal marriage, in the last (and worst) poem of the 1855 Leaves, now called “Great Are the Myths,” which he dropped from the much revised and expanded volume in 1881. “Great are Adam and Eve. … I too look back and accept them” (LG 1855, p. 142), he wrote, without being able to do so. Several pages later, after praising the cultural supremacy of English speech (“the mother of the brood that must rule the earth with the new rule”), he introduced a list comprised of such lawful pleasures as “commerce, newspapers, books, freetrade, railroads, steamers, international mails and telegraphs and exchanges,” including “marriage” as one of “the old few landmarks of the law,” an antipassional positioning if ever there was one (LG 1855, p. 144). Evidently Whitman's list of social institutions that are not to be “disturbed,” however disturbing they may be, begs the following question. How can commerce, newspapers, marriage, and other competing

social institutions be integrated? Having written himself into an ideological impasse in which he supports legal tradition and proclaims its meaninglessness to the upstart eternal or universal soul that judges paradoxically and perfectly, Whitman concludes,

Great is life. . and real and mystical. . wherever and whoever,
Great is death. … Sure as life holds all parts together, death holds all parts together;
Sure as the stars return again after they merge in the light, death is great as life.

(LG 1855, p. 145)

With this 1855 poem, Whitman dismantles marriage, reducing it to a mere legality. Yet he proves himself an unreliable revolutionary. First, he insists that throughout human history the same ideals have governed interpersonal relationships, and he seemingly approves of these traditional norms of social organization. But second, he suggests that to question a single part of this habitually organized project is to precipitate the collapse of the whole. He himself is unwilling to risk this total reconfiguration of the moral imagination, yet as a “perfect judge” he hopes that we won't believe him when he declares that he has “absolute faith.” He both wants and does not want to perpetuate his “odd” self-revisions, which reflect competing loyalties. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Whitman encourages a resisting reading. His declarations of faith are assaultive, and the poem appears not to have an immediate occasion. Perhaps Whitman was reading something (a letter?) or had just heard something that sent him over the edge. Representing himself as a naive believer in all the myths that have governed human history, including the immortality of the soul, the poet circumvents such conventional genres as the love lyric, the political or social satire, and the religious or philosophical meditation, to inscribe something significantly more abstract: an appeal to death itself as the joiner, destined to hold all the social parts together, even when—especially when—the poet himself cannot imagine their integration. If the speaker cannot or will not distinguish between just and unjust laws, and between “marriage, commerce, newspapers, books, freetrade, railroads, steamers, international mails and telegraphs and exchanges,” how much more cynical about the structures that govern intimate human relations can we expect him to become? And so the 1855 Leaves of Grass ends with the words, “Death is as great as life.”[13]

Five or so years later, dreaming of himself as a supremely potent lover of his medium, language, which even in his despair he had called “the

mightiest of the sciences” (LG 1855, p. 144), Whitman continued to rewrite the regulatory heterosexual myths that have determined and, he believed, deformed human history.[14] In the Enfans d'Adam sequence, directing our attention to his “resurrection, after slumber,” he appears eager to seduce us into accompanying him on his journey toward a better place, a lusher, more androgynous garden. “(Hark, close and still, what I now whisper to you,” he writes, “I love you—O you entirely possess me, / O I wish that you and I escape from the rest, and go utterly off—O free and lawless, / Two hawks in the air—two fishes swimming in the sea not more lawless than we)” (LG 1860, p. 289). This revitalized place is intermittently represented as less emphatically gendered. For example, the speaker, having welcomed “the sight of the perfect body, / The swimmer swimming naked in the bath, or motionless on his back lying and floating,” seems to identify with “The female form approaching—I, pensive, love-flesh tremulous, aching.” This language occludes the difference between Whitman as woman and Whitman as observer of woman. But the speaker then breaks into this intensifying, sexually indeterminate moment by announcing, “The slave's body for sale—I, sternly, with harsh voice, auctioneering,”

The divine list, for myself or you, or for any one, making,
The face—the limbs—the index from head to foot, and what it arouses,
The mystic deliria—the madness amorous—the utter abandonment[.]

(LG 1860, p. 289)

This particular interruption hearkens back to his interaction with the faithful prostitute, and it appears that the speaker feels enslaved by his dalliance with the female form. The slave's body is unmarked by gender, but I have always assumed that Whitman had a male slave body in mind, since the function of the figure is to divert us from his imaginary fusion with the feminine. Other readings are of course possible, and the self-abandonment motif may go in a number of different directions, especially in the direction of the love-slave.[15] But to my ear there is nothing erotic about this passage, although Whitman, in dissolving the slave's body into its component parts, may also be trying to redeem it for his “divine list,” his democratic catalogue of unfallen children of God.

After seeking to extricate himself from a racial and sexual trap, which in its attempt to collapse binaries also reinscribes them, Whitman turns to the reader for help, and then returns to his attempt to write persuasively about the love of real men for real women by swearing fidelity to

“the woman that loves me, and whom I love more than my life.” As we may now have come to expect, this pledge is rapidly exhausted. Throughout the Children of Adam sequence (to call the poems by their revised name), Whitman seeks to rewrite the myth of patriarchal marriage without being able to come to terms with his own fear of feminization, which he associates with lawlessness in the form of erotic self-abandonment. Following Eve, he becomes Eve, which is both a frightening and a thrilling experience. The emotional logic of the sequence depends on this paradox, which I wish to consider now in greater detail.

The most moving (in the sense of emotionally compelling) poem in the sequence famously exists in two radically different versions. Its emotional appeal is partly dependent on this liberating doubleness.[16] As published in 1860, “Once I passed through a populous city” presents the speaker as a man with a memory he cannot or will not shake off. For whatever reason, he has separated from “that woman who passionately clung to me,” who held him “by the hand,” mutely imploring him not to go, “with silent lips, sad and tremulous” (LG 1860, p. 311). Though his destiny takes him elsewhere, stereotypically all he remembers is her. A romantic ballad of hopeless love, the poem links idealized love and guilt, as Whitman identifies with the woman whom he has abandoned and who still faithfully keeps his shrine. In its manuscript form, however, Whitman's woman is a man and the poem reads as follows.

Once I passed through a populous city, imprinting on my brain, for future use, its shows, architecture, customs and traditions
But now of all that city I remember only the man who wandered with me there, for love of me,
Day by day, and night by night, we were together.
All else has long been forgotten by me—I remember, I say, only one rude and ignorant man who, when I departed, long and long held me by the hand, with silent lip, sad and tremulous.

(UPP 2:102)[17]

There are minor differences between the version Whitman published in 1860 and the manuscript version first published by Emory Holloway in 1920: for example Whitman's male lover has a silent lip, whereas his female lover has silent lips, a difference that now signifies in relation to Luce Irigaray's classic essay, “Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un” [“This Sex Which Is Not One”].[18] There are also minor differences between both versions and the text Whitman eventually settled on as definitive in 1881. But the tonal difference is most marked in two directions. Whitman

clearly knows “the man” better than the figure he first identifies vaguely as “a woman,” and she is portrayed as Whitman's social equal, whereas the man is “rude and ignorant.” Although one of the first biographers suggested that she was “of a higher social rank than his own,” there is nothing in the 1860 poem to support this idea. The manuscript, however, is emphatic. The “youth” who wanders with Whitman is not his social equal.[19]

Although we have already seen Whitman romanticizing both rudeness and ignorance, as Wordsworth (among others) had taught him to do, here this aggressive judgment unsettles the poem. In condescending to his beloved, the speaker flirtatiously exploits him. So this description is uncomfortable on two counts. It indicates Whitman's lack of erotic self-confidence—we hear him wondering: Would a youth full of manners and learning want him?—and it belittles the beloved's intelligence, while seemingly praising his style. Rudeness was one of Whitman's major erotic tropes, and it functions brilliantly in such poems as “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing,” from the Calamus sequence, where the idealized tree's look, “rude, unbending, lusty,” makes the speaker think of himself (LG 1860, p. 364), or at least of his hopes for himself, if he could only learn to relax and enjoy life without subjecting it to too much analysis. Along related lines, in “I Sing the Body Electric,” the third poem in the Enfans d'Adam sequence, Whitman had taunted the reader, “Do you know so much yourself, that you call the slave or the dull-face ignorant?” (LG 1860, p. 297), a question marking the difference between book-learning and heart-learning, identifying racial and ethnic prejudice with the wrong kind of egotism, and pointing sentimentally toward a democracy of feeling which might rescue the body politic from its various diseases. While ignorance was not always attractive to Whitman, the homoerotic fantasy of a rudely unconventional and lawless friend, censored in the published version of “Once I passed through a populous city,” powerfully reemerges in the preceding poem, Enfans d'Adam number 8, in which Whitman writes,

Native moments! when you come upon me—Ah you are here now!
Give me now libidinous joys only!
Give me the drench of my passions! Give me life coarse and rank!
Today, I go consort with nature's darlings—tonight too,
I am for those who believe in loose delights—I share the midnight orgies of young men,
I dance with the dancers, and drink with the drinkers,
The echoes ring with our indecent calls,

I take for my love some prostitute—I pick out some low person for my dearest friend,
He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate—he shall be one condemned by others for deeds done;
I will play a part no longer—Why should I exile myself from my companions?
O you shunned persons! I at least do not shun you,
I come forthwith in your midst—I will be your poet,
I will be more to you than to any of the rest.

(LG 1860, pp. 310–11)

Perhaps the (male) prostitute, the low person, and the dearest friend are one and the same. Perhaps the speaker's encounter with the (female) prostitute prepares him for other sexual adventures. But whether or not the prostitute is a man, the male lover clearly is. And in this poem, Whitman's beloved friend is outside the law because, it seems, he has nothing to lose and doesn't know any better, unlike the speaker whose self-esteem and reputation are at stake. Whitman says that he will play a part no longer, but lawlessness, rudeness, and illiteracy don't come easily to him. As an intellectual, he hopes to learn how to consort with nature's darlings, dance with the dancers, drink with the drinkers, and so forth. Here is the journalistic Whitman looking for new material, broadening his horizons. But the journalist-poet who is in the wrong (now right) part of town is unwilling to give up his morally privileged point of view. He knows what's indecent and what isn't; though he would like to have the power to redefine obscenity, he would be a fool to believe that such power actually inheres in him—a fool, a madman, or an ego-obsessed poet. Versions of this story and these feelings remain in the manuscript draft of “Once I passed through a populous city,” in which Whitman similarly counts on a lower-class other to initiate him into a world of loose delights. Though he chose not to publish the male-gendered version of his narrative of “passing,” a new psychological and literary style about which he was deeply ambivalent had been forced upon him. In the Calamus sequence, as Robert K. Martin observes, Whitman continued to “search for a form for the expression of love between men.”[20] The elegiac tone persists, for in Whitman's experience male-male love both banished melancholy and induced it. Looking to the future, however, the poet hoped that his partial confessions would spare others the pain and reinforce the pleasure that had inspired his art. And so he forged on, for American purposes and for his own, redefining his relation to liter-ary tradition, to his audience, and to a conflicted self.

previous chapter
The Politics of Love in the 1860 Leaves of Grass
next sub-section