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Impalpable Sustenance: Whitman's Corpo/Reality and Sexuality

by Jough Dempsey
16 December 1999

America in the 1800s was still in its awkward infancy – barely a country – The United States were only recently 'united' and had yet to establish much of an identity or personality.  The prevailing thoughts on sexuality at the time were largely influenced by British Victorianism, which discouraged discussion of sex and promoted strict moral values.   American writers were beginning to emerge, however, and offer a voice that differed from other authors writing in English – giving a new voice of America to the world.

Walt Whitman is often seen as the pre-eminent American poet.  He loved America and things that were distinctly American, and celebrated the new country in his poetry.  It is difficult to separate the man from his work, because his poetry was also celebratory of the individual, as well, which, while not singularly American, is certainly a trait of democracy – which Whitman also believed in strongly.  The ideologies of democracy were a driving force behind Whitman's poetics.  As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, in an essay on Whitman, "in democracies the love of physical gratification, the notion of bettering one's condition, the excitement of competition, the charm of anticipated success, are so many spurs to urge men onward in the active professions they have embraced" (44-45).  Whitman's poetry is democratic, as well, because he resolves the "inherent conflict between the individual and the universe...at the level of the transpersonal self, where the individual being himself is also the self of all.  At the core of his being the individual is one with the cosmic whole" (Chari 127).

While it is true that Whitman initiated dramatic changes to poetry and has influenced countless poets to follow, from Allen Ginsberg to Adrienne Rich, it is difficult to find books or journal articles that don't focus on Whitman's sexuality (Erickson 103-104).  Ironically, this paper also focuses on a certain aspect of Whitman's sexuality.  While I find it ridiculous that so much attention should be paid to Whitman's alleged "gaiety," I think his focus on the sexual is certainly an issue to anyone who wants to further elucidate his works.  Thus, I find that his personal sexuality is (nearly) irrelevant to his poetry.  It may matter to the biographers, but for readers of Whitman's work it will not make much difference.  Allen Ginsberg, in an interview with Yves Le Pellec, commented that Whitman "was taught [at Columbia] but he was much insulted... so Whitman was put down as a 'negativist crude yea-sayer who probably had a frustrated homosexual libido and so was generalizing his pathology into oceanic consciousness of a morbid nature which had nothing to do with the real task of real men in a real world' " (Ginsberg 69-70).  Given Whitman's lack of attention in universities (until recently), his sexuality matters far less, at this point, than the study of his poetics matters to contemporary scholars.  What does matter greatly, however, was that Whitman's work is very sexually charged, and Whitman has contributed greatly to modern thinking on sex and gender.

Whitman wrote in great detail about sex and the human body.  A great majority of his poetry contains some kind of sexual imagery.  One of the more graphic, and most disturbing (especially to Victorian audiences) of these passages occurs in section 11 of "Song of Myself":

11

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 glisten'd with wet, it ran from their 
        long hair,
Little streams pass'd all over their bodies.

An unseen hand also pass'd over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.

The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge 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.  (Whitman 73)

Whitman is not merely defying the chasteness and propriety of Victorian values, but he is "shamefully" depicting a scene of sexual frustration and voyeurism, culminating with the fanaticized joining of the young bathers by the woman, whose "unseen hand" passes over their naked bodies.  This fanaticizing frees the woman from her "socio-sexual repression" and enables her to free herself from the constraints of society – at least in her mind (Beach 283-286).

Michael Moon, in his book Disseminating Whitman,  disagrees with Beach's hypotheses, believing instead  that the "unseen hand" in this section represents:

a sign of the metonymic feminine agency she bears into what would otherwise be an uninflected scene of orgiastic male-homoerotic utopianism.  That this key scene of male "fluidity," one of the most determinately and specifically erotic of all such scenes in Leaves of Grass, is inflected as it is with feminine erotic desire argues against the assumption that Whitman's privileging of male-homoeroticism in itself precludes his also representing feminine sexuality and feminine agency in his text.  (44)

The central image of this poem – twenty-eight naked men being watched by a vague woman, who hides behind the blinds of her window, shielded from view by the men – isn't as graphically shocking as it is merely suggestive.  Whitman, acutely aware of the "innate depravity" of his audience, allows us to fill in the blanks for ourselves (Bluestein 156).  In fact, Whitman had contemplated calling his anthology "The Flowers of Evil" before deciding to change the title to a friendlier title more connected with the Earth (Ibid).

Section 11 is a problem for the study of sexuality in Whitman because the scene is so innocent in itself, or at least it would be if not for the voyeurism of the woman.  The men are bathing and happy.  They are almost child-like, dancing, laughing, and floating on their backs.  There is also a sexual undercurrent to this passage, which may conflict with the innocence of their activity.  While I believe that the twenty-eight (or twenty-nine, depending on whether the last bather is another young man or the imaginings of the woman joining them) young men are innocent, Whitman's view of them is not – they "souse" each other with spray – implying ejaculation without there being sex.  Is this an orgasmic ending to the section?  I believe that an orgasm is implied with the souse of spray.  Of course, in keeping with literary tradition of the time, the woman's sexual fantasy is unfulfilled.  She cannot join the men's "homosocial" or non-sexual purely "male bonding" (my italics) and therefore may only watch – unseen in the shadows – their homoerotic bathing in the sun (Cavell 425).

The "Children of Adam" poems are also rife with sexuality and explicit sexual imagery.  These poems differ from the "Calamus" poems in that the "Calamus" poems were about exploring the ideas of socio-sexual roles and agendas, while the "Children of Adam" poems were about public scenes involving sexual exchange.   Both the male and female bodies are "displayed, catalogued, and celebrated" in poems such as "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers" and "I Sing the Body Electric" (Mullins 213-214). 

Here, we are no longer kept from a sexual scene by voyeuristic imaginings, but are brought up close and personal into the immediacy and intimacy of a sexual act that progresses as the poem progresses:

From the soft sliding of hands over me and thrusting of fingers through
        my hair and beard,
From the long sustain'd kiss upon the mouth or bosom,
From the close pressure that makes me or any man drunk, fainting with 
        excess (Whitman 127)

Unlike section 11 of "Song of Myself," in the "Children of Adam" women's sexuality is explored as much as men's because he needs to celebrate the female body because it is the women, and not the men, who bring forth creation, in the form of progeny.  He didn't title the section "Children of Eve" because he is still celebrating the homosocial aspects of maleness, and because Whitman sees woman, not as fully realized beings, but rather as vague "female form(s)" that are mere vessels for procreation (Whitman 126).  In this section, the genders of the subjects is often ambiguous – which of course casts into doubt how much of the sexual language in this section is either purely masculine or feminine.   Perhaps Whitman's sexuality may be seen not as "homo" or "hetero" sexual but as merely sexual.

Whitman's views of the female body and of feminine sexuality most likely came from personal experience.  He lived in close quarters with his grandmother, his mother, his sister, and his sister-in-law for many years.  While his views may be seen as somewhat old-fashioned in today's (somewhat) sexually liberated society, Whitman's views would have been considered quite shameful at the time of his writing. 

Even his frank depictions of women's "status of her reproductive function as a physical fact" can be seen as nothing less than revolutionary (Vance 138).  Whitman often equates women with men, as we've seen in such lines as "... after the child is born of woman, man is born of woman," and "The female contains all qualities and tempers them, / She is in her place and moves with perfect balance" (131).

Unlike "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers," another poem, "A Woman Waits For Me," greatly differs thematically in terms of the portrayal of women's sexuality.  Here he portrays a woman as containing all, "nothing is lacking" (Whitman 136).  He solidifies his stance that sex transcends gender in the lines "Sex contains all, bodies, souls," and "Without shame the man I like knows and avows the deliciousness of his sex, / Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers" (Ibid).  In this section he is interested in women, not as sexual beings, but as those who are without shame in the roles of their sex.  He sees woman not as sexually desirous, but as the vessels for his progeny:

The drops I distil upon you shall grow fierce and athletic
        girls, new artists, musicians, and singers,
The babes I beget upon you are to beget babes in their turn,
I shall demand perfect men and women out of my
        love-spendings,
I shall expect them to interpenetrate with others, as I and you
        interpenetrate now (137)

Whitman continues the "singing of himself" that he began in "Song of Myself," but now he is thinking of himself as Adam – as the progenitor of a long-line of Whitmans that of course would never come.

In "A Woman Waits For Me," Whitman gives his female figures the traits of men, furthering his claims for gender equality:

They are not one jot less than I am,
They are tann'd in the face by shining suns and blowing
        winds,
Their flesh has the old diving suppleness and strength,
They know how to swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run, strike,
        retreat, advance, resist, defend themselves,
They are ultimate in their own right – they are calm,
        clear, well-possess'd of themselves (136-137)

By making the women so incredibly active in this section, Whitman gives them purpose outside of child-bearing – he frees them of any supposed weakness and fully equates them with men.  They are not stunted by the sociocultural inhibition that would have plagued women of his time.  Instead, they are fully functional beings in their own right, not helpless or needing a man, but able to do anything that a man would do to further their own survival.  Whitman frees women of their supposed dependence in this section, calling them "ultimate in their own right" – while at the same time, implying an equality with the purely masculine, which Whitman praises throughout Leaves of Grass.

Whitman was a true American original.  He depicts sexuality in an explicit, frank, and daringly honest fashion, while furthering the ideas of gender equality.  His poetry may almost be described as "pre-feminist."  He depicted women as equals in a time when this was certainly not the common view.   By negating traditional gender roles, Whitman brought democracy to poetry.  He wrote in the vernacular of the common man, which served both to allow for a wider readership as well as address common issues from one who was a witness to the events, and not as one who holds himself somehow above the action.  Walt Whitman furthered the fight for women's equality and modern thinking about sex and transgender sexuality.  He may celebrate and sing himself, but he opened up literature for us all.

Bibliography

Beach, Christopher.  " 'A Strong and Sweet Female Race': Cultural Discourse and Gender in Whitman's Leaves of Grass."  ATQ 9.4 (1995): 283-299.

Bluestein, Gene.  "Sex As a Literary Theme: Is Whitman the Good, Gay Poet?"  Journal of Popular Culture 31.3 (1997): 153-163.

Carvell, Richard, and Peter Dickinson.  "Bucke, Whitman, and the Cross-Border Homosocial."  Canadian Review of American Studies 26.3 (1996): 425-449.

Chari, V.K.  Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism.  Lincoln:  U of Nebraska P, 1964.

de Tocqueville, Alexis.  "Poetry in a Democratic Society."  The Americanness of Walt Whitman.  Ed. Leo Marx.  Boston: Heath, 1960.  44-49.

Erickson, Peter.  "Singing America: From Walt Whitman to Adrienne Rich."  Kenyon Review 17.1 (1995): 103-120.

Ginsberg, Allen.  Composed on the Tongue.  Ed. Donald Allen.  San Francisco: Grey Fox, 1980.

Moon, Michael.  Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.

Mullins, Maire.  " 'Act-Poems of Eyes, Hands, Hips, and Bosoms': Women's Sexuality in Walt Whitman's Children of Adam."  ATQ 6.3 (1992): 213-232.

Vance, William.  "What They're Saying About Whitman."  Raritan 16.4 (1997): 127-152.

Williams, William Carlos.  "An Essay on Leaves of Grass."  Leaves of Grass: One Hundred Years After.  Ed. Milton Hindus.  Stanford: Stanford UP, 1955.  22-31.

Whitman, Walt.  The Complete Poems.  New York:  Penguin, 1986.

Further Reading:

Read the poem: "Song Of Myself"
Read the poem: "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers"
Read the poem: "I Sing The Body Electric"
Read the poem: "A Woman Waits For Me"


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