In our class, we have discussed Walt Whitman in several aspects and interpretations; he assumes many different forms, and yet many of them seem to operate in the guise of the masculine. You see Whitman as the patriot, the prophet, the nationalist, as well as the war hero in a sense — even his poetry which echoes his homosexual tendencies is a celebration of men.
However, it is apparent in many of Whitman’s works that he is a huge supporter and admirer of women, relating to their emotional tendencies and appreciating their uniqueness in humanity. Whitman maintained many close friendships with different women throughout his life and even tended to be a proponent for women’s rights before the suffrage movement took hold in America. For my final paper, I am interested in pursuing the feminine characteristics of Whitman and his reinvention of gender roles as seen in his poetry, delving into the way that later female writers follow in his footsteps, assume his voice, and feminize his poetry as a way to relate to him on a level which others may not. I am particularly interested in Sharon Olds’ poem “Nurse Whitman,” in which Olds takes the ideas of Whitman as a healer and caregiver (as seen in his experiences in the Civil War) and uses these qualities to reinvent him simultaneously into a nurse, daughter, mother, and lover. She is able to connect with him on these levels of caring and sensuality, and cause them to blossom into something much more complex. Much attention will be paid to this poem, with hope that some other contemporary examples can be found. Whitman poems to be examined will include his Calamus poems (pertaining to sexuality), “I Sing the Body Electric,” certain stanzas from Leaves of Grass (denoting compassion, interconnectedness, caring, sensuality), and perhaps a few of his Drum-Taps. Ultimately, this paper will explore Whitman’s reinvention as a pseudo-feminist icon by his later female admirers.
After all, Whitman himself once said to Horace Traubel, “Leaves of Grass is essentially a woman’s book: the women do not know it, but every now and then a woman shows that she knows it: it speaks out of the necessities, its cry is the cry of the right and the wrong of the woman sex — of the woman first of all, of the facts of creation first of all — of the feminine: speaks out loud, warns, encourages, persuades, points the way.”