Women in Whitman’s World

Prior to this class, my only experience with Walt Whitman was reading “Song of Myself” as a freshman.  Therefore, understanding the verse of this madman poet certainly takes some adjustment.  I find that the frenetic energy his poetry exudes is fitting with the juxtaposition of contradictory ideas that abound in his work.  As I work through and explore more Whitmans, I am struck by a few things that stand out to me.  Whitman is undeniably a poet of inclusion of all and celebration of the individual; in fact, praising individuals is part of his method of pronouncing the glory and equality of all humanity.  As unbiased and egalitarian as Whitman tries to be, everyone is still a product of their cultural environment, which can be seen in Whitman’s conflicting ideas about slavery.

At the end of our quiz in class we were asked to write down a question we would like to ask Whitman, since he asks so many of us.  While reading I have found myself examining his treatment of males and females and feel inclined to ask Whitman, if he were alive and well today, how he would feel about the role of women in modern society.  On any topic, if Whitman discusses one aspect of it he always returns with a discussion of the other side.  Whenever Whitman mentions genders he strives so hard to appear equal, such as “The Female equally with the Male I sing” (“One’s Self I Sing”, line 6), among many other examples.  However, throughout many of his catalogs Whitman mentions different roles of men and women.  Men’s roles are varied and multiple, from boatmen to farmers, slaves, workers, lawyers, the President, and on and on.  On the other hand, there are very few roles he assigns to women, namely mother, wife, factory worker, or prostitute.  In the extensive catalogues found throughout much of his poetry it truly surprises me that there is so little variation on the roles assigned to women.  While Whitman makes sure to celebrate females as equally as males in general terms, the specifics he chooses cause the assurance of equality to ring slightly false to me, and thus to question Whitman’s other emphases on equality.  The poems I have read so far are before the Women’s Rights Movement gained momentum, so presumably Whitman is working within his cultural timeframe.  Or as a novice Whitman reader perhaps I am reading this from the wrong angle, or simply have not been exposed to other poems that have different roles for women.  Either way, I am interested in continuing to note the role of women in Whitman’s poems and coming to a better understanding of his poetics and mindset in general.

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2 Responses to Women in Whitman’s World

  1. Anton Vander Zee says:

    These thoughts seem like the start of a great research project. We’ll be reading a number of female poet who respond to Whitman in different ways. I look forward to learning more from you about all of this…

  2. Joshua Goddard says:

    I’m pretty much in the same boat that you’re in: I’m a Whitman novice and not very familiar with his poems beyond having read sections of “Song of Myself” as a freshman, and maybe parts of “Leaves of Grass” back in high school. Yet I noticed a similar vein, regarding women, in Whitman’s writing when I read I “Sing the Body Electric.”

    Broadly, there are two areas where Whitman discusses “free” men and women in this poem—in sections 5 and 6. He also discusses the male/female in 7 and 8, but these sections are also devoted to slavery, which could be a whole other topic. On the whole, I didn’t find Whitman’s vision for women very mind-blowing either, especially when I contrasted the language between the female sections with the male sections.

    I feel that there are too many instances in section 5 where Whitman’s language implies that women are limited to passivity and child-bearing, and I didn’t really see any pivotal role that Whitman envisioned for them in society beyond these caveats. For instance, he wrote “This is the nucleus—after the child is born of woman, man is born of woman” and “She is to conceive daughters as well as sons, and sons as well as daughters.” But do women do anything else besides this? Granted, it appears that Whitman does try to maybe push a boundary or two when he writes “She is all things duly veil’d, she is both passive and active,” but how active can you be when you have to “duly conceal” everything about yourself? In the final lines of the section, Whitman also equates the female with Nature (which wasn’t unconventional for the time, as far as I know) and describes her image as “the bent head and arms folded over the breast”…is this really a description of someone who could be both “active and passive”?

    I dunno. When I contrasted section 5 with 6 where males are “action and power,” “appetite and defiance,” “full-spread pride” I saw a broad divide in these sections between males as active, females as passive. Maybe most telling is the line where Whitman alludes to the opinion that “Knowledge becomes him [the male],” yet I could find nothing comparable to this opinion in section 5. So far, I share a similar opinion with you, that Whitman alludes to gender equality very broadly, but once I dug into the clockwork in this particular instance, the sentiment of equality (as we conceive of it nowadays) sort of falls to the wayside.

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