Whitman’s unrealistic social ideals

In reading Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” I was especially intrigued by his ideals of community and equality as they were presented in his poetry. In “For You O Democracy” Whitman’s beliefs regarding these issues came through especially strongly. Whitman seemed to have very unrealistic ideals, especially for the time period, regarding women and other underrepresented minorities and their place in American society. In “For You O Democracy,” Whitman states: “I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America… I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s neck.” This statement brings to mind a society that is built on entirely equal footing; the reality of social prejudices based on race, gender, and religion are nowhere to be found. Furthermore, Whitman uses nature symbolisms to pull this idea together; as we have seen throughout this semester, nature is historically a subject of oppression. The image of a tree as the “glue” that holds a country together is one we have not seen depicted thus far throughout the semester and brings forth an interesting paradox. As Americans have been conditioned to view nature as something to conquer and use as they need it, these statements of nature as powerful and all-encompassing are meant to make readers rethink their habits and values.

Another area where Whitman deviates from the norm is in his discussion of gender and nature. Although throughout his poetry he describes nature as feminine and having an almost sexual appeal, in “To the Garden the World” Whitman says “By my side or back of me Eve following/ Or in front, and I following her just the same.” This reference to a female coupled with Whitman’s apparent indifference whether he is in charge or no leads me to believe that he held ideologies inconsistent with most of his male peers; he seems to view women as a group much more equally (albeit still quite sexually) than other men of his time.  Accordingly, in the aforementioned “For You O Democracy,” Whitman describes Democracy as both the “manly love of comrades” and “ma femme.” These contradictory labels, coupled with his incongruous descriptions of American society and equality, prove to me that Whitman was aiming to write poetry that would get his readers to rethink how they felt about oppressed groups; unfortunately, the contradictory aspects of much of his writing muddles his main arguments. The dichotomies between women being leaders, but also sexual beings, and an entirely equal democratic society as strong and masculine, but at the same time feminine, confuses the reader as to what Whitman’s ultimate goal is.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. “Death-Bed” Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 116-119, 148-150, 258-264, 27-5-282, 284-293, 459-462. pub. Random House 2001

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3 responses to this post.

  1. I agree with your assertion that Whitman had a very confusing argument throughout his works. I particularly struggled with Whitman’s stance on women. I applauded his attempt to assert women as supposed “equals,” but was also bothered by the sexual imagery. Even the title “Children of Adam” (Whitman,116) degrades the equality because it excludes any mention of Eve and emphasizes the Adam as the main person from which the human race is descended. Even though he says he would follow behind, walk beside, or walk in front of Eve at the bottom of the poem, he negates this equalizing statement with the chapter title (Whitman, 116).

  2. Posted by kwalley on October 20, 2011 at 11:32 am

    I think your commentary on Whitman’s uncommon ideals and beliefs is very interesting. The fact that Whitman does not care whether he leads or follows a woman is gives great insight into his beliefs and character. Through his characterization of nature and democracy as powerful feminine entities it is clear that Whitman believes in the power of women to unite and lead, something his male colleagues of the time would firmly stand against. It is strange that Whitman would put forth such strong sentiments about the abilities of women and then revert back to sexualizing them shows his own struggle to assert his opinions while maintaining the chauvinist thoughts of the time.

  3. The question I want to inject into this discussion is this: is the sexualization of women always degrading? Most (if not all) humans are sexual beings, after all. So what exactly makes the sexualization of women degrading (as we all know it can be) and is there a way to step outside of that? Is there a way to portray women as sexual beings in a celebratory, non-objectifying way and what would that look like? And does Whitman do this, or does he degrade and objectify?

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