Paper topic: Ecofeminist analysis of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson

During the time we spent talking about Whitman’s poetry, I thought a lot about his expressive, emotional language and how his unprecedented style might have aided to embed ecofeminist ideals in this country’s literary tradition. Emily Dickinson is a female poet of the same era whom I believe shaped American poetry in ways we may reflect on through an ecocritical lens today. Both poets were influenced by Emerson in some respect, both challenged gender roles subtly in their work, and their liberated writing styles lend a certain sense of freedom to the American canon that I view as constructive to the ecofeminist conversation.

I have read and in some cases, analyzed both Whitman and Dickinson’s poetry in the past. I know there is scholarship regarding feminism, environmentalism, and even bioregionalism as they appear in these poets’ work. I will focus in on several “Children of Adam” poems from Leaves of Grass and poems filed under “Nature” in Dickinson’s Complete Poems. These poets are strange complements: his poems are often so expansive, open, a sea of commas, while hers are jagged with dashes, organized into short sentences. Both contemplate individualism and interconnectedness in equal measure. I am curious to put their work into conversation in terms of what they have to offer to ecofeminism.

Some questions I would like to explore:

  1. Although they are writing at the same moment in history, how do their perspectives differ?
  2. Do their gender, religious background, or primary landscape affect their stylistic choices?
  3. How do sexuality/bodily knowledge translate into/onto the landscape as depicted by Whitman and Dickinson?
  4. How do the ideas about nature and humans’ relationship to it expressed in these poems reverberate in our perceptions about these things today?
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10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by lpeake on October 27, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    I think the first question (and I guess it ties into your second question) you posed is the most interesting because there is quite a bit of difference in a man vs. a woman writing about gender depictions. In a class I took previous to this one we studied Whitman and many of the ways in which he depicts women and women’s roles is problematic.

    5. Why is some of Whitman’s writing so problematic regarding women when much of it espouses equality? Can a male author truly have a grasp on feminism and be able to write non-problematic ecofeminist literature?

  2. Posted by rebsheppard on October 27, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    While I don’t have much experience with Whitman (except for what we’ve read in the coursepack) or Dickinson’s works, I am really enamored by your third question and I think that it really relates to a strong, overriding theme of a sexualized lanscape in Whitman’s poetry.

    I think that the question mentioned could benefit from a transformation from your initial focus on sexuality in the vein of “bodily knowledge” (forgive me if I’m interpreting this wrong) to placing an emphasis on the significance of sexually charged language in Whitman (and Dickinson’s) poetry.

  3. Posted by al002 on October 27, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    When I read your reasoning behind picking your topic the first question that popped into my head was regarding Dickinson’s prominent christian views but in your question “2. Do their gender, religious background, or primary landscape affect their stylistic choices?” you covered it. Perhaps incorporate how Emerson influenced them and whether or not it was effective?

  4. I have to agree about your first and second question being the most interesting, because although for example Whitman is trying to press for equality there are several scenes in his poems where the way nature is depicted could be called into question – like earth’s submissiveness. However, like the final reply I have to wonder how were they influenced by Emerson? How does Emerson himself portray nature?

  5. While I personally am not a fan of poetry, your topic sounds very interesting. With the little bit ive read from these two poets i can agree that they will compliment and contradict one another in a very useful way for this paper. I really like your third question and think that would be an interesting angle to take for your paper. it would be interesting to research if Whitman considered himself an early feminist,
    5. Were feminine issues/rights vital to the message Whitman was trying to portray? What was his message or intent?

  6. This sounds like a topic that you can really elaborate on and create a strong paper with! I really think you can take this question a lot of places:

    Although they are writing at the same moment in history, how do their perspectives differ?

    because the few contradictions you brought up between the two works will really make for strong close readings, I think.

    I would also maybe explore how their intended audiences effect what they are writing? What is the purpose of each of their works? Is the same?

  7. Your first question is very important because perspectives or approaches from a certain perspective do change between different people and their different approaches add more intricacies to their shared topic.
    Another question: What could account for the differences in their perspectives?

  8. i think this is a good topic to explore. Im also examining Dickinson in my paper because of her focus on nature. I like your question that focused on the sexuality because Whitman was very sexual in his working.
    8) Are you able to find any sexual undertones in Dickinsons poems? How do they compare to Whitman’s overt sexuality?

  9. Posted by yribaf on October 28, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    How do sexuality/bodily knowledge translate into/onto the landscape as depicted by Whitman and Dickinson?

    I feel as though there’s a lot of potential within your question regarding “sexuality and bodily knowledge.” What specific examples do you seek to utilize in your discussion concerning “sexual knowledge” within the poetry? Sexual knowledge can involve a variety of social/religious influences and is not necessarily related to a specific historical time period; perhaps you should narrow your definition of knowledge to a specific religious ideology.

  10. #3 is a great question and would make for a really interesting paper!

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