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Whitman, Walt (1819-1892)  
 
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Leaves of Grass

Whitman's major work was Leaves of Grass; although it began as a slim volume of less than 150 pages, it had become by Whitman's death a hefty volume of almost 600 pages. Whitman added to, removed, revised, restored; but he never wrote another book.

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It was also an organic process of growth and decay. Although the last, or Death-Bed, edition represents Whitman's last thoughts, it cannot give us a sense of the growth of the work nor of Whitman's thought at any given time. For that we must turn to some of the most important of the editions.

The 1855 First Edition

The original edition was published in 1855. It includes an eighteen-page preface and twelve poems. The preface defines the American purpose of the volume, by rendering the experience of America to create a great poem. Whitman's America is open, expansive, and adventurous. "Here," he declares, "are the roughs and the beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves."

Borrowing from Emerson's call for a national poet, Whitman places that poet in rebellion against a European heritage that was still strong seventy years after the revolution. He must also give himself a role that will break with the tradition of the learned poet like Longfellow (only twelve years older than Whitman) and situate the new poet outdoors, with the working class.

The Masculine Ideal

Whitman's evocation of "the roughs and the beards" is inscribed in a tradition that identifies revolution with masculinity, whereas to be learned or cultured is to be "feminine" and hence colonized.

In "Song of Myself," the most important of the poems in the first edition, Whitman picks up his reference to beards from the preface, and proclaims, "Washes and razors for foofoos . . . . for me freckles and a bristling beard" (l. 468). The foofoo, or dandy, is rejected in favor of the freckled outdoorsman, whose beard signals his unlimited masculinity.

In terms of the politics of self-presentation of his time, Whitman is making an argument of class as much as anything, but he needs to link class to gender and so unwittingly sets in process an identification of the gay man with the masculine.

At the same time, Whitman's own self-presentation, including his frontispiece portrait as a casual worker with his hand on his hip, indicates a sense of gender as performance.

Equality of the Sexes

While creating a figure of masculinity that could free him from association with the European aesthete, Whitman was also insisting on the equality of the sexes. Among the American qualities to be included in the poem of America, after "the noble character of the young mechanics," there is "the perfect equality of the female with the male."

Whitman was undoubtedly sincere in this commitment, as his support for such reformers as Frances Wright would testify, and as his own literary practice of gender inclusiveness demonstrates.

At the same time, whatever his intentions, the unconscious of his language worked in other ways. The poets of America were to be "begotten" of the "fatherstuff" of science and practical experience and to form "sinewy races of bards." And the new America was envisioned as a place for "the evergrowing communes of brothers and lovers."

Whitman's ardent placed certain limitations on his vision of equality for women.

Occasionally, he could find a way to bring together his own concerns as a homosexual and his insight into the suffering of women, just as he could write movingly of the plight of the American slave.

One particularly striking instance of the intersection of male and female desire occurs in section 11 of "Song of Myself." The bathing scene involving "twenty-eight young men, and all so friendly" is a celebration of men together, enjoying a freedom refused in mid-nineteenth century America to women.

But the scene is also observed by the woman who looks from "aft the blinds of the window" before entering into the celebration and "splash[ing] in the water."

The perspective then shifts to the young men, who feel "an unseen hand" passing over their bodies, as someone whom they do not see "seizes fast to them . . . puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch" until they ejaculate, sousing their partners with spray.

The repressed desires of the woman and the young men come together, in a scene that derives its power from its violation of convention. The sexuality is hetero, homo, auto, perhaps truly , that is, lacking fixed definition.

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