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Whitman, Walt (1819-1892)  
 
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Celebrations of the Male Working-Class Body

Such moments in Whitman characteristically give way, as here, to celebrations of the male working-class body. These men are celebrated not only for their professions or trades, but just as important for their physical presence. We see the "hairy chests" of the blacksmiths and "the lithe sheer of their waists" as well as the "polish'd and perfect limbs" of the black driver.

Whitman's is a world of diversity and repeated pleasures. It is decidedly urban, capturing the rapidly changing life of the street and its multiple activities. The pleasure Whitman takes in observing other men's bodies is heightened by the transitory nature of the experience: The city is a place for cruising.

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This theme is made explicit in the "Calamus" poem, "City of Orgies," which concludes, "O Manhattan, your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love, / Offering response to my own."

The city of Whitman, unlike that of the sensation novels of the mid-nineteenth century, is not frightening but inviting. It contains within it a world of male desire that often goes unnoticed by others, a world of constantly repeated flirtations and erotic possibilities.

Reclaiming the Body

If Whitman took his nationalism and his optimism from Emerson, he was not satisfied with the Transcendentalist version of neo-Platonism. Such a philosophy saw the body merely as a means toward a higher, purely spiritual existence.

Whitman's task in Leaves of Grass is to reclaim the body, to counter Western idealism with a new idea of a balance between body and soul. This tactic was essential for the creation of a view of homosexuality that did not privilege the "ideal" or nonphysical relationship over an embodied experience.

Whitman locates the divine in the individual, not in a spirit outside the self, only rarely glimpsed. This sense of the divinity of the self is indebted to Whitman's Quaker background, but he was also similar to many of the utopian reformers of the 1840s in claiming not only a radical political equality but an equality within the hierarchy of the body.

Thus in section 24 of "Song of Myself," Whitman celebrates himself not as an isolated, superior being, but instead as "the son" of Manhattan, "turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating drinking and breeding": as he put it in the first version, "an American, one of the roughs."

The new urban poet marks off his distance from the rural and village world of Emerson. Whereas Emerson fears any intoxication as a false stimulant, Whitman revels in the appetites of the body.

What is at stake is not merely philosophical, but social as well: There will be no more standing aloof from the issues of the day.

Implicitly recalling Emerson's reticence to join in the abolitionist campaign (as in the women's rights campaign), Whitman gives himself a role of speaking for the excluded: "Through me many long-dumb voices, / Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves."

These "forbidden voices" lose their indecency in Whitman's mouth, as he seeks a new vocabulary of democratic inclusiveness. In one of his most provocative lines he writes, "The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer."

The male body and the male genitals are for Whitman a prime example of the act of suppression in the name of propriety. He will name them and praise them, locating them directly in the landscape of nature poetry:

Root of washed sweet-flag, timorous pond-snipe, nest of guarded duplicate eggs, it shall be you,
Mixed tussled hay of head and beard and brawn it shall be you;
Trickling sap of maple, fibre of manly wheat, it shall be you . . .
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you,
Broad muscular fields, branches of liveoak, loving lounger in my winding paths, it shall be you,
Hands I have taken, face I have kissed, mortal I have ever touched, it shall be you.
          ("Song of Myself," ll. 535-543)

By locating the celebration of the body outdoors, Whitman works directly against the association of "corruption" with urban life; he makes nature itself the site of erotic play.

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