Just another Looking for Whitman weblog

Christine’s Visitor’s Center Script for 12/3

Filed under: Uncategorized — pieruccm at 12:37 am on Thursday, December 3, 2009

Group #2: Whitman’s involvement with/effect on social and/or political movements. My section involves his position on the women, sexual orientation, and slavery (although each section takes a look at a specific aspect of each of these broad ideas). I choose these three in particular because a lot of Whitman’s poetry is a reflection of some sort on all of them. See below:

Whitman’s view on Equality of Women (specifically sexuality)…

          Joann Krieg states, “Whitman has escaped feminist attack largely because the many gestures of inclusiveness – of race, class, and gender – in the poems confirm his assertion that he was ‘the poet of the woman the same as the man’” (Krieg, 36). I think it is fair to say that not only did Whitman’s writing push for equality among all peoples, but also that his writing reflected, at least somewhat, his personal views on the equality between men and women. Although Whitman believed that the ideal woman was above all others a mother, he still had strong views towards women’s sexuality, including prostitution. Whitman’s position on the topic of prostitution was stationed right among other progressive thinkers of the time when discussions regarding sex, gender, urbanity, and the health of the individual or society were “hot” topics. Krieg says, “Whitman’s insistence on the perfect equality of women with men and his celebration of female sexuality were unusual, but he was far from unique in holding such ideas. Rather, he was part of a wide movement among more advance thinkers that concentrated on all aspects of physicality, including sexuality” (Krieg, 37). In fact, Whitman never officially opposed prostitution on the grounds of morality, but instead he opposed it because he knew of the venereal diseases that could be linked with the behavior, as well as the breakdown of the ideal family. Still, Whitman viewed these women with compassion because he felt that they had been victimized by society for what he called the “social disease”. A particular instance when Whitman showed his compassion towards the prostitutes was an experience he had in New York, watching a police raid of over 50 prostitutes arrested and carried away. Another example of Whitman’s connection with these social “outsiders” is directly seen in his poem, “To a Common Prostitute”, where “he asserts that the prostitute is a part of nature and not to be excluded, spatially or otherwise, by the word or edict of man” (Krieg, 41).


Whitman’s view of Democracy and Homosexuality

          In the late nineteenth century, attitudes regarding same-sex relationships were shifting due to medical discussions that formulated theories that homosexuals were a distinct biological type. At the same time, the policies of the Communist Party of the U.S. had little tolerance of same-sex relationships. Therefore, the appeal of Whitman’s masculinity was highly complicated due to the question of his sexual orientation. When Whitman first released the “Calamus” poems in 1860, he dedicated them to the progression of exploring relations between men, as an attempt to “regenerate republican virtue” (Garman, 100). Essentially, Whitman’s purpose was to absolutely refuse to specify the sex of the partner of whomever he speaks in “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand” because it “implies that an artificially delineated heterosexuality would be undemocratic because it would restrict the natural expression of love and pleasure solely to male-female relationships and would prevent its fair exchange between same-sex partners. Democracy could not make distinctions of any kind, particularly when it came to sexual matters” (Garman, 101). Whitman further complicates his indecisiveness through the difference in tone between the “Calamus” poems, which are frankly homosexuality and what seems to be a glorification of the behavior, and the “Children of Adam” section of Leaves of Grass, which could most definitely be read as obscene descriptions of heterosexual relations. On the whole, Whitman believed that it was unnecessary to conform to one individual “type” and this also carried into his poetry, where he did not conform to typical poetic conventions. He even so far as claimed that he fathered six illegitimate children to disprove others’ claims about his homosexuality.


Whitman’s view on Slavery and Democracy

          While working in New Orleans in 1848, Whitman was working as a reporter for the Daily Crescent, writing about “local color and charm as seen through Yankee eyes” (Gambino, 14). After returning to New York, Whitman began working for Brooklyn’s Daily Freeman, this time as editor. This editorial was the nation’s main face to the Free Soil Movement at the time, whose motto was, “Free soil, free labor, free men!” and Whitman retained his advocacy of this movement to the point that he was fired from his previous position with Brooklyn Daily Eagle before leaving for New Orleans. On the other hand, Whitman believed that white reproduction as a foolproof plan of minimizing social advancements against African Americans who were recently emancipated. Consequently, involvement in the Free Soil Movement caused unforeseen problems. Whitman came to hate the abolitionists, who ultimately had fight among themselves, as well as hating “the hypocritical and corrupt men of the Democratic Party” (Gambino, 14). Whitman expresses his true feelings of the flaws of the American democracy of the time in what Gambino calls a “lengthy, scathing critique”, called Democratic Vistas (1871) The flaws, to be precise, would be the failings of the American people and culture.


Works Cited

Gambino, Richard. “Walt Whitman.” The Nation. July 21/28, 2003. Page 14.

Garman, Bryan K. “‘Heroic Spiritual Grandfather’: Whitman, Sexuality, and the American Left, 1890-1940.” American Quarterly. Volume 52, Issue 1. 2000. Pages 100-1.

Krieg, Joann P. “Walt Whitman and the Prostitutes.” Literature and Medicine. Volume 14, Issue 1. 1995. Pages 36-7, 41.


The links below are the other members of my group, Jessica and Liz, who have researched other aspects of Whitman’s involvement in social and political movements/affairs:





Comment by lizmoser

December 3, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

Its interesting to see Whitman’s changing views on the abolitionists and frustration with the failings of the American democratic system.


Comment by Koharu

December 8, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

It’s interesting to see how even in Whitman’s time, America had little tolerance for Homosexual relationships. He shouldn’t have had to go to such extremes to cover his sexual orientation, but Whitman definitely found creative ways around it. If you’re interested in reading another post about Whitman’s under the radar statements about homosexuality see this post.

It’s about Whitman’s poem “29th Bather” where a ‘woman’ is watching some men bathe however as the poem progresses it the gender of the voyeur comes into question. At the beginning of the poem the person is referred to as ‘she’ but it becomes more and more ambiguous as the poem progresses. By the end it sounds almost as though Whitman himself is speaking- poetically yet erotically describing bathing young men.

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