Walt Whitman stood in stark contrast to many of the intolerant attitudes that characterized his nineteenth century society. In an era filled with aristocratic ideals Whitman embodied these two words: untraditional and unconventional. Much of Whitman’s poetry expressed “untraditional” forms of sexuality, a deep devotion—if not obsession—for men. He was unconventional in the sense that he promoted acceptance, open-mindedness, and empathy for individuals who were perceived as socially inferior. In Song of Myself, Whitman expresses universal acceptance through the promotion of religious, racial, gender, species, and sexual tolerance. In Whitman’s “Song for Myself” he professes his love for his sexuality but does so within his society’s limits as to prevent marginalization; so rather than openly calling for acceptance of taboo sexuality ,he generalizes, and goes on democratic crusade to promote religious, racial, gender, species, and sexual tolerance.
In “Song for Myself” Walt Whitman appears to allude to his love for his sexuality. Many have regarded Whitman’s “celebration of himself” as arrogant and conceited, however I hold a different interpretation of this prose. I believe that Whitman’s “celebration of himself” was inclusive of the male gender, he is expressing his pride for the same sex. Jonathan Bradley, in his article entitled “Whitman’s Calamus”, discusses Walt Whitman in the context of his literary work and sexuality; in a basic sense, Bradley argues that Whitman desired to liberate homosexuality from the suppressive hand of nineteenth century society. Bradley explains that Whitman boldly expressed his socially unaccepted sexuality when he decided to change the title of one of his works from “Live Oak, with Moss” to “Calamus-Leaves”:
Whitman’s decision was likely the product of common discourse of the times, which portrayed homosexuality as a vice and abnormality, as an act that alienated one from rest of the society. The shift in symbolism is fitting, from a lonely oak tree to the calamus plant, which is distinctive for its decidedly phallic seed pod and often grows in “clusters” of other calamus plants, making it a more “brotherly” symbol. Whitman’s revision reflects his desire to have his homoerotic poems present a more positive, unifying and democratic image rather than the negative implication of isolation established in conventional nineteenth-century sexual discourse. (Bradley 263-264).
Because Whitman’s sexuality was viewed as taboo and unnatural he inevitably became a member one of the various groups that his society disapproved of and/or classified as inferior; thus, Whitman identified with inferior members of society. Consequentially Song of Myself was inspired to provide oppressed members of nineteenth century society with a voice. In fact Whitman explicitly states:
I speak the password primeval I give the democracy; By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons…(Whitman, 21).
This passage demonstrates Whitman’s openness to include negatively perceived individuals in the democratic circle. Whitman, throughout Song of Myself, shows his willingness to empathize with ridiculed individuals; he accepts those who aren’t accepted in his society: “The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck, The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other (Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you,)” (Whitman, 13).
Peter Simonson analyzes Walt Whitman’s democratic disposition in his philosophical essay entitled A Rhetoric for Polytheistic Democracy:Walt Whitman’s “Poem of Many in One”. Simonson’s most basic description of Walt Whitman is a lover of diversity; more specifically, Simonson’s examination of Whitman’s Poem of Many in One inspired him to label the poem as a work of polytheistic democracy. Polytheistic democracy, according to Peter Simonson, is defined as “…a form of life marked by three overlapping ideals: pluralistic tolerance for multiple gods and moral orientations; commitment to recognizing, preserving, and artfully representing sociocultural variety; and receptivity to contact with a diverse range of particular others” (Simonson, 353). My essay is consistent with Simonson’s essay in the sense that they both argue that Whitman’s poems reflect a desire for democracy, integration, and universal acceptance; or, to use Simonson’s words, we both agree that Whitman was an advocate of “seeing, recognizing, and finding place for all the animate and material particularities we encounter” (Simonson, 372). However, our essays contrast because Simonson believes that Whitman’s primary goal was to promote religious tolerance whereas I believe that his primary goal was to promote sexual tolerance.
Since Whitman aimed to promote social acceptance of untraditional sexual preferences, inevitably his primary task was to be encourage more open attitudes towards sexuality in general. In order for individuals to adopt accepting attitudes, or at least understanding attitudes, towards some idea they must be must be familiar with and/or informed about that idea; accordingly, Whitman’s frequent use of sexualization was an attempt to expose readers to the many facets of sexuality hoping that this exposure would decrease ignorance.
Whitman’s use of sexualization is prevalent throughout Song of Myself; Whitman tended to sexualize everyday people as they engaged in everyday activities; thus he illustrates that aspects of our sexuality manages to manifest itself in our daily lives. For example, he describes a black male while working:
The negro that drives dray of stoneyard…steady and tall he stands poised on one leg on the stringpiece, His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and loosens over his hipband…The sun falls on his crispy hair and moustache…falls on the black of his polish’d and perfect limbs. I behold the picturesque giant and love him …and I do not stop there, I go with the team also (Whitman, 10).
Furthermore, Whitman demonstrates that sexual urges are lawless and can manifest themselves in various forms and in various contexts—thus encouraging freedom of sexuality. Through his frequent use of sexualization, Whitman aimed to encourage variations of sexuality, or sexual preferences, “whose diversities are given common form and made vocal in the
bardic rhetor’s inclusive chants democratic” (Simonson, 362).
Another example of Whitman’s promotion of open attitudes towards sexuality occurs when he uses sexually associated language to identify himself. He writes, “Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary, Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest, Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next” (Whitman, 4). Several sexual allusions (including what appears as masturbation—an erection followed by an arm bended on an imaginary rest) are present in Whitman’s language; Whitman’s use of this type of language is meant to persuade readers to embrace their own sexuality, whatever it may be.
In Song of Myself Whitman discourages the suppression of sexual urges and expression; he writes, “Through me forbidden voices, Voices of sexes and lusts…voices veiled, and I remove the veil, Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured. I do not press my finger across my mouth, I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart” (Whitman, 21). Although this type of openness regarding sexuality was anything but widespread in the 1800s, Whitman essentially encourages freedom of sexuality. He embraces the “bowel”, or as I have interpreted it—homosexual relations—while the majority of his society either despises or suppresses it. Hence, Whitman indicates that he is unwilling to conform to societal pressures and norms that are inconsistent with his own identity; he proudly declares, “I help myself to material and immaterial, No guard can shut me off, no law can prevent me” (Whitman, 32).
It also appears that Whitman expresses disagreement with regards to his society’s belief that
God disapproves of sexual expression, especially untraditional sexual expression; he then expresses his admiration for animals claiming that they are unlike humans because they embody independence and free will: “They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God” (Whitman, 28). Here it seems that Whitman criticizes the belief that the gospel disapproves of sexuality, or at least certain forms of sexuality. Thus Whitman precedes in explaining these sexual behaviors descend from some divine figure (I’ve interpreted this figure as Jesus): “Wherever he goes men and women accept and desire him…Behavior lawless as snowflakes…words simple as grass…They descend in new forms from the tips of his fingers, They are wafted with the odor of his body or breath” (Whitman, 40). Thus, Whitman believes that Jesus, or any given higher power, accepts and is responsible for variations in sexuality. In fact, Whitman supports the claim that divine powers are responsible for sexual variations by stating that “God” can be seen in, fundamentally, everyone and everything: “I hear and behold God in every object…I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then, In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass” (Whitman, 51).
Whitman is truly democratic in the sense that he is universally accepting throughout the entire span Song of Myself. There is a continuous pattern in the poem: Whitman tended to adopt one perspective towards a situation and would subsequently adopt another perspective in opposition to the first; thus, he constantly “contradicts himself”. A solid example of Whitman’s call for the progression of society via universal acceptance appears in these words: “Births have brought us richness and variety, And other births will bring us richness and variety. I do not call one greater and one smaller, That which fills its period and place is equal to any” (Whitman, 46). In conclusion, In Whitman’s “Song for Myself” he professes his love for his sexuality but does so within his society’s limits as to prevent marginalization; so rather than openly calling for acceptance of taboo sexuality ,he generalizes, and goes on democratic crusade to promote of religious, racial, gender, species, and sexual tolerance.
Bradley, Jonathan. “Whitman’s Calamus”. Explicator, 2009 Fall; 67 (4): 263-267.
Simonson, Peter; Philosophy and Rhetoric, 2003; 36 (4): 353-75. (journal article)
Electronic access: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/philosophy_and_rhetoric/v036/36.4simonson.html