When I sat down to do the reading for Whitman this week I was all prepared for some more descriptive work of the busy life of the farmer and the gorgeous views along the universal path. I poured myself a glass of wine and made myself some dinner, then as I sat reading I had one of those moments where, if it had been a movie, I would have dropped my monocle in my glass and uttered “My word!” to the woman with the mink wrap sitting next to me.
I found myself reading through Whitman’s poetry, particularly “A Woman Waits for Me,” with a feeling similar to, although I’m sure greatly muted, the feelings most likely felt when the book first came out. In short, I felt rather scandalized. Now I’m not particularly uncomfortable when it comes to talk of sex, although perhaps more so than some, but I hadn’t really expected such graphic detail and was a bit surprised, especially after I realized what he was referring to when he talked about “the sensitive, orbic, underlapped brothers” (I’d started the next line before I got it).
Now this post probably makes me sound a bit prudish but I think it was more the fact that I wasn’t expecting it from a book published in 1891 (shows how much I know about Whitman), then the actual poem. However, after my original “Whitman, do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” I took a step back to look at the poetry in context.
After a conversation with Sam P. I spent some time thinking about the time period Whitman was writing in and how that may have affected his work. I think it’s expressive of the fact that Whitman was trying to wake people up that he used such graphic language and colorful descriptions (I mean, he compares his ejaculation to a river, clearly he’s trying to make people notice). Had he used softer language, more veiled descriptions, his writing would never have had the effect that it did. If he had merely referred to his gentle caresses and loving release, or something equally as mundane and boring, people could have simply written off his work as something for schoolboys to giggle over behind the schoolhouse. Instead, people were forced to categorize his work as something scandalous and unfit for public viewing, particularly women with their weak constitutions.
Now, it seems like this would do the opposite of what Whitman wanted, which was to lead people to recognize the value of being alive, but what his scandalous work did was make people confront their values (and even as I write this I wonder why I was so scandalized by his words). In order to categorize Whitman’s work as scandalous, the readers had to address what about it was scandalous, in doing so they had to examine why such things went against their moral code. I’m sure most people simply picked up a bible and ran, but I’m betting there were a select few who were able to look at Whitman’s words and wonder “Why don’t we celebrate our sexuality?” I’m not saying these people then ran over to Whitman’s house and ravished him, although maybe some did, but at least the thought was there. Now that they were thinking it, Whitman’s plan was in motion. If they could question that belief for even a moment, couldn’t they question the value of slavery? Of suppression of women? Of the mistreatment of laborers?
So yes, Whitman managed to scandalize and shock, but he also managed to plant a seed of awareness, which after all, is the beginning of his utopia. So Whitman, I may be a little uncomfortable hearing you talk about “the limpid liquid in a young man” or your “slow rude muscle” but bravo to your bravery, bravo to your scandal.Uncategorized