Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Farnham, Eliza W. (1815–1864)
Author:
Ceniza, Sherry
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Helen Price wrote in Richard Maurice Bucke's biography of Whitman that Whitman and Eliza Farnham met at a gathering in the Price home. Farnham, like Helen Price's mother, Abby, was actively engaged in reform movements of the day. She served as matron of Sing Sing prison for four years (1844–1848), worked at the Perkins Institution, nursed the Civil War wounded for a time, lived and worked in California, and perhaps most importantly, wrote and published.

Historically, Farnham belongs to a wide and divergent group of women who agitated for women's rights in the antebellum period, though she was not active in the drive for suffrage. In fact, it was not until 1858 that she addressed a National Woman's Rights Convention. Her two-volume work, Woman and Her Era (1864), contains passages from Leaves of Grass which support a "new woman" image. Harold Aspiz's 1979 article "An Early Feminist Tribute to Whitman" discusses the Farnham-Whitman connection.

In Woman and Her Era Farnham argues for female superiority, believing that biologically speaking, due to their childbearing organs, women were more fully evolved than men and likewise were morally superior. Though Farnham's call for moral superiority was rejected by female activists like Ernestine L. Rose, whose call for reform is grounded in what we now call the social construction argument, Farnham's views offer a window into an aspect of Whitman's thought, historically speaking, specifically his representation of the strong mother.

Bibliography

Aspiz, Harold. "An Early Feminist Tribute to Whitman." American Literature 51 (1979): 404–409.

———. "Walt Whitman, Feminist." Walt Whitman: Here and Now. Ed. Joann P. Krieg. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985. 79–88.

Farnham, Eliza W. Woman and Her Era. 2 vols. New York: A.J. Davis, 1864.


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