Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"City Dead-House, The" (1867)
Author:
Graham, Rosemary
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem in "Autumn Rivulets" finds the poet of Leaves of Grass grieving over the body of a prostitute lying dead outside the city morgue. Prostitution was a visible social problem in mid-nineteenth-century New York, and prostitutes appeared frequently in Whitman's writing.

As a journalist Whitman's attitude toward prostitutes was fairly conventional. He could be contemptuous or full of pity. Occasionally he would be unequivocally defensive, pointing the finger of blame at his middle-class readers. In an editorial from the 1840s, he decried the "evils and horrors connected with the payment... for women's labor—sewing, bookbinding, umbrella work," and warned his readers that such economic injustice "is an evil... that... sows a public crop of other evils" (Uncollected 1:137). In another he challenged the self-image of his complacent, middle-class audience: "'What?' says the reader, 'poor pay? Do you think my getting my shirts made so cheaply, or my buying clothes at a low price, has anything to do with female crime?'" (Gathering 1:150–151).

As a poet, however, Whitman often presented himself as one who has the unique capacity to understand the prostitute. In the first extended catalogue of "Song of Myself," he comforts a "tipsy" prostitute with "pimpled neck," braving the jeers of an urban crowd: "I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you" (section 15). In that same poem, he promises to include the prostitutes in the litany of "long dumb voices" he intends to let sound through his poems (section 24). In the 1860 edition he boasts that he will "take for my love some prostitute" ("Enfans d'Adam" number 8).

The dead prostitute in "The City Dead-House" is a mysterious figure. She is a "divine woman" whose body the poet likens to a "house once full of passion and beauty," an edifice "more than all the rows of dwellings ever built... or all the old high-spired cathedrals." But, in seeming contradiction, he also calls her body a "fearful wreck—tenement of a soul" and "house of madness and sin, crumbled, crush'd." He imagines her "talking and laughing," but asserts that she was "dead even then." Now, this dead "[u]nclaim'd, avoided" figure is mourned only the poet, who offers "one breath from... tremulous lips" and "one tear dropt" for her.

Thus, in his final poetic engagement with the prostitute, the poet appears torn. In the space of just a few lies, he reiterates the culture's alternating sympathy and condemnation, but at the same time he also signals his own identification with and attraction toward this being whose erotic life intrigues him.

Bibliography

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920. 

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921.


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