Selected Criticism

Pollak, Vivian R.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This is a topic with which Whitman was strongly identified, for complex reasons. First and foremost, Whitman was deeply devoted to his own mother, nee Louisa Van Velsor, whom he considered the ideal woman, though he made it clear that he turned to her for emotional support rather than for intellectual instruction. Abstracting from his own biographical experience, Whitman then looked to the institution of motherhood to restore those collective spiritual values which might reintegrate the tormented American psyche—deeply threatened, as he knew it to be, by the harsh competitions of nineteenth-century life. As a son, as a social strategist engaged in the recuperation of a usable past, and as a literary artist wording the future, Whitman associated the perfectly nurturant practices of the mythologized mother—both his imaginary mother and any man's mother, the mother created by individual desire and by national fantasy—with the apolitical evenhandedness he attributed, in certain moods, to nature herself.

Psychobiographical critics intent on demonstrating that Whitman's career was driven by sexual angst have amply demonstrated that Whitman's mother Louisa was not without her faults, but the pendulum is now swinging back in the other direction. For the fact remains that despite her limitations, some of them the product of exceptionally cramped material circumstances, Louisa had a circle of staunch admirers, among whom Whitman was first and foremost. Ironically, however, Whitman's use of the figural mother has provoked intense critical controversy, in part because of his inability and/or unwillingness to develop his curiously insistent maternal tropes into a sustained psychosexual narrative. Negotiating between his own highly individualized homoerotic or homosexual experience, his faith in fervent comradeship, and the coercive heterosexism of his maternalizing poetic project, Whitman vehemently endorsed the social serviceability of female (hetero)sexuality. Consequently, whereas the poet seemingly deployed the figure of the biologically and spiritually powerful mother to symbolize a generous and enduring community organized by the drive to connect rather than fragmented by the will to compete, his maternal ideology arguably limits his feminism. More particularly, in extolling the preeminence of maternal power, Whitman has seemed to some astute readers to be reinscribing women within a traditional discourse of female inferiority in which reproductive superiority is not political, economic, intellectual, or even erotic equality. Thus, though not an advocate of the so-called Cult of True Womanhood, which sought to confine white, middle-class women within their privileged and protected domestic circles, Whitman did not fully extricate himself from the linguistic snares of an elitist, sexist vocabulary that he also aggressively and effectively dismantled.

Resisting the genteel cult of domesticity and the sexual division of labor it justified, in the 1855 Leaves the buoyant, early Whitman unanxiously noted the presence of women workers such as "[t]he spinning-girl [who] retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel." Refusing to specify whether this productivity occurs in the home or in the factory, Whitman carves out a more fluid liminal space which obscures the distinction between public and private spheres. (This wonderful figure occurs in section 15 of "Song of Myself," the first extended catalogue section of this career-defining poem.) Yet even in "Song of Myself," after seemingly casual permutations, Whitman's visionary grace eventuates in such famously strident, famously gendered exclamations as the following: "I am the poet of the woman the same as the man, / And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man, / And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men" ("Song of Myself," section 21). Consequently, though many readers both in Whitman's time and in our own have praised his poetic project as a bold experiment in sexual democracy, others have been more resistant to his message(s). For example, the ideology of "divine maternity" enunciated in Democratic Vistas (1871) proclaims the potential if not actual superiority of women to men, in what Whitman denominates "loftiest spheres." Woman's reproductive capacity becomes the key to the future of the race, and the female body is from this perspective wholly identified with its physical fecundity. Interestingly, needy readers such as the intellectual Englishwoman Anne Gilchrist, herself a widowed mother, found some form of personal salvation in this line of argument, which she interpreted as a critique of the misogynist Victorian practices that had reduced her to personal despair. The nineteenth-century feminist reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, on the other hand, was not persuaded. "He speaks," she observed in her 1883 diary, "as if the female must be forced to the creative act, apparently ignorant of the great natural fact that a healthy woman has as much passion as a man, that she needs nothing stronger than the law of attraction to draw her to the male" (210). Whereas for Gilchrist Whitman's vision of a human community in which women might reclaim their self-pride not in spite of but because of their bodies was powerfully persuasive, Stanton implicitly rejected Whitman's understanding of female eroticism, objecting more particularly to the poem "A Woman Waits for Me," published originally in 1856 as "Poem of Procreation," in which Whitman strained to justify heterosexual desire as a social good.

Whitman's depiction of the female figure spinning her cloth in "Song of Myself" was perhaps prophetic. Retreating and advancing to the hum of the big wheel, she is neither child nor woman, neither firmly ensconced in a factory nor obviously confined to her home, neither urban nor rural, neither married nor unmarried, neither maternal nor nonmaternal, neither worker nor artist, neither producer nor dreamer; as a liminal figure, she exemplifies the social, psychological, and sexual fluidity valued by Whitman in his visionary mode. Yet Whitman, like other men and women responding to the extraordinary social, economic, and political transformations which led up to the American Civil War, was often confused by what he saw. In the wake of this confusion, he turned back to an earlier time when the word "mother," however contextually vague, might represent the gratification of a perhaps universal desire for peace. In so doing, he tended to collapse the difference between women and between different subjective experiences of mothering. For many compelling reasons, he turned to the mothers of America to realize one of the myths of America: the myth of universal democracy, spun out of the historically decontextualized female form.


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Black, Stephen A. Whitman's Journeys into Chaos. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.

Cavitch, David. My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman. Boston: Beacon, 1985.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Gilchrist, Anne. Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings. Ed. Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

Moon, Michael, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. "Confusion of Tongues." Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies. Ed. Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 23–29.

Pollak, Vivian R. "'In Loftiest Spheres': Whitman's Visionary Feminism." Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies. Ed. Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 92–111.

Ryan, Mary. The Empire of the Mother: American Writing about Domesticity 1830–1860. New York: Haworth, 1982.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Elizabeth Cady Stanton as Revealed in Her Letters, Diary and Reminiscences. Ed. Theodore Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch. Vol. 2. New York: Harper, 1922.

Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860." American Quarterly 18 (1966): 151–174.


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