Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"To a Common Prostitute" (1860)
Author:
Sarracino, Carmine
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman added more than a hundred new poems to the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, including "To a Common Prostitute." Attempting for the first time to group poems thematically, Whitman placed "To a Common Prostitute" in a loosely organized section called "Messenger Leaves." Allen sees this section as thematically unified only by the prominence of the "Messiah-role" in several poems, including "Prostitute."

The sexuality of the 1860 edition (which, in addition to "Prostitute," included for the first time fifteen untitled erotic poems in a section called "Enfans d'Adam") troubled Thayer and Eldridge, the Boston publishers who went bankrupt just after they brought out the third (1860) edition of Leaves. Whitman resisted their pressures to expurgate the edition, and resisted as well the similar "vehement arguments" of Ralph Waldo Emerson, America's preeminent man of letters, who urged that "Prostitute" be dropped.

"Prostitute" was again the focus of controversy in 1881, when James R. Osgood and Company, publishers, planned to bring out the sixth edition of Leaves. When the District Attorney put Osgood under notice that the book violated obscenity laws, Osgood proposed deleting three whole poems ("Prostitute," "A Woman Waits for Me," and "The Dalliance of the Eagles"). Whitman took the book away from Osgood.

Although the subject of prostitution was considered inappropriate for poetry, a prostitute also appears in "Song of Myself," "draggl[ing] her shawl" drunkenly down the street while surrounded by men who wink and jeer (section 15). Whitman condemns not the prostitute, but rather the mob's ridicule, and, as in "Prostitute," extends compassion to the woman.

As editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1846–1848) and, later, of the Brooklyn Daily Times (1857–1859), Whitman had editorialized about prostitution. Interestingly, in his role as a newspaper editor commenting on social problems, Whitman condemned the vice of prostitution as a destroyer of families, spreader of venereal disease, and polluter of bloodlines. A careful reading of "Prostitute" clarifies this apparent inconsistency. As Allen notes, the voice in this poem is that of Whitman as a Messiah; it is not the voice of a time/space-bound observer such as a newspaper editor.

In the very first line of the poem Whitman identifies himself with "Nature," and speaks thereafter from an all-encompassing, cosmic perspective. Just as elemental nature itself does not reject this virtual child, neither does the cosmic Whitman.

If we bring to this poem Whitman's expansive vision of reincarnation, we understand that this young woman is an evolving soul who at this moment finds herself in the debased role of the prostitute. Through the long journey of every soul's growth ("make preparation to be worthy to meet me"), we ourselves, by subtle implication, may have passed through debasement similar to that of the prostitute, and all, including her, will rise ultimately to join the Messiah in a meeting of equals ("be patient and perfect till I come").

We find in this poem, then, one of the main functions of Whitman' s Messiah-role: an expansion of perspective that inspires in readers a sense of compassion and acceptance, as well as an awareness of the finally triumphant patterns of human evolution.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

____. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964.


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