Selected Criticism

Women as a Theme in Whitman's Writing
Ceniza, Sherry
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Women have admired Whitman's Leaves of Grass from the first, though, of course, there have been dissenters. In 1856 Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton) wrote in praise of Whitman and of Leaves in the New York Ledger, inaugurating a pattern which exists to this day. Fern represents the pattern in that hers was a celebratory reception of Whitman's work, yet the subsequent falling out which occurred in the Whitman-Parton friendship—Whitman's borrowing money from the Partons and then failing to meet the repayment date—illustrates the negative side of this relationship. To this day it is cited as an example of Whitman's unfairness, especially to women, as Joyce Warren does in her biography Fanny Fern. To simplify the issue and to bring it up to date: is Whitman's writing enabling for women readers? How does Whitman portray women in his work?

The first question—is Whitman's writing enabling for women readers?—is phrased in a way which assumes a universal type of woman reader, which is, of course, a gross oversimplification. Presently, critics such as Betsy Erkkila find Whitman was and is enabling for women readers; critics such as Joyce Warren find the opposite. It is tempting to say that the proof lies in the details, but these, too, can be manipulated, often unconsciously, by one's general political stance.

What are the details? The details are so abundant and intricate that to do justice to the topic one would have to write a complete book. However, a look at the topic will be presented here, considering the following: a brief noting of major figures who wrote about Whitman's representation of women, many of whom were female writers-critics; a brief noting of actual women important in Whitman's life and thinking; and ways Whitman went about inscribing "the new woman, the democratic woman" into his writing.

Four years after Fanny Fern wrote in praise of Whitman and Leaves, three women wrote, in Henry Clapp's Saturday Press, defending Whitman's third (1860) edition. Mary Chilton, Juliette Beach, and C.C.P. praised Whitman's representation of women and defended him against charges of immorality. Adah Menken also lauded Whitman's thinking and writing in 1860, and Eliza Farnham quoted Whitman in her 1864 Woman and Her Era. The decade of the 1870s is important for the publication of Anne Gilchrist's "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman" and Nora Perry's "A Few Words about Walt Whitman." In the decade of the 1880s many women wrote positive reviews of Whitman's work, and one woman, Elizabeth Porter Gould, published an edition of selected poems from Leaves, calling it Gems from Walt Whitman.

The range of personalities and viewpoints more or less covers the spectrum, from Porter's discreet Bostonian point of view to activist Elmina D. Slenker's anything but cautious outspokenness. The responses to Whitman continue. Interestingly, many of the women's responses have dropped out of the critical dialogue, but one response has remained present: D.H. Lawrence's article on Whitman written in 1921 and then appearing in revised form in 1923 in his Studies in Classic American Literature. Lawrence's negative view of Whitman's representation of women is still repeated as authority in present-day scholarship, even though scholars such as Harold Aspiz, Jerome Loving, M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Sherry Ceniza, and Betsy Erkkila offer readings which, in large measure, contradict Lawrence's.

Though Whitman's representation of women in his writing is not consistently in touch with contemporary feminism, it must be put into its historical perspective. If one views any writer as both caught in the language and ideology of his or her times while at the same time, for writers like Whitman, attempting to break out of those ideologies, then it is difficult to view Whitman's literary representation of women as anything but positive. One way to account for this positiveness is to note the presence of actual women in his life who influenced or at least educated him. The strongest influence in his life was his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. She was a woman who took matters into her own hands, although her lack of formal education and the circumstances of her times seemed to work against her. She prepared the way for Whitman to listen to and admire women such as Frances Wright, whom he placed alongside Elias Hicks and Thomas Paine as three people in American history who had been overlooked, even maligned. When Whitman heard and read women's words in the 1840s and more pervasively in the 1850s, Louisa's essence enabled him, as well, to listen intently to what they were saying. His friendship with Abby Hills Price, Paulina Wright Davis, and Ernestine L. Rose, all activists in the woman's rights cause, as well as antislavery supporters, associationists, and advocates of other reforms, attests to his ability and readiness to listen to (and to learn from) reform-minded women.

Whitman's 1856 letter of reply to Emerson, ostensibly a preface to the 1856 edition, needs to be taken into consideration when assessing his representation of women in Leaves. Whitman said, "This filthy law [that one cannot mention sexuality in writing] has to be repealed—it stands in the way of great reforms. Of women just as much as men, it is the interest that there should not be infidelism about sex, but perfect faith." He then makes the following statement: "Women in These States approach the day of that organic equality with men, without which, I see, men cannot have organic equality among themselves" (Comprehensive 737). A bedrock tenet in Whitman's concept of American democracy was his belief in each person's having the opportunity to develop to the extent she or he desired. Call it freedom, or equality of opportunity. Regardless, the poetry and prose overall make the distinction between "feudalism" and democracy, between an individual controlled by outside forces and an individual taking responsibility for her or his own actions. Whitman states it this way in Democratic Vistas:

The purpose of democracy . . . is . . . to illustrate, at all hazards, this doctrine or theory that man, properly train'd in sanest, highest freedom, may and must become a law, and series of laws, unto himself, surrounding and providing for, not only his own personal control, but all his relations to other individuals, and to the State.

(Prose Works 2:374–375)

Assuming Whitman meant what he said, how did he go about accomplishing his aims, to portray "democratic" women, as well as men, black, brown, and red as well as white; same-sexed unions as well as male-female unions? The first issue—gender representation—is the one of concern here. One accomplishment, judging by the research made of women's reactions, in writing, to Leaves, was Whitman's appeal to many different readers, female as well as male. When he says, as he does in "Song of the Open Road," "Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth! / You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you" (section 13), the reader, male or female, is addressed. Whitman's lines seek to create an expansive space for women, something very much against the grain of his times, at least for white, middle-class women, who were exhorted to observe "the separation of the spheres." Along with his address to readers aiming at expansiveness, Whitman's frequent use of both gendered pronouns (as well as his frequent use of "man and woman" and "woman and man") was revolutionary. In fact, today the generic "man" is still used regularly, seemingly unquestioningly, in the popular media, and still at times in academia, as well.

Concerning images of women, the cluster of poems most attacked in his times was "Children of Adam," and the specifics in individual poems most problematic to his readers were the passages in which women's bodies were spoken of in ways other than those pertaining to the docile, dutiful mother or the chaste, single woman. Whitman's women often "swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run, strike, retreat, advance, resist, defend themselves," as they do in his poem "A Woman Waits for Me." But in an earlier poem, "I Sing the Body Electric," they also dutifully wait: "Girls, mothers, house-keepers, in all their performances, / The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles, and their wives waiting" (section 2).

Interestingly, a refrain runs through women's responses to Whitman, at least from the late 1850s to the 1920s. That refrain is the valorization of Whitman's inscription of the strong "I." In an 1860 personal letter to Henry Clapp, the publisher and editor of the New York Saturday Press, Juliette Beach says it well: "Its egotism delights me—that defiant ever recurring 'I,' is so irresistibly strong and good" (7 June 1860, Library of Congress). Once a person has read countless nineteenth-century women's words and words written to women or about women, it comes as no surprise that women, at least some women, responded to the call made in Leaves for the independent "I."

Whitman made the point early on, in his 1855 Preface, that "the soul has that measureless pride which consists in never acknowledging any lessons but its own. But it has sympathy as measureless as its pride and the one balances the other and neither can stretch too far while it stretches in company with the other" (Comprehensive 716). In Democratic Vistas pride and sympathy are discussed in more public terms. Whitman speaks of the individual citizen in a democratic society, emphasizing the unified amalgamation of individuals into a country. In his poetry after the Civil War, Whitman focused more than before on creating images of unity, and certainly one of the primary images was that of the Mother of All. Birthing always held top value for Whitman, who, in many ways, saw literal birthing and the creation of Leaves as analogous. He wanted strong mothers, but he also wanted women to participate in the public life in his country. In the 1856 and 1860 editions of Leaves, the public images become more pronounced. For example, the 1856 "Song of the Broad-Axe," section 11, inscribes a public role for the woman, as does the 1856 "Primer of Words."

The disturbing element in Leaves for many contemporary women is the lack of representation of women working outside the home. Most of the images of women working are those of a domestic nature. There are strong images of women using language, such as in the poems "Vocalism" and "Mediums." However, just as the women defending the 1860 Leaves said, one has to take the whole of Leaves, not the fragments. The words of poet Adrienne Rich provide the kind of anti-closure that the present topic requires because of its dense ties to the culture and Whitman's own sensibility. In her essay "Beginners" in her 1993 book What Is Found There, Rich says of Whitman: "Yet that woman [Dickinson] and that man [Whitman] were beginners; . . . the man overriding Puritan strictures against desire and insisting that democracy is of the body, by the body, and for the body, that the body is multiple, diverse, untypic" (95).

Finally, Whitman's words on his "intentionality" merit notation. He said to Horace Traubel in 1888:

Leaves of Grass is essentially a woman's book: the women do not know it, but every now and then a woman shows that she knows it: it speaks out the necessities, its cry is the cry of the right and wrong of the woman sex—of the woman first of all, of the facts of creation first of all—of the feminine: speaks out loud: warns, encourages, persuades, points the way.

(Traubel 331)


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

Fern, Fanny. "Fresh Fern Leaves. 'Leaves of Grass.'" New York Ledger 10 May 1856.

Rich, Adrienne. "Beginners." What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. By Rich. New York: Norton, 1993. 90–101.

Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. 1908. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961.

Warren, Joyce W. Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1992.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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