Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass

By Martin Klammer | Go to book overview

7
SPEAKING A NEW WORD

Two other major poems in the 1855Leaves of Grass extend the slave narrative begun in "Song of Myself," and they do so in ways that sharpen Whitman's radical notion that the slave's experience is at the heart of American identity. In "I Sing the Body Electric," the celebration of the human body as sacred becomes the basis for an egalitarian democracy where the slave and the immigrant belong "here or anywhere just as much as the welloff . . . just as much as you" (122). In "The Sleepers," the wrongs committed against the slave represent the farthest extreme of human alienation and urgently call for a reconciliation of the diverse elements of the national polis. Taken together, the three major poems of 1855 show that the lives and experiences of African Americans are not just interesting to Whitman but are intimately bound up with American character and destiny.

In "I Sing the Body Electric," the portraits of a male and female slave being sold at auction are the heart of the poem, not only modeling the divine human form but also representing the poet's ultimate vision of a multiracial American republic. The first two-thirds of the poem builds toward the notion that the sacredness of every body is the basis of democracy. The speaker celebrates the beauty and perfection of the human body with the sorts of catalogues, vignettes, and transitional statements employed in "Song of Myself." He describes how the "expression of a well-made man" appears not only in his face but in every movement of his body. After cataloguing those human types with whom he longs to be in contact ("[I] swim with the swimmer, and wrestle with wrestlers,

-141-

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Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments *
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Construction of a Pro-Slavery Apology 7
  • 2 - The Failure of Borrowed Rhetoric 27
  • 3 - Emerson, New Orleans, and an Emerging Voice 45
  • 4 - The 1850 Compromise and an Early Poetics of Slavery 61
  • 5 - An Audience at Last 85
  • 6 - A Slave's Narrative 115
  • 7 - Speaking a New Word 141
  • Epilogue - "On the Extremest Verge" 159
  • Bibliography 165
  • Index 171
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