The Erotic Whitman

The Erotic Whitman

The Erotic Whitman

The Erotic Whitman


In this provocative analysis of Whitman's exemplary quest for happiness, Vivian Pollak skillfully explores the intimate relationships that contributed to his portrayal of masculinity in crisis. She maintains that in representing himself as a characteristic nineteenth-century American and in proposing to heal national ills, Whitman was trying to temper his own inner conflicts as well.

The poet's expansive vision of natural eroticism and of unfettered comradeship between democratic equals was, however, only part of the story. As Whitman waged a conscious campaign to challenge misogynistic and homophobic literary codes, he promoted a raceless, classless ideal of sexual democracy that theoretically equalized all varieties of desire and resisted none. Pollak suggests that this goal remains imperfectly achieved in his writings, which liberates some forbidden voices and silences others.

Integrating biography and criticism, Pollak employs a loosely chronological organization to describe the poet's multifaceted "faith in sex." Drawing on his early fiction, journalism, poetry, and self-reviews, as well as letters and notebook entries, she shows how in spite of his personal ambivalence about sustained erotic intimacy, Whitman came to imagine himself as "the phallic choice of America."


This book links Whitman's critique of American sexual ideology and practice to the underlying anxieties of his personal life. That Whitman was highly anxious socially during his most deeply innovative years as a writer is perhaps my major contention and one that runs counter to many of his most notable self-representations across a range of genres. I show how Whitman refashioned intimate fears and fears of intimacy into a complex critique of gender and sexuality as it had been articulated up to his time. In Whitman's reading of American culture, fear of sexual intimacy and fear of male social and political aggression were virtually indistinguishable.

Making his sexually marked body public in the first (1855), second (1856), and third (1860) editions of Leaves of Grass was Whitman's way of seeing how much physical, social, and psychological closeness he and others could bear. In 1855, he began to distinguish sexualized emotion from familiar object choice; he emphasized this process of defamiliarization in 1856; and in 1860 he privileged love between men. In challenging traditional heterosexual norms, Whitman was in part seeking to undo the seemingly fatal consequences of his social isolation. This isolation was not always apparent to those around him—to readers, for example, whom he first addressed as mere “outlines” and then as cherished “brothers and sisters” in the 1855 Leaves of Grass (p. 85)—yet it was none the less generative for its lack of “understanders. ” On the . . .

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