Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text

Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text

Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text

Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text


This book combines literary and historical analysis in a study of sexuality in Walt Whitman's work. Informed by his "new historicist" understanding of the construction of literary texts, Jimmie Killingsworth examines the progression of Whitman's poetry and prose by considering the textual history of Leaves of Grass and other works.

Killingsworth demonstrates that Whitman's "poetry of the body" derives its radical power from the transformation of conventional attitudes toward sexuality, traditional poetics, and conservative politics. The sexual relation, with its promise of unity, love, equality, interpenetration, and productivity for partners, becomes a metaphor for all political and social relationships, including that of poet and reader. The effect of the poems is protopolitical, an altering of consciousness about the body's relation to other bodies, a shifting of the categories of knowledge that foretells political action.

Killingsworth traces the interplay in Whitman's poetry between sexual and textual themes that derive from Whitman's political response to the historical turbulence of mid-century America. He describes a subtle shift in Whitman's prose writings on poetics, which turn from a view of poetry in the early 1850s as morally and politically efficacious to a chastened romanticism in the postwar years that frees the poet from responsibility for the world outside his poems.

Later editions of Leaves of Grass are marked by the poet's deliberate repression of erotic themes in favor of a depoliticized aestheticism that views art not as a motivator of political and moral action but as an artifact embodying the soul of the genius.


Three areas of difference distinguish the first three editions of Leaves of Grass (1855, 1856, and 1860) from anything else Walt Whitman wrote. First, the poems demonstrate a strong interest in the body and sexuality. Second, the poems tend to be political or "programmatic." and third, the language of the poems defies poetic convention, especially in the variety and eccentricity of its tropes. Moreover, these distinctions are interrelated. To borrow the language of recent feminist criticism, the politics are sexual and textual.

Since Kate Millett's 1969 book, the term sexual politics has nearly achieved the status of a cliché -- a phrase we either accept without too much thought or reject as meaningless. But Millett had a definite meaning in mind: "Sexual dominion," she wrote, "obtains. . . as perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concepts of power" (45). Sexual politics involves hierarchies of power that profoundly affect the way we think about ourselves in relation to others. Political ideas like dominance, submission, aggression, reserve, exploitation, cooperation -- a full list would be much longer -- may all be realized as correlates to sexual experience. To think and to speak of sex and politics in the same terms means to admit a continuity between the private and the public, a continuity at odds with the concept of the autonomous individual that Whitman and other writers in the American Renaissance ostensibly celebrated.

The publicizing of private life, which by the mid-nineteenth century had come to be characteristic of American middle-class culture, is closely related to the development of the power politics of sexuality. the "healthy" individual -- that is, the white, heterosexual, middle-class male -- provided the model for the ideal society. To be . . .

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