Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism

By Laura Claridge; Elizabeth Langland | Go to book overview

"I stop somewhere waiting for you": Whitman's Femininity and the Reader of Leaves of Gross

KAREN OAKES

I MET WALT WHITMAN in an undergraduate course in American Literature. The professor, an eclectic scholar whom I admired for his beautiful mind and beautiful hair, tried to impress on us Whitman's status: first great American poet and world-class innovator. Nevertheless, I was bored and frustrated by the poet whose primary talents seemed to lie in interminable lists and inflated claims of self-importance. My response to the week we spent on "Song of Myself" was "I am the woman, I suffered, I was there."1

Later, reading Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar for a paper on Whitman and Dickinson, I could hardly disagree with their assessment of the former: "He didn't need to put his name on the title page of his poem, because he and his poem were coextensive: the poem itself was in a sense his name, writ large and bold." It seemed I would be forever distracted by what Virginia Woolf calls "the dominance of the letter 'I' and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade."2

And then I discovered D. H. Lawrence's frightened and frightening vision of Whitman's poetic self:

Your mainspring is broken, Wait Whitman. The mainspring of your own individuality. And so you run down with a great whirr, merging with everything. . . . Oh
Walter
,
Walter
, what have you done with . . . your own individual self? For it sounds as if it had all leaked out of you, leaked into the universe.

Lawrence gasps at the prospect of a writer losing his autonomy, and he sees this loss as "Death," calling Whitman the "post mortem poet." Furthermore, he explicitly names the poet's impulse to relinquish the self as a desire to regain the feminine: "Everything was female to him: even himself. . . . Always wanting to merge himself into the womb of something or other."3

-169-

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