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Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s famous folio of poetry, was originally published in 1855, and includes two of his best-remembered poems: I Sing the Body Electric and Song of Myself. The reader approaching Leaves of Grass – particularly those who were reading in the historical and cultural context in which the poems were themselves composed – is met with a portrayal of sensuality, sex, and sexual difference that has no direct antecedent in the nineteenth century.  Whitman makes explicit his goal of treating both men and women, masculinity and femininity, as equal components of the same universal whole.  Leaves of GrassThe frequent recurrence of aphorisms asserting the symbolic unity and reciprocity between the sexes is a defining characteristic of Leaves of Grass.

While the controversy over Walt Whitman’s homosexuality in life may indeed have some significance for historians and literary critics, the text of Leaves of Grass is not the proper battlefield upon which this debate should be focused.  Like many of the most prominent poststructuralist critics, it is my belief that the text itself should be the sole focus of literary analysis, with little reference to the extratextual circumstances or predilections of the author’s life and times. This type of biographical criticism tends to strictly limit the breadth and scope of critical activity.  

However, this is not to suggest that the disparity between the treatment of male and female figures in Leaves of Grass should be discarded altogether. Indeed, this point of divergence is one of the most thematically significant features of the text. The depiction of women characters and the abstract feminine in Leaves of Grass vacillates between two poles. The first mode that can be witnessed throughout the poem takes the form of the repeated references to women that are made in the context of catalog-like listings of all of the races, ethnicities, nationalities, and other similar categories of human inhabitants of Earth. By far the greatest number of mentions of the term “women” in the text of Leaves of Grass are used in this manner.

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