- Walt Whitman and 19th-Century Women Reformers
Probably no one who teaches Whitman has failed to experience a moment in which a female student asks, in more or less aggrieved tone, and with more or less critical sophistication, what does this have to do with me? My own response has included talking about Whitman’s inclusive language, his fond portrayal of maternal figures, and his place in a feminist social reform tradition (this last point often merely sketched in). The advent of gay criticism has inadvertently accentuated the problem by seeing issues of women’s sexuality through Whitman’s position as a gay man, leaving women not maligned so much as ignored, or read as tropes. Sherry Ceniza’s book deals with these questions from a feminist position that clearly admires Whitman profoundly. She has made excellent use of archival material, uncovering a wealth of private or little-known comments on Whitman’s work by leading American feminists of the mid-nineteenth century. Ultimately a study in social history, Ceniza’s work will enable a significant reappraisal of Whitman and “the woman question.” Because of the limited amount of evidence available, Ceniza has had to adopt an unusual format. Three central chapters, each focused on a single woman reformer—Abbie Hills Price, Paulina Wright Davis, Ernestine L. Rose—are framed by two chapters, covering in effect the role of women in shaping Whitman’s life (the poet’s mother) and the role of women in defense of the 1860 Leaves of Grass. Ceniza’s study provides the fullest account yet of Whitman’s relation to the American feminists of midcentury. Important as this recovered material is, Ceniza’s argument for specific influence is not always convincing. Davis, for instance, is said to be responsible for Whitman’s interest in the body, and Rose “provides a radical context for . . . Whitman’s concept of American democracy.” If these claims are accurate, we need a whole new history of Whitman and social reform, reclaiming a more radical and also more grounded view of Whitman. How do we measure the importance of these women against the more traditional figures, such as Elias Hicks, Tom Paine, or even Emerson? Can we claim, even implicitly, to see in Louisa Whitman a protoreformer? This study unfortunately participates in assuming a conflict between gay criticism and feminism. Determined to see the woman’s rights movement [End Page 589] everywhere in Whitman, Ceniza sees gay readings as only marginal, mere options for reading. Thus she quotes a notebook entry of the 1850s proclaiming the need of “a manly soul for love and comradeship” and argues (twice, in almost identical terms) that this “can” be a reference to homosexual love but “must” also be read in light of the woman’s rights movement” (my emphases). Readers will have to decide for themselves whether Whitman’s work arises more from an emerging gay consciousness or the woman’s rights movement of his time. In either case, anyone interested in Whitman and social history will find this book an essential resource.