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  • Whitman, Lincoln, and the Union of Men
  • Elizabeth Fenton (bio) and Valerie Rohy (bio)

It is no secret that when Walt Whitman imagined politics and the nation he often did so in terms of affection between men. Finally unconcerned with disavowing or sanitizing Whitman's sexual interest in other men, recent critics such as Betsy Erkkilä have explored "the centrality of Whitman's sexual love of men to the democratic vision and experimental politics of Leaves of Grass and to Whitman's hopes for welding the American republic into a 'living union,' especially in the post-Civil War period."1 Indeed, Whitman often figured national cohesion as a product of male desire. When revising Leaves of Grass following the Civil War, he added a fifth Calamus poem (now known as "For You O Democracy") in which he vowed to "make the continent indissoluble … With the love of comrades, / With the life-long love of comrades."2 Though the poem's speaker betrays an uncertainty about the state of the postbellum United States, which appears as yet soluble despite the end of the war, he is certain that love will suture any lingering divisions between the nation's parts. "I will plant companionship thick as trees along the rivers," the speaker promises; "I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other's necks." A caress, this poem suggests, will unite the nation's disparate locales; mutual fondness will shore up its frailties. Whitman is clear about what kinds of bodies he imagines engaging in such politically advantageous embraces: the nation will find solidarity, he explains, "By the love of comrades, / By the manly love of comrades" (emphasis added). Indissolubility, it seems, is a [End Page 237] male homosocial condition. "Democracy" appears as a feminized entity—the speaker apostrophizes to "ma femme"—but those who embody her principles are "manly" lovers inclined exclusively to each other and at whose absence she would cease to exist (LG, 1:117). The poem thus figures political equality as the desirable by-product of homosocial love and national unity as the prerogative of mutually interested men.

As Mark Maslan has noted, the impulse of the past thirty years has been to read Whitman's expressions of limitless selfhood as calls for de-individuation rather than articulations of ego-centric hubris or imperialism.3 Having acknowledged the inextricability of sex, politics, and poetic form within the Whitman canon, scholars recently have argued that Whitman's work hinges on the notion that flexibility rather than dichotomy characterizes the relationships between private and public, personal and political, self and other. The interrogation of Whitman's abiding interest in homoerotic relations has been influenced by such readings. Michael Moon, for example, has argued that Whitman's representations of "fluid" physical relations between men should be read as efforts to rid social interactions of the gendered and often traumatic differentiations between self and other.4 In a similar vein, Michael Warner suggests that Whitman's efforts to "make sex public" not only erode the distinctions between individual bodies but also blur the boundary between public and private.5 Within the context of these readings, it becomes possible to see Whitman's seemingly interpersonal assertion in "Song of Myself" that "Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" (LG, 1:28) as thematically indistinct from his more obviously political claim to be "A southerner soon as a northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable, / A Yankee bound in my own way" (LG, 1:44). If bodies share atoms, then they also can share an interest in each other's preservation; if the sovereign self is a myth, then so too must be the sovereign region. The erosion of boundaries within Whitman's work functions as a means of staving off violence and of perhaps healing the wounds—national or otherwise—inflicted by differentiation.

It is tempting, especially given the material inequalities faced by gay, lesbian, and queer people within today's U.S. [End Page 238] culture, to read the homoeroticism in Whitman's work as an expression of radical egalitarianism. Perhaps nothing is more seductive than the poet's seamless integration of the sexual and the political. A...


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