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  • Celebrating and Singing, Bleeding and Pining: Embodiment and Emotion in Walt Whitman and Adah Isaacs Menken

This essay conducts an extended analysis of Walt Whitman’s and Adah Isaacs Menken’s use of embodiment and emotion as part of a larger consideration of nineteenth-century American literary canon formation. Although the two writers make similar use of the body and emotions in their poetry, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1891–1892) and Menken’s Infelicia (1868) produce starkly different results, which rest on gender differences and offer insights into their disparate representation in the canon of American literature and the difficulty of incorporating marginalized voices into it. It is productive to view Menken’s work not as an echo of Whitman but as a variation and expansion of his work, one that further opens up Whitman’s mission to democratize the voice of the American poet, especially to include voices, like Menken’s, whose unhappiness, rage, and despair stand at odds with his often celebratory voice. Pairing Whitman and Menken throws into greater relief the gendered dimensions of nineteenth-century conceptions of the mind-body binary and emotional expression and raises questions about the universality of Whitman’s poetic persona.


Adah Isaacs Menken, Infelicia, Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” embodiment, mind-body binary, soul, emotion, universality, canon formation, women’s writing, women’s and gender studies

In the 1860 essay “Swimming Against the Current,” Adah Isaacs Menken reflects on how great artists are often at odds with mainstream society, contrary to

the vast majority of mankind [that] intrust [sic] of themselves with so much ease and convenience to the current of popular sentiments, fashions, weak, driveling notions, idiotic principles; . . . they swim lazily along with the current; flattering the ambition and passions of the influential and great men, worshipping the idols of the day, to suit prevalent notions.1

Menken admits that the few “brave souls” who “swim against the current” will not be appreciated in their time, “but when in the next century their words and schemes will become understood, because circumstances will take that turn which they predicted, marble statues will be erected over the remains of him whom they suffered to starve” (pp. 177, 178–89). Menken specifically mentions Walt Whitman as one individual who swims against the current, as someone [End Page 337]

who is centuries ahead of his contemporaries, who, in smiling carelessness, analyzes the elements of which society is composed . . . . The passengers, in their floating boats, call him a fanatic, a visionary, a demagogue, a good-natured fool, etc., etc. Still he heeds them not: his mental conviction will not permit him to heed them.

(p. 178)

In light of Whitman’s reputation today, Menken’s essay serves as a reminder that literary genius is not a timeless or universal quality, and as one of the earliest defenses of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), it reveals the constructed nature of literary merit.2 Over a century later, Paul Lauter echoes Menken’s sentiments, pointing out the contingent nature of literary merit. He argues that we must constantly re-evaluate judgments of literary merit to avoid “[confining] ourselves to works that happen simply to conform to standards with which we have been familiar or which will suit our professional roles as traditionally defined in academe.”3 While arguments such as Lauter’s reached their peak during the canon wars of the 1980s, essays like “Swimming Against the Current” reveal that concerns about the contingent standards of literary merit have long existed. While Whitman may have swam against the nineteenth-century current, today he is undeniably part of the literary canon; Menken, on the other hand, remains on the margins. The contrast between Whitman’s reputation and Menken’s raises questions about literary merit as a social and historical construct. Questions of originality, universality, “appropriate” emotional expression, and who qualifies as a literary “genius” all offer explanations for the marginalization of Menken’s poetry.

More widely known as an actress and most famous for her performance as the male lead in H. M. Milner’s 1861 dramatic adaptation of Lord Byron’s Mazeppa (1819), Menken created and performed a series of different identities and personae, which have confounded numerous scholars. Studying Menken’s life, according to Renée Sentilles, “[reveals] what sounds like several different people: an African-American poet, a Jewish poet, a lesbian, a femme fatale and an early feminist, to name only a few of her more common identities.”4 Questions still persist about Menken’s ethnicity; her own conflicting accounts of herself, other people’s posthumous assertions that she was black, and recent scholarship suggesting the likelihood that she was white make Menken’s race hard to pin down definitively. Indeed, as Sentilles’s concludes, “It is doubtful that anyone will ever substantiate her racial heritage, and the act of trying to do so should make us question why it is important to so many contemporary scholars.”5 In her lifetime, Menken was known for the scandals that seemed to follow her: multiple marriages and love affairs (including rumored affairs with women), conflicting biographical and ethnic origins, performing in Mazeppa in a flesh-colored body suit, smoking in public, and dressing in men’s clothing in public.6 No doubt partly as a result of her celebrity, Menken maintained acquaintances [End Page 338] and friendships (and was rumored to have had affairs) with numerous well-known literary figures of the nineteenth century, including Whitman, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, George Sand, Theophile Gautier, and Alexandre Dumas.7 The ambiguity and indeterminacy of Menken’s identity works both for and against her relationship to the literary canon; as Sentilles observes, “If she cannot be placed into categories, she cannot be excluded, either.”8 Along with her many other identities, Menken was also a writer, producing before her death in 1868 “almost twenty essays, around 100 individual poems, and a book of collected poems.”9 She was the first poet to adopt the free verse of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and the majority of the poems in her collection Infelicia, written between 1860–1861, showcase Whitman’s direct influence on her work.

Much of the previous critical analysis of the connection between Whitman’s and Menken’s poetry does not extend beyond brief comparisons. Eliza Richards’s recent book chapter in Whitman among the Bohemians (2004) offers the only extended consideration of the connection between these two writers. Richards focuses on the ability of both writers to “unblock all unjustly stifled voices.”10 Pointing to Menken’s own view of herself as failing to achieve Whitman’s “inclusive mission to speak for the people,” Richards’s analysis uncovers a potential pitfall that arises in pairing a noncanonical author with a canonical one; Whitman’s masculine universal voice becomes the standard by which Menken’s voice is judged and, for many, including Menken herself, found wanting (p. 196). Building on Richards’s productive pairing of Whitman and Menken, I shift the focus away from the question of how (un)successfully Menken imitates Whitman to how Menken adopts and opens up Whitman’s mission to, as Richards writes, “identify and release voices, both the poet’s and ‘the people’s’” (p. 195). Menken’s writing expands this mission to include those voices that are full of unhappiness, rage, and despair and stand at odds with Whitman’s often celebratory voice.

This essay conducts an extended comparison of Menken’s book of poetry Infelicia with Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1891–1892), focusing on their conceptions of the mind-body binary and their utilization and expression of emotions.11 This analysis raises important questions about the marginalization of Menken’s poetry, the representativeness of Whitman’s poetry, and the larger issue of nineteenth-century American literary canon formation. Menken seldom appears in any of the major American literature anthologies; when she does appear, she is often relegated to anthologies dedicated to minority and/or women writers.12 Such bracketing off of Menken reflects the recovery work of feminist literary critics in the 1970s and 1980s and its deep connection to separate spheres criticism, which, as Cathy N. Davidson and Jessamyn Hatcher point out, is problematic because [End Page 339] it assumes “that ‘woman’ is a universal gender signifier” rather than a narrowly defined, historically constructed category.13 They further assert that “the gender binary has allowed the literary historian to focus exclusively on women writers who have been excluded from the standard histories; on the other hand, it roots its logic of exclusivity in an explanation of nineteenth-century binary gender relations” (p. 15). Although my argument rests primarily on gendered differences between Whitman and Menken and therefore potentially runs afoul of post-separate spheres criticism, it resists traditional nineteenth-century views on gender differences. Menken’s identity does not fit with the cult of true womanhood, and the speakers in her poems are far from the angel in the house ideal of nineteenth-century American womanhood. Despite attempts by nineteenth-century women to cast Menken as a sensitive victim whose writing in Infelicia “revealed to them a woman’s heart regardless of how unfeminine her behavior,” the female speakers of Menken’s poems ultimately resist attempts at domestication and revel in the “unfeminine” pursuits of rage and bloodlust.14

While there is an obvious disparity between Whitman and Menken in terms of popularity and the size of each poet’s body of work, there are numerous reasons why this pairing still yields productive comparisons and insights into canon formation. It challenges assertions about Whitman’s representativeness made by critics such as Ezra Greenspan, who argues that “Whitman has become a natural subject for the citizens of our own more open, inclusive culture.”15 It also challenges the marginalization of Menken’s writing by bringing it into conversation with the work of one of the most canonical poets of American literature. These two challenges, in turn, lead to a more nuanced understanding of American poetry in the mid-nineteenth century and the ways in which critics read and evaluate it. Echoing the ways that Menken simultaneously resisted the logic of separate spheres ideology, both in her gender identity and in her poetry, and foregrounded the specificity of her gendered experience, my pairing of Whitman and Menken shows how Menken’s marginalization in the literary canon rests in part on the male privilege that allows the male body in Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to stand in for the universal human body while the female body in Infelicia remains cordoned off as specifically female, bound and defined by her embodiment.

Understanding the political and social relevance of the body became increasingly important in nineteenth-century America. Nineteenth-century American authors, Carolyn Sorisio writes, “struggled in a tumultuous period to flesh out America, to grapple, in other words, with the discourses of abolition, women’s rights, and science” that worked to disprove the rhetoric of “natural and higher laws of innate equality, [which] often masked the reality that political rights were allocated only to those who [End Page 340] inhabited bodies marked white and male.”16 Catherine Cucinella explains the importance of attention to the body, arguing that “investigations into the body’s position in [the mind-body] binary often challenge prevailing hierarchies (male over female, white over nonwhite, civilized over primitive).”17 These challenges play out in both Whitman’s and Menken’s works, as they each take up the issue of the duality between the mind (or soul) and the body. Depictions of the mind and the body in “Song of Myself” and Infelicia, in their own distinct ways, reveal the connection between the mind and body and unsettle the hierarchies that result from their separation. Pairing the two texts throws into greater relief the gendered dimensions of nineteenth-century divisions of mind and body and raises questions about the universality of Whitman’s poetic persona.

In “Song of Myself,” Whitman’s configuration of the mind-body binary works to eliminate the hierarchy of mind over body and establishes a sense of democratic equality and interconnectedness between the two.18 At four different places in “Song of Myself,” Whitman explicitly states this equality between mind and body, from the poetic persona’s declaration that

Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my  soul.

Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn


I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,And you must not be abased to the other


I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul

and then reminding his readers towards the end of the poem that

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is.19

Each example consists of balanced lines that repeat with only slight variations, providing a visual demonstration of his equal valuing of body and mind, which complement each other and combine to form the integrated self of Whitman’s poetic persona. This democratic equality between mind and body also creates a fluid and permeable identity for Whitman, as his persona can shift from physical embodiment to spiritual transcendence and back again. At the end of “Song of Myself,” Whitman describes the dissolution of the persona’s physical body into a kind of spirit that inhabits the natural world: [End Page 341]

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

(lines 1336–39)

The ethereal state of Whitman’s persona, however, returns to the physical body (although not its original body) as he asserts:

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,And filter and fibre your blood.

(lines 1341–43)

The distinction between mind and body is not only de-hierarchized but the two also no longer constitute distinct, fixed categories.

Whitman also seeks to promote the body as a source of experience and knowledge, usually the domain of the mind, creating what Sorisio refers to as an “epistemology of the body that fundamentally challenges the modern structures of knowledge then coming to dominate his age. . . . Whitman trusted his body as a teacher, welcoming it as an equal partner in the search for knowledge” (p. 174). In section twenty of “Song of Myself,” Whitman’s persona contemplates how he acquires knowledge of himself and the physical world around him. He begins by wondering, “How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat? // What is a man anyhow? what am I? what are you?” (lines 390–91). He then explains: “Having pried through the strata, analyzed to a hair, counsel’d with doctors and calculated close, / I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones” (lines 399–400). Such careful, scientific study of himself leads him to proclaim,

I know I am solid and sound,To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .I exist as I am, that is enough,. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself.

(lines 403–05, 413, 416)

By filtering his experience of the world through his body, the poem’s persona acquires knowledge of himself and the surrounding world. This process necessarily includes the physical body and not strictly the rational contemplation of the mind. Whitman later writes: “I believe in the flesh and the appetites, / Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle” (lines 522–23). The physical senses have a miraculous power to help the individual gain knowledge; thus, the physical body possesses as much power as the mind or soul to give the world meaning. [End Page 342]

Despite this democratic, equalizing force, the white, masculine body still predominates in “Song of Myself.” This privileging may seem surprising, given that the poem’s persona announces,

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

(lines 425–27)

Despite these proclamations of equal gender representation, however, the persona is primarily masculine, which becomes problematic when taken together with Whitman’s tendency to depict the persona’s body as representing of a universal body of the American people:

The city sleeps and the country sleeps,The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps  by his wife;And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.

(lines 324–29)

The male persona’s body, according to Sorisio, “incarnates the body of the nation,” casting the American body as male by default (p. 196). This expanding and encompassing body of the persona reveals the cost of losing the specificity of individual bodies as differences are erased. Moreover, Whitman’s own body, as white and male, operates from a position of extreme privilege in nineteenth-century America. He can more freely abandon his own specific bodily identity and imagine a unified American body because his race and gender are already considered the standard from which others deviate.

When the mind and body of the poetic persona are not male, as is the case in Menken’s Infelicia, the specificity of gender is not as easily transcended. The body has been of immense critical interest in Menken scholarship, particularly in analyzing how Menken uses her body to construct and manipulate her identity, but her engagement with the body has rarely been contextualized in terms of contemporary philosophical debates about the mind-body binary, as Whitman’s work has been.20 The focus on Menken’s body so dominates Menken scholarship that Daphne A. Brooks argues that “repeatedly Menken is reduced to the status of her body; perhaps because of the absence of biographical discourse on the actress, her literal body has become the text on which male authors seek to inscribe knowledge and fill in the gaps of her history.”21 Within Infelicia, however, Menken focuses extensively on the soul.22 In contrast to Whitman’s presentation of harmonious equality between the mind and body, Menken depicts [End Page 343] a greater sense of tension or turmoil between them, frequently depicting the soul as being at war with or assaulted by the physical world.

Menken moves away from the unified and integrated persona of “Song of Myself” to a persona in Infelicia that is oppressed and restricted by the physical body. For example, in “A Fragment,” Menken writes in one long line, “Oh! this life, after all, is but a promise—a poor promise, that is too heavy to bear—heavy with blood, reeking human blood. The atmosphere is laden with it. When I shut my eyes it presses so close to their lids that I must grasp and struggle to open them.”23 Rather than opening up the world and enabling a wider potential for knowledge, the physical body here overwhelms and impedes the senses. This oppression of the mind by the physical body is even more pronounced in “The Release,” as Menken, in the opening three lines, explains,

  The battle waged strong.  A fainting soul was borne from the host.  The tears robed themselves in the scarlet of guilt, and crownedwith iron of wrong, they trod heavily on the wounded soul.24

This battle leaves the “Ahab-like” soul “bleeding and pining, pleading and praying” while the poem’s speaker wonders,

  Can it be that this captive soul was a Changeling, and battled andstruggled in a body not its own?  Must Error ever bind the fetters deep into the shrinking flesh?  Will there come no angel to loose them?

(p. 55)

Although the relationship between mind and body here is a tumultuous one, Menken does maintain a sense of equality between the two. She depicts them in her poems as equally matched foes that possess their own individual strengths. In doing so, Menken reconfigures Whitman’s democratizing impulse, suggesting that reckoning with the mind-body binary is not as universally harmonious or pleasurable as Whitman tends to portray it.

Menken also represents equality between mind and body by embodying or personifying the soul, giving it features of a physical body. For example, in “Myself,” Menken provides the following description of the soul as a pitiable, starving, shivering, creeping, “lizard-like” body:

  the minor-keyed soul is standing naked and hungry upon one ofHeaven’s high hills of light.  Standing and waiting for the blood of the feast!  Starving for one poor word!  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Shivering for the uprising of some soft wing under which it maycreep, lizard-like, to warmth and rest.25 [End Page 344]

By giving the soul a physical body, Menken makes the plight of the soul more easily understandable and apparent to the reader. Even though she champions the soul over the body, Menken’s verse betrays the reality that bodily language is a primary means of expression and way of understanding the world. This simultaneous recognition and disavowal of physicality is not unique to Menken; Sorisio argues that other nineteenth-century American women writers, such as Margaret Fuller and Harriet Jacobs, aimed to establish “a dual strategy that demonstrates the importance of corporeality to identity, but ultimately proposes that it can be transcended” (p. 224).

Throughout Infelicia, Menken uses images of the body not only to elevate or embody the soul but also to show how she constructs her own epistemology of the body.26 Menken interprets her experiences and thoughts through the body; the lurid, violent imagery of the body gives her poetic persona power and authority from which to speak and a reason to do so. In “Judith,” the most salient example of Menken’s violent imagery and the most discussed of all of Menken’s poems, Menken presents readers with a version of the biblical Judith who, after beheading Holofernes, proclaims,

Ere the last tremble of the conscious death-agony shall have shuddered, I will show it to ye with the long black hair clinging to the glazed eyes, and the great mouth opened in search of voice, and the strong throat all hot and reeking with blood, that will thrill me with wild unspeakable joy as it courses down my bare body and dabbles my cold feet!27

Dane Barca argues that Holofernes’s bleeding throat speaks to Menken’s exploration of gender representations in the poem: “The male menstrual throat is at once the end of the critical, constructed gaze, and the emasculated recipient of the sword of Judith’s mouth. . . . By exploring the boundaries of gendered representation, Judith threatens the reader not with her body, but with her voice.”28 The physical violence Judith threatens and enacts gives her power and authority to speak (the audible expression of the mind). Barca’s argument, however, downplays that the poem’s images of the body (not Judith’s necessarily but that of the decapitated Holofernes) seem crafted to evoke a visceral response in readers as well. The language of the body underlies this act of threatening speech. This image of speech mixing with the bloody gore of a dying body recurs in “The Autograph on the Soul,” as the poem’s speaker ponders a female suicide victim:

Have ye seen the pallid lips, the staring eyes, the unclosed, red-roofed mouth—the bubbling gore, welling up from a woman’s breast?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Have ye heard her choked voice rise in prayer—her pale lips breathing his name—the name of him who deceived her? Yes! a prayer coming up with the bubbling blood—a blessing on him for whom she died!29 [End Page 345]

The dying woman’s speech is mixed with blood and gore. Menken recognizes the power of the body even while admitting and exploring its potential for degradation and destruction.

The tension in the mind-body binary reveals both how the female body and persona in Menken’s poems is marginalized and how this body and persona defy gender norms by thrusting the corporeal reality of the physical body into the foreground of her poems. This tension is similar to Sorisio’s discussion of how Harriet Jacobs

had to find a way to write about the knowledge that came from her embodied experiences and simultaneously create space for her disembodied will. At the same time, she had to do so while not reconfirming notions of the mulatto woman as defined primarily by her corporeality.

(p. 201)

Like Jacobs, Menken risks being defined by reductive understandings of her corporeality as a woman, and she works to create a space in her poems in which the mind can become disembodied and rise above the marginalized body. When paired with the universal, male body of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Menken’s embodied soul dismantles Whitman’s illusion of universality.

Whitman’s and Menken’s treatment of the relationship between mind and body coincides with their utilization and expression of emotions. The use of emotions marks the most striking difference between their poetry and provides more insight into their unequal representation in the canon. Throughout “Song of Myself,” the emotions of celebration and happiness predominate, beginning with the opening line “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” (line 1). Many critics have commented on the prominence of celebration in Whitman’s work with Greenspan asserting that it is “one of the most fundamental concept terms in Whitman’s poetry generally” (p. 2).30 Along with celebration, Whitman’s poetic persona in “Song of Myself” expresses contentment and cheerfulness. For example, in section twenty, Whitman’s persona asserts:

  I exist as I am, that is enough,  If no other in the world be aware I sit content,  And if each and all be aware, I sit content.  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  And whether I come to my own to-day or in ten thousand or tenmillion years,  I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.

(lines 413–15, 417–18)

The contentment and cheerfulness appear to result from the epistemology of the body that provides Whitman’s persona with knowledge of the world. Additionally, this celebration and happiness are frequently expressed through sexual love.31 Along with discussions of love for human partners, [End Page 346] Whitman’s persona, when addressing the Earth in section twenty-one, instructs the Earth to

Smile, for your lover comes.

Prodigal, you have given me love—therefore I to you give love!O unspeakable passionate love.

(lines 445–47)

The satisfaction and happiness are not only tied to love but also to the physical body, which reflects Whitman’s equal valuing of the mind and the body.

The persona in “Song of Myself” also maintains a sense of strength, assurance, and empowerment as the persona repeatedly engages in acts of objective contemplation. Whitman’s persona exists as a model for others who, as Harold Aspiz argues, “celebrates his existence as a democratic visionary whose hopeful gospel is intended to encourage the American masses to acknowledge the divinity latent in each of them.”32 In section five, Whitman’s persona explains,

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that  pass all the argument of the earth,And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women  my sisters and lovers,And that a kelson of the creation is love.

(lines 91–95)

This passage displays a strong, pervading feeling of love and security as well as an assertion of interconnectedness and divinity that runs through all people. The persona is confident and assured of his knowledge of “the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth.” The repetition of “And I know that” and “And that” adds to this attitude of strength and certainty.

Underneath Whitman’s powerful expressions of positive emotions, there exists a sense of doubt, anxiety, desperation, and skepticism. M. Jimmie Killingsworth argues that “Whitman’s frenetic eroticism . . . had anxiety at its roots, and his linguistic excesses often betray a kind of desperation.”33 Another reading of the repetition of “And I know that” and the numerous other places where Whitman employs repetition and variation could be one of doubt; the persona repeats these phrases not because he is profoundly certain of their truth but because he is profoundly uncertain and needs to reassure himself more than his readers. Shira Wolosky writes that “this skepticism, far from surfacing sporadically as an anomaly or a kind of bad mood, exerts a continuous pressure throughout Whitman’s work.”34 Such skepticism and doubt surface explicitly in section forty-three, where the persona insists that he knows all of the “Down-hearted doubters dull [End Page 347] and excluded, / Frivolous, sullen, moping, angry, affected, dishearten’d, atheistical” and implores them to

Be at peace bloody flukes of doubters and sullen mopers,I take my place among you as much as among any,The past is the push of you, me, all, precisely the same,And what is yet untried and afterward is for you, me, all, precisely  the same.

(lines 112–13, 117–20)

Whitman’s persona seeks to display his empathy to his readers and convey that he understands their troubles but encourages them to find peace, using their doubt and skepticism to push forward in their lives (“The past is the push of you, me, all”). He also tries to identify with the emotions of others, but with less success, in section eleven where he assumes the persona of a lonesome woman viewing twenty-eight male bathers (lines 199–216). The woman “hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window” and remains “stock still” while imagining a sensual encounter with the bathers (lines 203, 206). The woman’s sexual desire remains disembodied, a figment of her imagination never fulfilled. Whitman’s female persona here is a stereotypically passive, feminine identity that must be energized with masculine action. Exemplifying one way in which Whitman’s attempt at a universal persona falls short, such a depiction flattens-out or oversimplifies female emotion and desire, which, in Infelicia, achieves a more complex realization.

While Whitman’s “Song of Myself” persona supplants his momentary doubt and anxiety with an overarching emphasis on celebration and contentment, the speakers of Infelicia dwell almost exclusively on resoundingly negative emotions, ranging from profound melancholy and despair to overt bitterness, cynicism, and anger.35 The very title of Menken’s book of poems attests to its emotional content; “infelicia” is Latin for unfortunate, unhappy, or miserable. Melancholy, despair, and unhappiness are more stereotypical or “gender-appropriate” emotions for women to express in poetry, and according to Michael Foster and Barbara Foster, Menken’s “forsaken tone has been treated as a convention of Victorian verse.”36 Menken’s “forsaken tone,” however, pushes far beyond Victorian convention and sensibility, pairing sentiments of melancholy and despair with the lurid, bloody images of the embattled soul-bodies discussed above. What makes the emotions in Menken’s Infelicia even more distinct and unusual from other nineteenth-century women’s poetry is, in Gregory Eiselein’s formulation, “the mixture of anger, threats, violence and blood, sadistic delight, and daring eroticism.”37 Readers find in Infelicia a series of speakers who occupy an emotional space quite different from “Song of Myself” in poems that Julian Levinson argues “strike a high emotional register, focusing on an agonized and isolated first-person speaker in the thrall of barely [End Page 348] containable emotions, passions, dejections, and desires.”38 While it was not uncommon for women to find literary expression for their anger in the nineteenth century, the open and unmasked anger in several of Menken’s poems would have defied gender expectations at the time.39

Infelicia’s opening poem “Resurgam” introduces a very different persona from the celebratory persona of “Song of Myself.” The speaker in “Resurgam” opens with angry emotional force, evident in four terse lines:

Yes, yes, dear love! I am dead!  Dead to you!  Dead to the world!  Dead for ever!40

From these short lines, Menken expands into longer lines of free verse as the speaker elaborates on her feelings, projecting them outward onto her surroundings: “The stars were strangled, and the moon was blind with the flying clouds of a black despair” (p. 43). The speaker in “Resurgam” also relays her emotional experiences directly to readers:

  But the purple wine that I quaff sends no thrill of Love and Songthrough my empty veins.  Yet my red lips are not pallid and horrified.  Thy kisses are doubtless sweet that throb out an eternal passionfor me!  But I feel neither pleasure, passion nor pain.  So I am certainly dead.

(pp. 43–44)

Menken’s denial of “Love and Song” and pleasure and passion at once evokes and rejects the principal emotions in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Her concession that “Thy kisses are doubtless sweet that throb out an eternal passion for me!” seems more like a bitter taunt than a desperate longing, especially considering the accusation that the speaker’s lover has killed her. By “Infelix,” the final poem of Infelicia, this opening mix of bitterness, anger, despair, and unhappiness becomes pure despair and unhappiness. Menken leaves readers with what Eiselein describes as despair “so thorough that it has transformed itself into a painful and seemingly endless regret” that both destroys and becomes the speaker’s identity (p. 29). In the final stanza of “Infelix,” the speaker laments,

Myself! alas for theme so poor  A theme but rich in Fear;I stand a wreck on Error’s shore,A spectre not within the door,A houseless shadow evermore,  An exile lingering here.41

Like the persona of “Song of Myself,” the speaker in “Infelix” becomes a kind of disembodied spirit (“a spectre,” “a houseless shadow,” and “an exile [End Page 349] lingering”). The “Infelix” speaker, however, finds no joy or peace in this disembodiment as does Whitman’s persona. Whitman’s persona is connected to the world, encouraging and waiting to help others; Menken’s persona is left isolated and lingering apart from the rest of the world.

While “Resurgam” and “Infelix” open and close Infelicia with despair and melancholy, in “Judith,” Menken’s vivid imagery of the body provides a backdrop for her most profound expression of bitterness and rage. Unlike the disembodied spectre of “Infelix,” Judith is, as Wolosky phrases it, “a wild warrior and contentious prophet, aggressive both in flesh and spirit.”42 After cutting off Holofernes’s head, Judith exclaims,

  My sensuous soul will quake with the burden of so much bliss.  Oh, what wild passionate kisses will I draw up from that bleedingmouth!  I will strangle this pallid throat of mine on the sweet blood!  I will revel in my passion.  At midnight I will feast on it in the darkness.  For it was that which thrilled its crimson tides of reckless passionthrough the blue veins of my life, and made them leap up in the wildsweetness of Love and agony of Revenge!  I am starving for this feast.  Oh forget not that I am Judith!

(p. 52)

These frenetic lines provide an excellent example of the free verse prosody that Eiselein argues is so well suited to Menken’s “extravagant representation of emotions” (p. 26). Barca similarly describes “Judith” as “a manifesto of failed repression, each line bursting over the previous with the possibility of self-representation commingled with the threat of violence.”43 Judith’s feelings of “bliss,” “reckless passion,” and “wild sweetness” come as a result of her violent murder of Holofernes and mark one of the few places in Infelicia in which Menken’s persona is happy or cheerful. Judith’s expression of emotions also shows Menken at her most powerful and authoritative. While many other poems in Infelicia showcase women who have been wronged by society, and by men in particular, and who have become hopeless and despondent, “Judith” presents readers with a woman making boastful proclamations and reveling in the physical world.

This forceful, vocal persona most closely approximates the masculine Whitman persona of “Song of Myself” but complicates it with violent imagery. The overt and violent assertion of authority and control makes the Judith-persona Infelicia’s most pronounced defiance of mid-nineteenth-century gender norms. Instead of masking her anger and channeling her bloodlust into more “acceptable” forms, Menken chooses in “Judith” to emphasize and foreground the anger and violence. Even the more melancholy, despairing personae in Infelicia lay bare their emotions for readers. In this respect, Menken’s Infelicia extends and adapts the innovations begun [End Page 350] by Whitman in “Song of Myself.” Building on Whitman’s championing of freedom and democracy and the masculine energy with which he expresses those values in “Song of Myself,” Menken introduces a female persona whose anger and rage are explicitly embodied and foregrounded, defying expectations of traditional or appropriate ways for women to express themselves.

Comparisons of the mind-body binary and emotional expression demonstrate how the poetry of Whitman and Menken can be put into productive conversation with each other. Yet questions still remain about why Menken has remained outside of the canon while Whitman is so central. Menken as a person and performer has generated a sizeable body of scholarship.44 Despite this fact, relatively little scholarship exists specifically about her writing, and as mentioned earlier, Menken’s poems rarely appear in any of the major anthologies of American literature. Several factors beyond Menken’s gender may have contributed to her being omitted from the canon. One is that readers and critics alike could consider Menken too imitative of Whitman, a characteristic that goes against the long-standing emphasis on originality and innovation that has been privileged since the early twentieth century.45 The scandals and sensations that typified Menken’s life also put her at odds with many literary critics’ preconceived notions of just who can become a literary “genius.” Additionally, her extreme emotions, particularly her despair and rage, could be considered excessive and not “literary” enough. Menken’s emotional range appears to fit more with the confessional poetry of women poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton written almost one hundred years after Menken’s Infelicia.

While it is unlikely that Menken will ever match or even come close to occupying the vaunted place of Whitman in the literary canon, pairing Whitman and Menken, as this essay does, offers many advantages to the study of nineteenth-century American literature. This pairing speaks to Annette Kolodny’s argument that “the bracketing-off [of ‘Minority Voices’ or ‘Women Voices’] defeats any possibility of telling a coherent, integrated story about our literary past.”46 Menken’s Infelicia presents an admittedly limited scope of experiences; it represents the literary expression of a woman at a point of deep crisis in her life and a woman who actively resisted any singular definition of herself. The experiences and voice of a woman like Menken, however, are absent from Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Despite the fact that Whitman constructs an impressively inclusive and representative image of America in the poem (for which he rightfully should be praised), “Song of Myself” realistically cannot capture every voice of every nineteenth-century American. Thus, Menken’s poems provide a valuable contribution to critical understandings of nineteenth-century American poetry. The pairing also reveals how resistant the literary canon is to change and how, according to Jane Tompkins, the texts [End Page 351] F. O. Matthiessen identified in American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman in 1941 “influenced our assumptions about what kind of person can be a literary genius, what kinds of subjects great literature can discuss, our notions about who can be a hero and who cannot, notions of what constitutes heroic behavior, significant activity, central issue.”47 The reality of Menken’s place in the canon reveals the paradoxical nature of reconstructing the canon, calling into question how literary critics can ever truly create an accurate literary history. We should resist bracketing-off Menken’s specific gendered literary expression, as this conception rests on the assumption that Whitman’s un-bracketed (male) voice is universal. By valuing the contributions of both Menken and Whitman as specific, embodied expressions of two individuals and not as approximations of any universal self, we can begin to reconstruct a literary history that approaches the kind of inclusiveness Whitman champions in “Song of Myself.” In doing so, a previously marginalized Menken can begin to find the audience she longed for in life and participate in Whitman’s mission to speak for the American people, themselves individuals possessed of myriad identities and experiences.

Julie McCown
Southern Utah University
Julie McCown

JULIE MCCOWN is Assistant Professor of English at Southern Utah University. She has published essays on a wide range of subjects including stop-motion animation puppets, crocodiles in William Bartram and Thomas DeQuincey, animal materiality in early American natural history, the Hartford Female Seminary’s handwritten gazettes from the 1820s, and the role of vision and perception in the writings of Jupiter Hammon. Her current research centers on animal bodies and materiality in early American natural history texts and the reciprocal interactions between written text and real bodies out in the world.


1. Adah Isaacs Menken, “Swimming Against the Current,” in Infelicia and Other Writings, ed. Gregory Eiselein (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2002), 177. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

2. Sherry Ceniza discusses Menken’s essay along with other reviews of Leaves of Grass published by women that defend Whitman’s work as “empowering his female readers”; see Ceniza, “‘Being a Woman . . . I Wish to Give My Own View’: Some Nineteenth-Century Women’s Responses to the 1860 Leaves of Grass,” in The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman, ed. Ezra Greenspan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 111. Ceniza uses their writing as a way of enriching critical understandings of Whitman. Her interest in Menken’s writing is limited to “Swimming Against the Current.”

3. Paul Lauter, introduction to Reconstructing American Literature: Courses, Syllabi, Issues, ed. Lauter (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1983), xx.

4. Renée M. Sentilles, “Identity, Speculation, and History: Adah Isaacs Menken as a Case Study,” History and Memory, 18, No. 1 (2006), 122.

5. Sentilles, Performing Menken: Adah Issacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 284.

6. See Shira Wolosky, Poetry and Public Discourse in Nineteenth-Century America, Nineteenth-Century Major Lives and Letters (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 106; Daphne A. Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 4; and Eiselein, introduction to Infelicia and Other Writings, 32.

7. Eiselein, introduction to Infelicia and Other Writings, 20–21.

8. Sentilles, Performing Menken, 285.

9. Eiselein, introduction to Infelicia and Other Writings, 22.

10. Eliza Richards, “Whitman and Menken: Loosing and Losing Voices,” in Whitman among the Bohemians, ed. Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley, The Iowa Whitman Series (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014), 195. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

11. The disparity in the length of their poems—Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is 1,346 lines long while the longest poem by Menken is only 152 lines—does not invalidate a comparison. Infelicia is fairly unified in terms of theme, form, and style and can function as a single unit to be compared to “Song of Myself” (which can be broken down into its separate fifty-two sections, like the individual poems of Infelicia).

12. Examples of such anthologies include Joan R. Sherman, ed., African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992); Jim Elledge, ed., Masquerade: Queer Poetry in America to the End of World War II (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2004); Anne E. Boyd, ed., Wielding the Pen: Writings on Authorship by American Women of the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Janet Gray, ed., She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997); and Virginia Blain, ed., Victorian Women Poets: An Annotated Anthology (New York: Pearson Longman, 2009).

13. Cathy N. Davidson and Jessamyn Hatcher, introduction to No More Separate Spheres!: A Next Wave American Studies Reader, ed. Davidson and Hatcher (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 11. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

14. Sentilles, Performing Menken, 265.

15. Greenspan, introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman, 3.

16. Carolyn Sorisio, Fleshing Out America: Race, Gender, and the Politics of the Body in American Literature, 1833–1879 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002), 2. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

17. Catherine Cucinella, Poetics of the Body: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Marilyn Chin, and Marilyn Hacker (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 3.

18. See M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Whitman’s Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 42.

19. Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” in Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, ed. Michael Moon, Norton Critical Editions (New York: Norton, 2002), lines 52–54, 82–83, 422, 1269–71. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

20. For more on how Menken’s body constructs her identity, see Sentilles, “Identity, Speculation, and History,” 128; and Dane Barca, “Adah Isaacs Menken: Race and Transgendered Performance in the Nineteenth Century,” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, 29, No. 3/4, (2004), 293–94.

21. Brooks, “Lady Menken’s Secret: Adah Isaacs Menken, Actress Biographies, and the Race for Sensation,” Legacy, 15, No. 1 (1998), 75.

22. “Soul” is the most frequently repeated word in Infelicia, appearing close to 150 times.

23. Menken, “A Fragment,” in Infelicia and Other Writings, 104.

24. Menken, “The Release,” in Infelicia and Other Writings, 55. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

25. Menken, “Myself,” in Infelicia and Other Writings, 69.

26. Additionally, Menken’s repetition of words associated with the body increases the body’s sense of primacy and importance as an image and motif in Infelicia. “Blood” is repeated sixty-eight times, “feet” twenty-five times, “arms” twenty-four times, “hand” twenty-one times, and “lips” nineteen times.

27. Menken, “Judith,” in Infelicia and Other Writings, 52. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

28. Barca, “Adah Isaacs Menken,” 303.

29. Menken, “The Autograph on the Soul,” in Infelicia and Other Writings, 109.

30. Regarding “Song of Myself” specifically, Wolosky argues that “what the poetry celebrates is a self and nation as yet to be created, not least through Whitman’s own writing”; see Wolosky, Poetry and Public Discourse in Nineteenth-Century America, 177.

31. See Killingsworth, Whitman’s Poetry of the Body, xvi.

32. Harold Aspiz, So Long!: Walt Whitman’s Poetry of Death (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), 34.

33. Killingsworth, Whitman’s Poetry of the Body, xvi.

34. Wolosky, Poetry and Public Discourse in Nineteenth-Century America, 176–77.

35. This range of negative emotions can be explained partly by biographical details about Menken’s life during the time in which she was writing the bulk of the poems appearing in Infelicia. As Eiselein summarizes, the time between 1860 and 1861 was “the most painful and depressing period of her personal life. Following Heenan’s [her husband’s] desertion, the ensuing financial difficulties, the newspaper scandals and public humiliation, the death of her son and later her mother, a desperate and dejected Menken contemplated suicide”; see Eiselein, introduction to Infelicia and Other Writings, 20.

36. Michael Foster and Barbara Foster, A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken, 1835–1868: America’s Original Superstar (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2011), 98.

37. Eiselein, introduction to Infelicia and Other Writings, 27. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

38. Julian Levinson, “‘The Seventh Angel Woke Me’: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Return of Israelite Prophecy,” Studies in American Jewish Literature, 33, No. 1 (2014), 156.

39. Linda Grasso discusses the problematic nature of female anger in the writings of nineteenth-century American women authors, arguing that writing from “anger and bitterness, rather than love and sympathy, was a liability for nineteenth-century women”; see Grasso, The Artistry of Anger: Black and White Women’s Literature in America, 1820–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 25. Because of this liability, women writers frequently employed “masking techniques in order to critique cultural norms and practices in socially acceptable configurations” (p. 37).

40. Menken, “Resurgam,” in Infelicia and Other Writings, 43. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

41. Menken, “Infelix,” in Infelicia and Other Writings, 121.

42. Wolosky, Poetry and Public Discourse in Nineteenth-Century America, 107.

43. Barca, “Adah Isaacs Menken,” 302.

44. Menken has been the subject of articles and books published every decade since her death in 1868. See Sentilles, “Identity, Speculation, and History,” 133.

45. Many contemporary reviews of Infelicia critiqued Menken’s adoption of a Whitmanesque style, such as The London Review’s 1868 characterization of her as “an impressionable woman, as plastic as wax, on whom the last influence had the strongest effect”; see “Miss Menken’s Poems,” review of Infelicia, by Menken, The London Review, 12 September 1868, in Infelicia and Other Writings, 244.

46. Annette Kolodny, “The Integrity of Memory: Creating a New Literary History of the United States,” American Literature, 57, No. 2 (1985), 297.

47. Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 199.

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