Archive for September 28th, 2009

Monday, September 28th, 2009 | Author:

In excerpts from “Whitman the Political Poet”  Besty Erkkila brings up some interesting points about Whitman’s complicated political dealings.

In Chapter 1 she addresses one of the most popular myths about Whitman: that he transcended politics.  I’ve noticed a curious tendency for Whitman to be deified by his many of his readers and scholars–that he speaks to us from on high, that he is a poet messiah who has come to save the world.  Every poem, letter, article, speech, scribble contains infinite wisdom that must be studied. The beard helped.  What college freshman hasn’t had the same feeling about Jim Morrison? This phenomenon of worshiping some writers and ignoring others deserves further study.

Erkkila chips away at the myth stating “My own overriding assumption is that works of art have a particular history that is not merely biographical, but social and political in the broadest sense of the terms as well…. Indeed what makes Whitman unique as an artist, and perhaps also most interesting and valuable, is his embeddedness in his time rather than his transcendence of it.”

It’s impossible to have neutral political beliefs. Whitman had some political leanings that seem to be at odds with the universal, egalitarian tones of his writing. We learned from Reynolds that he supported Andrew Johnson, the country’s most openly racist president. He schmoozed with robber-baron capitalists. He allowed his works to be edited so he could earn more money.  He was full of political contradictions and paradoxes. When we learn more about these from Erlikka and Reynolds, it makes reading Whitman more enjoyable.  Bringing in history and politics into a reading doesn’t lessen his legacy, it just adds new layers of meaning to his work that New Criticism ignored.

Erkkila, Betsey. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage, 1995.

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Monday, September 28th, 2009 | Author:



Did you fear some scrofula out of the unflagging pregnancy? p.48 “Song of Myself”.

“Scrofula” (AKA King’s Evil) historically referred to a type of tuberculosis that affects the lymph glands of the neck. Today there is disagreement among medical professionals about its relationship to tuberculosis.  The word is adapted from the latin scrofa meaning “female swine”,  which was once thought to be the origin of the disease. In medieval times, scrofula was called the “King’s Evil.” It was believed that the touch of the King of France or England could the cure the disease. Scrofula was common in Whitman’s time but very rare today due to the near eradication of tuberculosis.

This is one of Whitman’s nastier lines and a welcome contrast to his universal warm and fuzzy side (he would have the loved “E”-popping rave culture of the early 1990s). It’s a rhetorical question in the vein of the Joker asking,  “have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?”  Its context in the poem is interesting and brings up more questions than answers. Did the mother fear getting scrofula or giving birth to scrofula? By scrofula, does he mean the disease or the sow from which it supposedly came?  Whitman’s having a little fun with this vagueness. I think this is an example of him being the poet of wickedness that he referred to earlier on the same page. But it fits into his universal vision—who we are and what we give birth to is all the same.


“scrofula” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2009 <>.

Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself (1855).” Whitman Poetry & Prose. Library of America, 1996. 48.

Image : Absolute Astronomy collection, photographer, date unknown < >.

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