“I Sing the Body Electric” – Walt Whitman

Hi guys! So I had do a little poem reading for a class I’m taking and really enjoyed this one that I’d never read by Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric.” It’s from his Leaves of Grass collection of poems, and is just absolutely fantastic.

Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” begins in the 19th century (which is when this was written) at a slave auction, and discusses how he views slaves/people of color as exactly the same as white people. Whitman takes the time to verbalize every aspect of the human body to compare how alike the slave body and the white body are, and makes sure to convey to the reader that there is absolutely no difference between one body and the next, despite skin color. Whitman is obviously vehemently against slavery, and also is very pro-women’s rights, and uses this poem to express that message.

Whitman communicates this idea by discussing his view of what a female and a male (in terms of body and essence) are made of. For instance, when he describes women he explains that the proverbial “She” is something of beauty, something that produces life in more ways than one, someone who “contains all qualities, and tempers them – she is in her place, and moved with perfect balance.”  He mentions that women are “the gates of the body, and [women] are the gates of the soul.” In other words, he gives the reader a full description of what his view of the Female is – powerful, life-giving, beautiful, strong, capable, and “divine.” As he continues, he mentions that he sees this slave woman up at auction as just Female; he does not see a slave, he sees a woman who is just as capable of life-giving, just as female, as the other women he was describing. To him, white, black, or any other color – they are all equally woman, and thus equally divine.

But he doesn’t just talk about women – he discusses men as being powerful, defiant, passionate and prideful. He tells the reader, “the male is not less the soul nor more, he too is in his place,” which lets us know that he views men as equally as he does women.

Although I must say that I am genuinely impressed at his progressive views on women and equality, I also, in my own way, feel like Whitman might respect the female form more than he does the male form. I’m not saying he views them as unequal, or thinks that one should be valued over the other. Instead, what I mean is that Whitman is a man, and thus would be familiar with the male body and the strength and power that comes with it, but as a man I think he’s infatuated with the idea of what a female body can do.

Whitman even mentions, “I am drawn by [the female’s] breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor, all falls aside but myself and it.” He sees the beauty in the form, the power in what it can do, and the mysteries of it he will never know. He appreciates that the life-cycle is dependent on the woman, and not that a man does not have a part in it, but he seems to truly respect and value the power of women.

He also, interestingly, discusses immigrants very briefly. Whitman says,

“The man’s body is sacred, and the woman’s body is sacred;

No matter who it is, it is sacred;

Is it a slave? Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?

Each belongs here or anywhere, just as much as the well-off—just as much as you;

Each has his or her place in the procession.”

I was very taken aback at reading this since he not only mentions how he feels about immigration at the time, but also of how he equates slaves and immigrants. To start, I think it’s important to mention that starting around 1850, and going until the first World War, immigration was pouring in to cities. According to The Norton Anthology of American Literature, large cities were becoming even larger due to the influx of immigrants. For instance, New York City grew sevenfold going from 500k to 3.5 million, and Chicago went from 29K people in 1850 to more than 2 million in 1910. This is a monumental gap. This is so important because as a country we get so wrapped up in the romanticized idea that America was founded by and built by/for immigrants, and yet those in that time period did not necessarily view immigrants in a kind way.

In the 19th century (and prior), America gained a large amount of wealth from slavery and the trade/selling of goods that came from it. But at a certain point, immigrants began to understand that they may be able to leave the poverty and horrific regimes that they were experiencing and took the risk to come to America. Those immigrants were not seen as important, they were not seen as welcome. Much like the immigrants of today, many people told them to leave, and made their lives difficult if they did not; this made it extremely difficult for immigrants to make a living and for them to build a solid foundation for their families. Whitman, on the other hand, understood how the immigrants were being treated and viewed that treatment as inequality. Despite the majority of the immigrants being caucasian, he viewed their treatment as unequal, just as he viewed slavery as unequal.

Whitman also uses an interesting set of stanzas at the end of his poem that encompass what he was trying to express in the rest of his poem. He sets off to give an extremely in depth look at every single part of the human anatomy; he makes the connection that every body has these parts equally, and if we have all of the same parts, how can we not be equal? How are we truly different from one to the other? In order to make this point very clear, Whitman describes individual body parts, and his use of imagery here is remarkable. He mentions “the ample side-round of the chest,” “Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,” and “the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, and the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes.” It gives the reader something to envision perfectly as you read along.

The way he begins with body parts everyone has (i.e. nose, mouth, tongue, cheek, eyes, etc.) and then moves on to the individual parts of man and woman truly spark a very distinctive picture in the mind when reading it. At least for me, I had no particular color of person in mind when reading it (since Whitman does not use skin color to describe anatomy).  I think that was his point: to make simply being a human being indistinguishable from race.

Whitman also equates the Soul and the Body. He tells the reader that every Body has a soul, and that soul is equal to all other souls. Thus, no matter what skin color, religion, language or social class, we are all equal. No one has the right to forcibly take another person’s body, to take another person’s dignity, to steal their rights.

Which brings me to my last point: Whitman’s writing of this poem is of extreme importance; particularly for the people of the time he wrote this. At the time this poem was published, approximately five years before the Civil War began, there was obviously an incredible divide between North and South. This poem simply explains that divide  from the point of view of just an average observer. He can see the differences between these two groups of people: those who believed that there is nothing different from one body to the next, that it is a human right to be free, versus those who viewed slaves as property, as meat and cattle, as something that could be collected and sold, exploited and overused.

Whitman’s writing of this poem shows just how progressive he was at the time. While of course there were abolitionists and groups that sympathized them, there were certainly still divides concerning whether or not black people were equal. In my research I’ve found that there were more people who disagreed with slavery, but still viewed black people and other people of color as beneath them than there were people who viewed all bodies as equal.

So while it may seem like Whitman is simply appealing to abolitionists alone, it seems like this poem would have reached people who were against slavery but still did not see how people of color could possibly be equal to white people. Whitman even publishing this poem could have put him in hot water (and it did), but he published it anyway knowing that maybe someone who was on the fence might now be converted, and at the very least he’s gotten his opinions onto paper and out there for others to use and criticize.

I really enjoyed this poem, and thought Whitman did a truly wonderful job of capturing the truth about race, slavery, gender equality, and equality in general.

If you guys have read it, or would like to read it (I highly recommend you do!) let me know in the comments below or via email! I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, and what you inferred from reading it yourself.

If you have any other comments or questions, you can leave them below or you can email me at rachel@booksandcleverness.com! I hope to hear from you soon!

Until next time,

Rachel

email: rachel@booksandcleverness.com

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Murder on the Orient Express Review

Holy crap! Two posts in just over two weeks? What is this, sorcery?!

Nope! Just little ol’ me, finally getting a little time to read for my own pleasure! So, what did I read you may ask? (Or you might not ask, since it’s the title of this blog…) Well, friends, I decided to go tried-and-true: Agatha Christie.

Hercule Poirot is easily one of my favorite personalities sprung from the world of fiction. Now I have a confession to make: I had never read any Agatha Christie story before this one. I know! I’m sorry, don’t crucify me! It actually occurred to me only recently that I hadn’t read any of the stories, but I have a (somewhat-)valid excuse:

My parents instilled in me a love of Poirot since I was a kid. I have seen all of the Peter Ustinov Poirot’s, and many others (but Ustinov is by far my favorite), and absolutely adore the character. So why did I never read the books? Well, that’s a question I asked myself two weeks ago.
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You see, I saw that there is going to be a new film version of Murder on the Orient Express, and immediately was ecstatic because, I mean… c’mon, it looks amazing. But then I was like, wait – have I never read any of the Poirot novels?? Well let’s change that.

So I took matters into my own hands. I bought several Poirot novels, only two of which I’ve seen in film version, including my all-time favorite Hercule Poirot story, Death on the Nile (Maggie Smith for the win!), and a copy of Murder on the Orient Express. Keep in mind, I have not seen these movies in years and couldn’t (still can’t) remember the majority of the murderers – only the plots, which means that I can enjoy the endings as intended!

For those who are unfamiliar with Agatha Christie, here’s a little somethin’ for ya: Christie is a wildly successful crime novelist and short story writer. In fact, she is so successful that she is the most published author, only being out-sold by the Bible and Shakespeare. She’s written over seventy novels, as well as short stories, plays, autobiographies, and romance novels. Most of her books are detective stories, and more than fifty of them include my dear Hercule Poirot, private investigator.

So, now that that’s cleared up: let’s hop to it! This story is the ultimate mind-fuck. I’m just putting it out there now. Obviously I’ll say now that there will be no spoilers in this article, because I’m not a monster. Here we go:

One: Plot

Okay, Christie has always been known for her amazing stories, that is no doubt. However, this story is incredibly intriguing. The story is obviously centered around Poirot, but the plot of the novel is this: On a train journey across the Orient, Poirot finds himself in a sleeping car with thirteen other passengers. Overnight the train is stopped by a huge snow storm and the train, and its passengers are stranded together. Come morning things get interesting – the wealthy Samuel Ratchett is found stabbed a dozen times in his compartment. Who committed the crime?

This is amazing for many reasons, but primarily because there’s just nothing like it. As far as murder mysteries go, it’s usually a man that gets poisoned in a mansion, or is shot in a small town and the place is in a frenzy trying to find the murderer. In this case, there are thirteen passengers, plus Poirot, and no one could have come on or off the train, leaving everyone in cramped quarters and high tension.

What a lovely setting!

Two: Writing Style

Christie’s writing style for Murder on the Orient Express is really nothing short of brilliant. It’s broken up into three parts: “The Facts,” “The Evidence,” and “Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks.” This is honestly the best possible way to construct this novel. The first part, “The Facts,” really just follows Poirot on his journey from one train to another across the Orient, up until just past the murder. The second part, “The Evidence,” meets with all of the individuals on the train and gets their testimonies/alibi’s. And finally, in part three, “Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks” about the information he has received and begins to piece together what really happens.

As someone new to the Christie writing genre, I was unsure at first what to expect in terms of writing flow, and difficulty in understanding the language of the 1930s. But I have to hand it to her, she writes a mean novel! The way she split it into three parts made it very easy to understand what was going on and how the characters each fit in to the plot. Sublime!

Three: Characters

It can be very difficult for an author to write this many novels with the same main character. As a writer myself, I can see how it would be strenuous to consistently come up with unique stories, and new unique characters. Now I understand that Christie got inspiration for this story from the true story of the Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932. However, she put a very imaginative spin on it, and made it so intriguing.

Each character gets their own aforementioned chapter, but it’s not without reason. Each person is telling Poirot where they were and what they were doing at the time of the murder, and each person has seemingly airtight alibis. Christie shows the difference between gender, classes, generations, and cultures, and seems to do it seamlessly, all the while still centering around our favorite investigator who always has the answers halfway through the plot but you’d never know it.

Honestly, I am so glad that I read this novel. I’m already reading another, and hopefully, if my workload doesn’t get too crazy, I’ll be able to write a review on that shortly. Obviously, I will be seeing the film version in theatre in November, and absolutely cannot wait! So I’ll definitely do a book vs. movie ASAP.

Hopefully y’all found this helpful if you were considering getting into Agatha Christie novels, and I find that this is a really great story to start with to get you used to the kind of language and detective style that Poirot has.

As always, if you have any comments or questions you can leave them below or you can shoot me an e-mail at rachel@booksandcleverness.com! I hope to hear from you all soon!

Until next time,

Rachel

e-mail: rachel@booksandcleverness.com