“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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Top 3 Favorite Short Stories

Hey y’all, I’m back! I’ve been incredibly busy recently with summer classes, and as of today finished my last summer class before the fall (and my wisdom teeth and ankle surgery *insert whining emoji*). But YAAAY!

I took a really cool class, though, called The Short Story. Can you tell I’m an English major? Anyway, it was very interesting, we covered a lot of different mediums, including radio dramas, “story songs” (aka….songs), and even a comic book. It was really cool to see the different ways in which a short story can be portrayed. However, obviously the main objective was text.

So I thought, hey! I haven’t really been reading for myself in my spare time, but I have been reading a LOT! So I figured, what the heck! Lemme give you guys my top three favorite short stories that we covered in my class (keep in mind, we read a hell of lot more than three, so this was a tough list to narrow down – honorable mentions will be at the bottom)!

So, without further ado:

“Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” – Stephen Crane

I’m sure some of you might have read this story – really a novella – before in high school. But I dropped out of my public high school for a period of time, and when I went back to a different school we certainly did not cover short stories, mostly just Shakespeare (yaaaassss! <3). But let me tell you: this story is GOLD.

To give you a little background, “Maggie” is set in the poor tenements of New York City at the turn of the century, and centers around a girl, Maggie (duh), and her brother Jimmie. The two grow up in an abusive family with two alcoholic parents. The story progresses from their time as children to their lives as adults, where Jimmie is basically the King of the Streets, and Maggie grew to be a really beautiful woman (Crane describes this as “blossom[ing] in a mud puddle”). The story takes an ugly turn, and I won’t tell you any more than that, for fear of ruining it for you. But oh my God, please go read it.

From the book I was reading, Barbara Solomon’s The Haves and the Have-Nots, it was about 65 pages long – so longer than your average short story, but certainly not longer than a book or even really a modern novella (although it is considered a novella).

I HIGHLY recommend this story. Keep in mind, it is set in the tenement districts of NYC – so a very poor, very depressed time period, with alcoholism and all kinds of other not pleasant things. So if you’re not in the mood for something dark, don’t read it just yet. However, I think it was fantastic, and something that everyone should read. If not for the sake of the interesting plot, at least for the historical significance and imagery.

“The Musgrave Ritual” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It wouldn’t have felt right not to include at least one Sherlock Holmes story. We read practically half of  The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries and it was fantastic!

“The Musgrave Ritual” is honestly the epitome of Sherlock Holmes, in my opinion. While the story is told, as always, through Watson’s perspective, this story is actually set many years prior when Holmes was first starting as an independent detective. Holmes helps an old school acquaintance. His Butler, and the butler’s scorned lover, have disappeared. In order to solve the mystery, Holmes must first solve his friend’s old family “ritual” or riddle:

“Whose was it? His who is gone. Who shall have it? He who will come. Where was the sun? Over the oak. Where was the shadow? Under the elm. How was it stepped? North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under. What shall we give for it? All that is ours. Why should we give it? For the sake of the trust.”

Like WTF??  If you want to know the answer, you’ll have to read the story…. Muah hahaha!

“To Build a Fire” by Jack London

I’m sure many of you have read The Call of the Wild, but for those who have not read any of his short stories – please do! “To Build a Fire,” like most Jack London stories, are very man vs nature. It centers around an older, but physically fit, man in the Alaskan wilderness. Rather than going the easy way to the campsite, he and his dog go through the rough snow storm the long way.

True to Jack London form, he gives glimpses of what the dog is feeling or experiencing through a lens, and makes for a really wonderful read. While certainly not as depressing as “Maggie” it does have parts where you’re going to be yelling at the book and saying “you’re such an idiot,” “how could you?” and “daaaamn!” But it is well worth it!

If you’re interested at all in what it’s like in the harsh Alaskan wilderness in the late 19th century, this story is definitely for you. But I find that it’s just an overall wonderful story, that I think everyone needs to read.

So that’s all, folks! Those are the three most impactful, and exciting stories that I read during my six week session. I hope you guys read them because I really enjoyed them, and think you will too. Hopefully, now that I have two weeks on my own, I’ll be able to finally read some books for my own entertainment and not for a good GPA, but I’ll keep you guys posted!

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below or e-mail me with the address below! Hope to hear from you soon!

By the way, honorable mention goes to:

  • “A Pair of Silk Stockings” – Kate Chopin (The Haves and Have-Nots)
  • “The Five Orange Pips” and “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries)
  • Because it’s a classic: “The Gift of the Magi” – O. Henry (23 Great Stories)

Until next time!

Rachel

e-mail: rachel@booksandcleverness.com

Works Cited

Crane, Stephen. “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.” The Haves and Have-Nots, edited by Barbara Solomon, New American Library, a division of Penguin Group, 1999, pp. 219 – 284.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. “The Musgrave Ritual.” The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, Signet Classics, 2014, pp.  421 – 439.

 

London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” 23 Great Stories, by David Leavitt and Aaron Their, The Penguin Group, 2013.