In this provocative analysis of Whitman's exemplary quest for happiness, Vivian Pollak skillfully explores the intimate relationships that contributed to his portrayal of masculinity in crisis. She maintains that in representing himself as a characteristic nineteenth-century American and in proposing to heal national ills, Whitman was trying to temper his own inner conflicts as well.
The poet's expansive vision of natural eroticism and of unfettered comradeship between democratic equals was, however, only part of the story. As Whitman waged a conscious campaign to challenge misogynistic and homophobic literary codes, he promoted a raceless, classless ideal of sexual democracy that theoretically equalized all varieties of desire and resisted none. Pollak suggests that this goal remains imperfectly achieved in his writings, which liberates some forbidden voices and silences others.
Integrating biography and criticism, Pollak employs a loosely chronological organization to describe the poet's multifaceted "faith in sex." Drawing on his early fiction, journalism, poetry, and self-reviews, as well as letters and notebook entries, she shows how in spite of his personal ambivalence about sustained erotic intimacy, Whitman came to imagine himself as "the phallic choice of America."
Vivian R. Pollak is Professor of English at Washington University, St. Louis, and is the editor of New Essays on James's Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw (1992) and A Poet's Parents: The Courtship Letters of Emily Norcross and Edward Dickinson (1988), and author of Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender (1984).
"Absorbing and incisive, The Erotic Whitman makes an important contribution not only to our understanding of the dynamics of nineteenth-century literary history but also, more generally, to American studies and gender stdies, in particular to the increasingly lively study of the subject now called 'masculinities.'" —Sandra Gilbert, author of Wrongful Death: A Medical Tragedy and, with Susan Gubar, of The Madwoman in the Attic
"The Erotic Whitman moves skillfully between Whitman's use of the sexualized body and his dreams for the body politic, drawing on Whitman's biography to provide newly informed, illuminating readings of his work. This work should place Pollak solidly alongside other elite Whitman scholars, such as Michael Moon, M. Jimmie Killingsworth, and Betsy Erkkila."—Emory Elliott, Distinguished Professor of English, University of California, Riverside
"This is an incisive, venturesome, carefully-argued contribution to an often-discussed but still insufficiently-understood dimension of Whitman's life, writing, and significance--its biographical-historical bases, its aesthetics, its cultural-political implications. One may at certain points dispute, but at no point fail to respect, Pollak's thoughtful unfolding of her subject from Whitman's early family life to the myth of democratic maternalism in his later poetry."—Lawrence Buell, author of The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture
"This is an imaginative and sensitive book about the profoundly personal sources of Whitman's poetry in his relations with his family and his male lovers. Through illuminating readings of Whitman's early fiction, his various editions of Leaves of Grass, and Democratic Vistas, Pollak argues that Whitman's democratic and homoerotic dream vision is frequently at odds with the realities of his life as son, brother, and lover. Pollak's scholarship is impressive and massive, and she brings new insights to bear on many dimensions of Whitman's life and writing. She is particularly attentive to the place and plight of women in Whitman's work. Her book will be widely read and appreciated, especially by Whitman scholars and others interested in the psychosexual and biographical sources of art. "—Betsy Erkkila, author of Whitman the Politcal Poet