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Origins and Manifestations of Narcissism in the Life and Work of Walt Whitman

I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
—Song of Myself


Walt Whitman was a narcissist. His narcissism began in childhood when, as an infant unable to idealize his father or detach from his mother, he became his own love-object. Whitman’s attachment to his mother and disappointment in his father lasted throughout his lifetime and complicated his role in the Whitman family. His narcissism was the cause of both his obsession with the public’s reception of his work and his determination to be the nation’s poet. It is also the root of the autoeroticism in his poetry and an explanation of the fractured self his poetry portrays. Most poignantly, Whitman’s narcissism informed his homosexual impulses and the commingled pleasure and torture Whitman experienced as a nurse in the Civil War hospitals.

In terms of theoretical research, I analyzed Whitman from a Freudian standpoint and did not address later theories of narcissism (either Lacanian or post-Freudian psychoanalysis) at length. Any information on post-Freud theories was based on Lynne Layton’s article, “From Oedipus to Narcissus: Literature and the Psychology of the Self,” which explores the roots of narcissism through a modern psychoanalytic lens. Primarily, I relied on theory provided by Freud’s essay “On Narcissism” in The Freud Reader, although I found useful information in some of his other essays as well (for example, Civilization and Its Discontents). “On Narcissism” was useful in defining narcissism and providing a theoretical framework with which to establish Whitman’s narcissism and relate it to his autoeroticism, homosexuality, and relationship with his mother.
Regarding historical research, I contextualized Whitman’s sexuality and mother-son relationship using Reynolds’s Whitman biography and Myrth Jimmie Killingsworth’s article “Whitman and Motherhood: A Historical View.” Reynolds provides an excellent description of the views of same-sex relationships in Whitman’s time and Killingsworth explains Whitman’s use of the motherhood mystique in relation to the intense mother-son relationships that were typical of the nineteenth century. My analysis of Walt Whitman’s narcissism was based on both biographical information and a selection of his writing that included the poems Song of Myself, “As at Thy Portals Also Death,” and “The Wound Dresser;” and the prose work Specimen Days.

Works Cited

Bauerlein, Mark. “Whitman’s Language of the Self.” American Imago 44.2 (1987): 129-148. Print.
Cavitch, David. My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985. Print.
Fredrickson, Robert S. “Public Onanism: Whitman’s Song of Himself.” Modern Language Quarterly 46.2 (1985): 143-60. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: Norton, 1989. Print.
Killingsworth, Myrth Jimmie. “Whitman and Motherhood: A Historical View.” American Literature 54.1 (1982): 28-43. Print.
Layton, Lynne. “From Oedipus to Narcissus: Literature and the Psychology of Self.” Mosaic 18.1 (1985): 97-105. Print.
Moder, Donna. “Gender Bipolarity and the Metaphorical Dimensions of Creativity in Walt Whitman’s Poetry: A Psychobiographical Study.” Literature and Psychology 34.1 (1988): 34-52. Print.
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage, 1996. Print.
Whitman, Walter. Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1996. Print.
Zweig Paul. “The Wound Dresser.” Ed. Harold Bloom. Modern Critical Views: Walt Whitman. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Print.

Final Paper Presentation

December 18th, 2009 at 7:32 pm