Chelsea for September 22

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In Luke Mancuso’s assessment of the 1867 Leaves of Grass, he writes on “The City Dead-House” of Whitman’s use of the figure of a dead prostitute to present and argue against flawed democracy.  As Whitman develops the scene of the prostitute dead and lying within sight of the Capitol, Mancuso posits:

Socially outcast, the body of the prostitute requires the intervention of the poet’s speaker in order that she may be represented visibly, in a democracy in which many are invisible. If persons were rotting on the pavement within sight of the Capitol, this compelling poem enacts a recovery of the rightful place of human solidarity among strangers.

Whitman’s using a prostitute’s death to expose the problems of a “democracy” that chooses to ignore the needs of its members is interesting because prostitution is also an issue he again addresses in “To a Common Prostitute.”  This poem struck me particularly due to its closeness with scripture in Jesus’ encounter with the adulteress in John 8:1-11, which says (if you’ll allow my lengthy quotation for those that aren’t familiar with the story):

1But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.             

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.  9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11“No one, sir,” she said. 

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (New International Version)

This passage struck me as similar to Whitman’s poems in its direct address to a woman who has otherwise been scorned and put out by society (not to mention that this passage is often falsely thought on as being about a prostitute…AND Jesus often hung out among and talked with prostitutes similarly).  In “To a Common Prostitute,” Whitman addresses the prostitute in much the same way that Jesus addresses this adulteress, allowing him to again transfer himself (not just the speaker but “Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature” (512) ) into the position of savior.  It also allows Whitman to argue for a world in which even those considered different or even immoral would be given an equal opportunity to exist by using subtle biblical allusion as is so often his conduit in driving home many of his points.      

Now, in coming back to “The City Dead-House,” Whitman (as Mancuso points out) uses the death of a prostitute to represent the difficulties of the current application and assessment of democracy in the budding and troubled United States.  Whitman speaks out for a woman who has both literally and figuratively been silenced by the government.  My point here is that it seems to me that Whitman would have (as has been often suggested in class) himself viewed as a Christ-figure, a savior, and further that he would have himself seated as the savior of democracy.  In linking these poems through the prostitute, an outcast, he speaks up for his idea of what democracy should (or rather what it should not) be, bringing to mind the prejudices between North and South, blacks and whites, as well as other issues of disagreement and confrontation throughout Whitman’s lifetime.

5 Responses to “Chelsea for September 22”

  1. tallersam Says:
    Avatar of tallersam

    It strikes me that, in one of the poems, the prostitute is alive and, in the other, she is dead. The tone of these two poems is very different, perhaps reflecting some (understandable) insecurity on Whitman’s part about the state of things, post-Civil War.
    In “To a Common Prostitute,” the speaker is very sure of himself and seems to be referring to a sort of “second coming,” where matters between two holy bodies will be consummated. The speaker has arrived in time to tell the prostitute, the “bride,” to prepare herself.
    However, it is already too late in “The City Dead-House.” The prostitute has been stoned to death by her oppressors and is beyond redemption. The “idle saunter” of the narrator implies that this has happened perhaps without anyone’s knowledge. I really like that Whitman says that the prostitute’s body is immortal even beyond the Capitol building: democracy and its ideas are not confined to one symbol.
    Whitman’s use of the prostitute as a symbol raises some questions for me though. It is obvious that he is trying to redeem what others see as a disgusting part of society, but what does he really mean? Will the woman spoken to in “To a Common Prostitute” be used by others before the narrator’s promised return? Or, is he trying to enforce celibacy on a woman whose livelihood depends on the very opposite of that? Is this a call for her to “leave behind her life of sin,” or is he saying that he will take her as he finds her, regardless? What does this mean for democracy, and how the affairs of the nation should be conducted?

  2. Mara Scanlon Says:
    Avatar of Mara Scanlon

    Wow, great post and response, you two. Chelsea, since part of what our class here at UMW is embracing this semester is the search each of makes for “My Walt Whitman,” it seems like a powerful, consistent component of that relationship for you is the religious discourses and imagery of the poems, so you might start mulling that over in relation to projects to come. Since WW’s self-posturing as savior rubs some people the wrong way, I also remind myself that in doing so in some ways he fulfills exactly what he is asked to do by Christianity in making himself into the likeness of Christ, especially since the powers he brings are human, or offered by the earth, rather than divine per se.

    The questions Sam poses at the end of his comment are excellent– I am going to try to incorporate them in tonight’s discussion.

  3. meghanedwards Says:
    Avatar of meghanedwards

    I’m really glad you pointed out John 8 here, because I also thought of it when I read “The City Dead House.” I love how Whitman again and again positions himself in the place of a savior, even amidst the chaos surrounding him in the Civil War.
    Actually, the reason I really commented was that I wanted to respond to a point that Sam brought up–and I might be misinterpreting it. He asks if Whitman is “trying to enforce celibacy on a woman whose livelihood depends” on sin. I don’t think that’s the case at all. If anything, I think that he celebrates her because she at least has embraced her body; she has used it and knows it. Perhaps the prostitute is the other end of the spectrum for Whitman. Rather than showing her the body to her soul, he needs to show her the beautiful soul to go with her body. It is her soul he needs to glean and refine, by knowing her and recognizing her, or even by just showing a little kindness and respect. I don’t know; I could be misconstruing things.

  4. bcbottle Says:
    Avatar of bcbottle

    Whitman uses this imagery a lot in his poetry it seems. As I was reading your post I couldn’t help but think back to the part of “Song of Myself” where Whitman describes the prostitute and defends her, at least in his own mind, against the jeers that the surrounding men throw at her. He definitely seems to feel a sense of protection in regards to women in this line of work, which maybe is a chance to redeem him from some of his sexism we’ve been talking about. Then again, it might not.

  5. jennimarina Says:
    Avatar of jennimarina

    very nice. I am from the Rutgers Camden group.

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