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Sam P. for Sept. 8

Last week in a comment directed at another student (the “other” Sam), I began to question the limitations of Whitman’s footloose laissez faire outlook, particularly with regard to the more pervasively enforced geographic immobility faced by many American women before, during, and even some time beyond the nineteenth century.  By assigning greatest value to a lifestyle based on the wanderlust of a strapping-but-impoverished “underdog” (Sam’s word) in the “Song” and more explicitly in “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman indicates only a passing interest in the comparatively stable, even “tame” domestic realm beyond which few women might have roamed.  Of course, such a nearly exclusively male vision of individual liberty seems at odds with Whitman’s broad claims to kinship with people in every station, class, race, etc.  Throughout “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman repeatedly renders this disparity in terms that abstractly offer both “men and women” the freedom of the unclaimed horizon, but which specifically close women into a category set apart from that of the “unburdened,” itinerant male.

            The speaker of “Open Road” does seem superficially apt to encompass both sexes when describing “the grand roads of the universe” as a conduit for “the progress of the souls of men and women” (305).  However, the relatively equal footing of the phrase “men and women” does not prevail without exception in the poem.  In a crucial recasting of that formulation, the speaker asserts that “Now if a thousand perfect men were to appear it would not amaze me, / Now if a thousand beautiful forms of women appear’d it would not astonish me” (300).  This descriptive shift suggests a perspective that treats men as irreducible, “perfect” beings and women as mere “forms,” hollow and freely interpretable.  When Whitman’s speaker goes on to insist that “Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons” (300), we cannot help but assume he means those “persons” who exceed “forms” and become “perfect.”

The space that opens between these two gender categories only widens more dramatically in a passage that, like “Song of Myself,” sees Whitman’s speaker attempt to catalogue all the kinds of individuals moving down the road of the poem’s title, confident that “They pass, I also pass, any thing passes, none can be interdicted, / None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me” (298).  Quite conspicuously, the lines immediately preceding this claim include “the black with his woolly head,” “the escaped youth,” and “the early market-man,” but only include a woman when lumped in with a man as half of “the eloping couple,” or even more peripherally in the form of the assumed mother attached to “the birth, the hasting after the physician” (298).  To wit, Whitman seems to have here intended something other than a representative American population sample.  Though “Song of the Open Road’s” speaker almost unfailingly includes women alongside men as a more inclusive address to the reader, the speaker’s failure to list an authentically independent, specific woman in this stanza or anywhere else in the poem gestures to the ultimate limits of the road, and the variable freedom of those who purportedly travel on it.

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