Weekends with Whitman — The Children of Adam

Compared to Song of Myself, The Children of Adam is a relatively short section of Leaves of Grass–only 24 pages long in my 1945 version of the book. In this part Whitman expounds his enjoyment and love of his own body and those around him. The noun “children” is deliberately chosen, since he describes feelings for both women and men.

Throughout the section, Whitman reiterates his personal belief that the soul and the body are inseparable, and that one cannot be defined without the other. He goes further than he did in Song of Myself, stating that just as Nature surrounds him, he is also Nature itself. By connecting to himself and those around him, he feels that he becomes an observer and a channel for natural forces themselves. He embraces a kind of humanistic spiritism defined by feeling and intuition rather than a systematic theology. However, it doesn’t become a shallow set of beliefs. One can see in his poetry that he grounds his moral sense in gentleness and physical love. Furthermore, he expounds a philosophy of living, where life is lived through action and emotional awareness–the acts of going, doing, observing, and feeling are spiritual activities. Connection with other humans, particularly sexual connection, seems to be Whitman’s primary way of experiencing nature.

The longest piece in the section is “I Sing the Body Electric”, and it contains two of Whitman’s problematic pieces. In sections seven and eight he discusses going to slave auctions for the sale of both men and women, and even assisting in the sale. He goes on to describe the beauty even of people sold as slaves, and how no price can ever be high enough to equal their true worth. This is paradoxical; by his own admission, Whitman participates in one of the most barbaric practices in history, while at the same time seeing and describing the beauty and humanity of those being sold. He makes an indirect argument for equality in the second stanza of section eight:

Have you ever loved the body of a woman?
Have you ever loved the body of a man?
Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations and times all over the earth?

There are two other pieces I’d like to note. “Once I Pass’d through a Populous City” relates a trip to a large city, where Whitman had a fling with a woman. It caused him to forget all the other details of his trip there. While he mentions that the affair was with a woman, he doesn’t describe the details of her body, face, hair, or clothing. It could be said he was leaving these to the reader’s imagination, but I believe the romance wasn’t with a woman. The second piece, “We Two, How Long We were Fool’d”, is written as a love letter, where the relationship between the author and another is described as a joyful, free togetherness that spans the natural world. It’s a powerfully written show of love that doesn’t drift into platitudes or commitment; it combines the experiences of joy, togetherness, and freedom in the present moment. At this point, about 1/4 of the way through Leaves of Grass, these seem to be the highest values in Whitman’s universe.

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