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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

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Activities: Author Activities

Walt Whitman - Teaching Tips

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  • Although students will probably pick up on the homoerotic imagery of many of Whitman's poems with little difficulty, it is worth reminding them that the male-male eroticism was not so clear to nineteenth-century readers, who were far more scandalized by his explicit descriptions of heterosexual sex. You might point out that the term "homosexual" did not exist in 1860, so Whitman's poems were struggling to construct a new sexual identity and create a new language for erotic love between men. Ask your students to analyze stanzas VII and VIII of Live Oak, with Moss and/or the "Twenty-eight Bathers" section in Song of Myself in this context. Why does Whitman adopt a feminine persona in his narration of the "Twenty-eight Bathers"? How does Whitman struggle with his commitment to being a "public," national poet and his desire to record his private erotic feelings in Live Oak, with Moss? How does he describe his love for men, given that a vocabulary for homosexuality was unavailable to him?

  • Although the early editions of Leaves of Grass contain many eloquent celebrations of the vastness and grandeur of the American continent, Whitman had actually done very little traveling when he wrote them (his trip to New Orleans was his only significant travel experience until late in life). Ask students to think about why cities and landscapes Whitman could only imagine affected him so deeply. To what kinds of cultural myths and ideals was he responding? How might Whitman's lyrical descriptions of America's geographic expanse and demographic diversity have impacted his readers' ideas about the landscape and the nation?

  • When he wrote "The Poet" in 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed that "Poets are liberating gods . . . they are free, and they make free." He wished for the emergence of a poet "without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man." Have students read Emerson's essay and stage a debate whether Whitman has indeed answered this passionate plea for a truly American poet.

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