Two Essays From English 161

Essay 1: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself:” Controversy versus Worthiness
Walt Whitman is often described as a quintessential American poet. His works have been featured in almost every high school classroom for analysis, and you can find his quotes everywhere, from quirky coffee mugs to t-shirts and socks worn by English majors and literature enthusiasts all over the United States. Even on his Wikipedia page, he is described first as an “American poet.” However, Whitman’s description as an American poet and his status as a notable American writer seems to conflict with the Puritanical beliefs of the United States that are still held today. Although Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855) fits what William Spengemann’s “What is American Literature” (1978) identified as the common understanding of “American Literature” (in that was written by an American, in America, and is considered a masterful work), “Song of Myself” challenges the very label of “American literature” in that it compels criticism and goes against the Puritanical beliefs that the United States continues to hold, particularly those beliefs that are anti-LGBTQ+, anti-sex, and anti-abolition. Thinking about how “Song of Myself” challenges these beliefs can give us an important insight into how we recognize the worth of literature: is literature only valuable as long as it represents the beliefs of the majority, or is literature more valuable when it highlights a minority, particularly in a country where minorities are still persecuted to this day?
Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a poem in his praised collection Leaves of Grass(1855) is overtly sexual, with explicit mentions of homosexuality along with pro-abolition statements, which goes directly against the hyper-religious and racist sentiments of America, particularly in the 19th century (but that are still prevalent today). In “Song of Myself,” Whitman directly competes with the Puritanical beliefs that founded America and were the foundation of many narrow-minded and moralistic values that are still held today. For example, a major Puritanical belief is that any sort of pleasure is inherently wrong, and that sexual or bodily pleasure is specifically forbidden. In “Song of Myself,” however, Whitman says: “Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean, / Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest” (Whitman 3240). In these lines, Whitman is denying the rhetoric that we should hide from our bodies and not find pleasure in them; this is a wholly Puritanical ideal that is still prevalent in religious axioms in the U.S., some examples of which can still be found by right-wing religious groups who condemn masturbation and homosexuality. Additionally, the “Twenty-eight young men on the beach” scene in “Song of Myself” is also fairly explicit, detailing sexual acts between the men on the beach as well as a young lady looking in a nearby window overlooking the beach (Whitman 3245). These descriptions of sexuality were singled out by conservative critics who disagreed with its undisguised sexual overtones.
When I first read this piece, I questioned how Whitman came to by so popular when his work seems to be going against many Americans’ religious and political beliefs. How could Whitman become a notable American writer, and have his work described by some as the pinnacle of American poetry, when some could describe his work as inherently “anti-American?” William Spengemann’s “What is American Literature” attempts to describe American literature by breaking down its respective parts. Firstly, American literature is American in that it is “written in any place that is now part of the United States or by anyone who has ever lived in one of those places” (Spengemann 123). Additionally, American literature must be a “fiction, poetry, [or] drama” piece, and it must “rank among the acknowledged masterpieces of Western writing” (Spengemann 123). To this end, Walt Whitman’s work must be American literature. Walt Whitman was born on Long Island, he wrote poetry, and he is considered one of the greatest American poets of all time. However, it is obvious that Whitman’s work is controversial, and not wholly adored by everyone. So, should it be considered a Great American Work if not everyone agrees with it?
            Spengemann argues that “American literature, therefore, must be the works we make statements about—” and I agree (Spengemann 119). American literature can contain a multitude of works, including ones that have caused considerable disagreement and controversy. The criticism, the discussions, and ultimately the removal of ignorance is all part of what makes humanity so able to change. Whitman has created controversy, but he has also given the LGBTQ+ community a voice. The United States is full of controversies such as this, many of which directly impact the lives of minorities who are not fully accepted by a majority of society. For example, according to the Trevor Project’s 2019 National Survey on LGBTQ+ youth, “2 in 3 LGBTQ youth reported that someone tried to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, with youth who have undergone conversion therapy more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who did not” (The Trevor Project). The inclusion of LGBTQ+ literature, specifically literature as early as Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” can be incredibly comforting to LGBTQ+ youth who are feeling out of place, discriminated against, and victimized. So, it is incredibly important for minority voices to be heard in something as homogenous and noble as the label of “American literature,” because it ensures that not just white, cis, heterosexual men are included. Because of its controversy, it deserves to be labelled as American literature. Walt Whitman’s incredibly well written and notable “Song of Myself” is an early example of the existence of LGBTQ+ individuals in history, and as such, absolutely deserving of the label: American literature.
Essay 2: Fern and Foster’s Women-Centered Pieces and the Way they Conflict
            Although Fanny Fern’s “A Law More Nice Than Just” (1858) and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797) appear to contextualize similarly the struggles of women during the 18th and 19thcenturies, they actually have completely different intent and approach. While Fern’s piece rightly criticizes the unfair laws of women’s dress, making an accurate statement of the wrongness of the oppression of women, Foster’s The Coquette seems to romanticize the struggles of women, placing the blame on the woman herself, which ultimately leads to the woman’s death. The Coquettewas written almost as a warning—for example, “this is what will happen if you are a coquette”—whereas Fanny Fern’s piece was absolutely written as a feminist political statement. This difference in not only the intent but the final product of the meaning of these pieces tells us that while women during this time were undoubtedly interested in exploring freedom and a life outside of the regular norm for women, the way these two authors used their platform to reach out to other women were very different in their approach.
            This could be due to several different influences and changes between the 61 years dividing these two works. Most notably, Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I A Woman?” was given in 1851, just seven years before Fanny Fern’s “A Law More Nice Than Just” was published. There is a common theme between these two works: a theme of almost humorously ridiculing the rules set in place that diminish women’s rights and ability to be independent. “A Law More Nice Than Just” specifically seems to poke fun at men, as if they are only making laws to make their lives just a little easier: “What a fool I was not to think of it—not to remember that men who make the laws, make them all to meet these little emergencies” (Fern 2469). The story ends with Fern taking a walk out in her husband’s clothes, with her husband laughing behind. Fern specifically tells the reader that she doesn’t care whether or not they laugh, and that she has “as good a right to preserve the healthy body God gave [her], as if [she] were not a woman” (Fern 2471). Fanny Fern is specifically choosing a confident voice to tell this story, in hopes that other women will read it and be inspired to follow her same confident path.
            The Coquette, meanwhile, is almost a horror story for the 19th century woman. Eliza no longer has to marry a reverend, which makes her overjoyed. She is then courted by two men, both of which she is indecisive in choosing between them, and eventually they both marry their own wives. One of them eventually has an affair with her, and they run away, only for Eliza to die from childbirth (Foster 1499). This story is incredibly depressing and contains an overabundance of guilt and inaction on the part of Eliza. What are young women supposed to gleam from this story, if not that their thoughts of freedom from their patriarchal society will eventually lead to their early deaths?
The differences here are paramount, particularly in that the ending of this story ends with a tragedy rather than a call to action. Both stories attempted to make a statement on the freedom of women, and both completed entirely different tasks. The Coquette creates a warning, whereas “A Law More Nice Than Just” creates a statement. This can be applied, of course, to feminist pieces more contemporarily. For example, there are a slew of sexist 50’s advertisements which shame women for not being the correct weight, smelling nice, having good lipstick, etc. These advertisements shame women for not always “improving” themselves for men. The Coquette frames Eliza’s choices in much the same way: Eliza dies and has an unhappy, depressing life because she didn’t choose one man, and instead acted like a “coquette.” Today, women-positive rhetoric is much more focused and beneficial: for example, the National Women’s March in 2017, which united women in a constructive way to fight for empowerment and women’s rights as women throughout the U.S. struggle through the #MeToo movement era, with politicians, actors, and other celebrities being accused of sexual harassment.
Ultimately, through this comparison, we can note the differences between women-centered and women-authored literature in the early 19th century. While Foster’s The Coquette creates a saddening story about the fall of a woman in society and her death, Fern’s comical essays are a statement written for women to empower themselves and stand up for their rights. These two examples can help us understand how we can all better fight for women’s rights in a constructive way, rather than in a degrading way.
Works Cited
Spengemann, William C. “What is American Literature?” The Centennial Review, vol. 22, no. 2 Michigan State University Press, 1978, pp. 119-138.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume B, Early Nineteenth Century: 1800-1865. edited by Paul Lauter and others. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014, pp. 3238-3286.
The Trevor Project. (2019). National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health. New York, New York: The Trevor Project.
Fern, Fanny. “A Law More Nice Than Just.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume B, Early Nineteenth Century: 1800-1865. edited by Paul Lauter and others. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014, pp. 2469-2471.
Foster, Hannah Webster. “The Coquette; or, the History of Eliza Wharton.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume A, Beginnings to 1800. edited by Paul Lauter and others. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014, pp. 1448-1469.