Celebrating and Singing, Bleeding and Pining: Embodiment and Emotion in Walt Whitman and Adah Isaacs Menken

Julie McCown, Southern Utah University
Vol. 38, No. 2 (Fall 2019), 337-355

This essay conducts an extended analysis of Walt Whitman’s and Adah Isaacs Menken’s use of embodiment and emotion as part of a larger consideration of nineteenth-century American literary canon formation. Although the two writers make similar use of the body and emotions in their poetry, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1891-1892) and Menken’s Infelicia (1868) produce starkly different results, which rest on gender differences and offer insights into their disparate representation in the canon of American literature and the difficulty of incorporating marginalized voices into it. It is productive to view Menken’s work not as an echo of Whitman but as a variation and expansion of his work, one that further opens up Whitman’s mission to democratize the voice of the American poet, especially to include voices, like Menken’s, whose unhappiness, rage, and despair stand at odds with his often celebratory voice. Pairing Whitman and Menken throws into greater relief the gendered dimensions of nineteenth-century conceptions of the mind-body binary and emotional expression and raises questions about the universality of Whitman’s poetic persona.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]