Walt Whitman’s “Children of Adam” series of poems is interesting to look at thematically because it is unlike many of Whitman’s other works. In this sequence, Whitman writes to celebrate the human body and its sexuality, something that is not as obvious in his other works in comparison to “Children of Adam.” As discussed in Whitman’s biography on The Walt Whitman Archive, Whitman reportedly did not intend for “Children of Adam” to “never separate from the body of the text, and he always set out not just to write about sensual embrace but also to enact the physical embrace of poet and reader. Whitman became a master of sexual politics, but his sexual politics were always intertwined with his textual politics” (Whitman Archive). Emerson originally discouraged Whitman from publishing these poems in the 1860 version of Leaves of Grass because of its sexually explicit nature, saying that the subject matter of the collection was not appropriate for poetry. Whitman, however, disagreed by saying that sexuality and the human body in its entirety – not just certain pieces and parts dubbed appropriate for public praise and examination – was most certainly a topic appropriate for poetry. Whitman strongly felt “n my inmost brain and heart, when I only answer’d Emerson’s vehement arguments with silence, under the old elms of Boston Common” (Whitman Archive). Despite the debate between Emerson and Whitman, “Children of Adam” also appeared along with the “Calamus” poems in the 1860 edition.
One thing that was striking about Whitman’s “Children of Adam” sequence was the range of emotion throughout the collection of fourteen poems. Whitman’s speaker, who is believed to be the biblical Adam, experiences lust, romantic fondness, frustration, happiness, and infidelity at the cause of his own hands. Speaker Adam walks the reader through the progression of human sexuality, starting with Adam’s acknowledgement of Eve and his first stirrings of feelings for her and ending with the realization of his mortality, even though he has fulfilled his role as the male progenitor of the human race. The range of emotion is not as startling to me; it was the kinds of emotions that Adam displays that really stood out. At the beginning of the poem, “To the Garden the World,” Adam’s emotions seem innocent enough – all he feels compelled to do is to walk with Eve. In “A Woman Waits for Me,” the fourth poem in the sequence, Adam’s emotions have taken a noticeably aggressive and almost violent tone, to the point where it is possible readers could interpret the scene as rape in the name of perpetuating the human race. By the time we get to “Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd,” the seventh poem in the sequence, Adam has become a parent and is back to a more contemplative state, realizing his mortality even though his children will live on.
Another striking aspect of the sequence is how transparent Whitman is with his bodily imagery. In most of Whitman’s poetry, the sexual overtones that are present can be ignored if the reader refuses to acknowledge the presence of these overtones. For readers of the “Children of Adam” poems, Adam’s sexuality, along with the sexuality of Eve and the other unnamed woman, is just a half layer below the surface. It is deep enough that this is simply not a bunch of poems about sex, but close enough to the surface reading of the texts that readers, unless they have personal biases preventing them from fully engaging in the poems, cannot deny that it has a purpose in this collection of writings. Personally, I found Whitman’s handling of sexual material to be appropriate for what he was trying to accomplish. I was shocked at first and almost questioned if this was Whitman, especially in comparison to his poetry like “Song of Myself,” which is one of my favorite works by Whitman.
Whitman’s “Children of Adam” series is an interesting change of pace from his more canonical works. Even though Emerson may have found this work shocking and possibly vulgar, Whitman’s biography states:
Leaves of Grass was not a book that set out to shock the reader so much as to merge with the reader and make him or her more aware of the body each reader inhabited, to convince us that the body and soul were conjoined and inseparable, just as Whitman’s ideas were embodied in words that had physical body in the ink and paper that readers held physically in their hands. (Whitman Archive)
While the sexual overtones may be off-putting to some readers, I believe that this is a beautiful work that warrants being discussed along with Whitman’s more prominent sequences.
Folsom, Ed and Kenneth M. Price. “Walt Whitman.” The Walt Whitman Archive. Web.
7 August 2013.
Whitman, Walt. “Children of Adam.” Leaves of Grass. TS. 1860. Web. The Walt
Whitman Archive. 7 August 2013.