NATIVE moments! when you come upon me—Ah you are here now!
Give me now libidinous joys only!
Give me the drench of my passions! Give me life coarse and rank!
To-day, I go consort with nature’s darlings—to-night too;
I am for those who believe in loose delights—I share the midnight orgies of young men;
I dance with the dancers, and drink with the drinkers;
The echoes ring with our indecent calls;
I take for my love some prostitute—I pick out some low person for my dearest friend,
He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate—he shall be one condemn’d by others for deeds done;
I will play a part no longer—Why should I exile myself from my companions?
O you shunn’d persons! I at least do not shun you,
I come forthwith in your midst—I will be your poet,
I will be more to you than to any of the rest.
Native Moments is not an easy poem to like, but I like it. For a start it’s brutally honest. The feelings Whitman experiences are “native” to all people, everyone experiences them and they are completely natural. Whitman refuses to deny these feelings any longer for the sake of ‘polite’ society, “I will play a part no longer”. But above all the poem is a paean to individualism. In his essay “A Backward Glance over Traveled Roads” Whitman says about “Leaves of Grass” (the collection from which Native Moments is taken) that the point of all his poetry has been to promote American individuality: “I have allow’d the stress of my poem from beginning to end to bear upon American individuality and assist it – not only because this is a great lesson in Nature, amid all her generalizing laws, but as a counterpoise to the leveling tendencies of Democracy – and for other reasons.” Whitman goes on to say that he chants: “the great pride of man in himself and permit it to be more or less a motif of nearly all my verse.”
Despite the obvious temptation I don’t believe Whitman was advocating a life of unadulterated sensuous pleasure and/or attachments to prostitutes and other “low persons”. What he was saying is that these people should not be shunned, that they have as much right to be treated decently as anyone else. Whitman was exactly right, not just in the sense that Jesus also associated with shunned persons, because he believed that only God had a right to judge them, but also because Whitman recognized the value that “nature’s darlings” had in the rich fabric of civil society.
Prostitutes engage in the voluntary trade of sex for money, just as nurses engage in the voluntary trade of their comfort to the sick and injured for money. I am fully aware that many prostitutes are drug addicts, beaten by pimps and held in brothels against their will. But as Walter Block points out in his classic book “Defending the Undefendable”, these sordid aspects of their life have little to do with the intrinsic career of prostitution: “there are nurses and doctors who are kidnapped and forced to perform for fugitives from justice; there are carpenters who are drug addicts; there are bookkeepers who are beaten by muggers. We would hardly conclude that any of these professions or vocations are suspect, demeaning, or exploitative.” What Whitman seemed to grasp throughout ‘Leaves of Grass’ was that all voluntary human relationships including love, friendship or business relationships, are ultimately based on trades. We can see this more clearly in, for example, the stereotypical marriage relationship where the man is the provider in exchange for affection, sex and housekeeping services.
Whitman’s fierce defense of those shunned by traditional society has been vindicated by Thaddeus Russell’s provocative book “A Renegade History of the United States”, in which he argues that we owe much of our individual personal liberties to the “drunkards, laggards, prostitutes, pirates, slaves, and other renegades of the past”. Russell claims that prostitutes were in large part the model for today’s independent urban women, as they were often the richest people in their towns and cities, frequently owning their own businesses, not getting married until they were older, wearing flamboyant clothing and cosmetics (that is now accepted as normal), and pushing many other boundaries. This is definitely not the history that most people read in college, but I’m certain Whitman would have liked the work of Russell and Block: “O you shunn’d persons! I at least do not shun you, I come forthwith in your midst – I will be your poet, I will be more to you than to any of the rest.”
(Please note that posts and comments will be somewhat sporadic during the summer as travel plans interfere with writing schedules.)