In his influential book Disability Aesthetics, Tobin Siebers makes two interventions. The first is to argue that modern aesthetics has long relied on disability as one of its defining features, even while neglecting to acknowledge this dependence explicitly. The second is to advocate on behalf of a deliberate praxis of disability aesthetics, which “embraces beauty that seems by traditional standards to be broken,” yet shows it to be “not less beautiful, but more so, as a result.” Ask literary scholars who work in the nineteenth century to think of a poet who best exemplifies Siebers’s argument, and few would be likely to name Walt Whitman. Some of the best-known segments in Leaves of Grass indulge in a full-fledged endorsement of able-bodiedness. Indeed, a monotonous virility seems to characterize much of “Song of Myself,” “Children of Adam,” “Calamus,” and his recently discovered essaysGuide to Manly Health and Training. Look closer, however, and Whitman’s championing of male “Physique” betrays a more complex orientation toward the body. Whitman’s corpus undermines imperatives to inhabit a fully normative physicality. His poems and prose linger in the experience of both physical and affective pain; dismantle the binary of bodily wholeness and partiality; unfold alternative mobilities; and face with unmitigated candor his own familiarity with illness, injury, mortality, and aging. From his Civil War writings to Specimen Days, and Collect, on through to the late clusters appended to Horace Traubel’s 1897 edition of Leaves, Whitman wrote increasingly from the vantage point and on behalf of a disability aesthetics.
Scholars have begun putting Whitman and disability studies in conversation in recent years. In the essay “How Dare a Sick Man or an Obedient Man Write Poems?” Robert Scholnick has demonstrated that while Whitman’s antebellum writing frequently exploits figures of disability to posit a “metonymic” relationship between national crisis and bodily impairment, Whitman’s later writing, especially the prose and poetry inspired by his work as a nurse during the Civil War, demonstrates a shift in his appreciation of individual suffering toward a national culture of empathy. Stephen Kuusisto has called Whitman’s Specimen Days the “progenitor” of the “disability memoir,” “a wholly conscious rendering of altered physicality in prose.” Turning to Whitman’s poetics of bereavement, Max Cavitch has explored the Lincoln elegies for their insistence on combining the debilitating experience of mourning with “the staggering pathos of erotic liberation.” In her recent book The Afterlives of Specimens, Lindsay Tuggle explores Whitman’s connection to theories of mortality, phantom limb syndrome, and practices of embalming to propose that one of the poet’s pivotal concepts is the relationship between flesh and spirit, which displaces the logic of the able body in favor of “ephemerality and spectrality.”
To continue building on this work, Commonplace: The Journal of Early American Life will publish a special issue on Whitman, disability, and conceptions of illness, medicine, and health, in conjunction with the bicentennial celebration of Whitman’s birthday in May 2019. We’re including a list of potential topics below, though we hope to receive submissions that also exceed these preliminary ideas. For scholars and writers interested in contributing to this issue, we are currently seeking abstract submissions of 350 to 500 words by September 30th, sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Proposed essays may range between 3500 and 6000 words. Acceptances will be made by October 15th, with the expectation of receiving the proposed contribution by January 15th. Please feel free to contact us by email if you have additional queries.
Possible topics might include:
- Whitman’s role in the Civil War hospitals, his role as caregiver, his proximity to illness
- Whitman’s biographical references to “war paralysis”
- Whitman and phrenology
- Sex and disability in Leaves of Grass
- Whitman and old age, his time in Camden, late poems, and deathbed edition of the Leaves of Grass
- Whitman and mortality/immortality; his extensive preparation for his own death