One of the ideas I encountered in writing my second essay was the difficulty emerging female writers, especially those with controversial opinions, must encounter upon confronting the fact that female silence is immortalized in the literary tradition. Though there would have been many notable women writers in the canon by the time Fern published her work (loved reading her, by the way!), I imagine that the historical predominance of male writers would have been heavily on her mind in writing ‘“Leaves of Grass.”’ I found it notable that, in the opening lines of the piece, Fern tells Whitman that the “effeminate world needed [him]” (896). In reading “Song of Myself,” I was similarly impressed with the degree to which Whitman transcends patriarchal norms, calling himself “maternal as well as paternal” and claiming that “his] voice is the wife’s voice” (1323, 1339). In his willingness to claim the personas of wife and mother as part of his masculine self, Whitman subverts the assumption that men are entirely separate from and superior to women. Fern celebrates this equalization by quoting a similar, if more blatant, excerpt taken from Whitman’s “A Woman Waits for Me” as her conclusion to her piece.
Though the backlash Whitman faced from critics for “Leaves of Grass” was (as far as I am aware) consciously responding to its overt sexual themes and descriptions of the body, as well as its homosexual undertones, I wonder if Whitman’s embrace of femininity may have influenced the collection’s negative reception. Fern seems to think so. In her repeated invocation of “sensuality?,” Fern seems to argue that critics are unduly attributing lasciviousness to descriptions of human physicality and intimacy in “Leaves of Grass.” Importantly, however, by comparing the condemnation of “Leaves of Grass” to “[shrouding] the eyes of the nursing babe lest it should see its mother’s breast,” Fern faults critics, not for their sexualization of the work as a whole, but for the sexualization of women in particular (897). This idea is furthered by Fern’s insistence that critics recognize Whitman’s view of women as “the bearer of the great fruit” (897). By responding to critic’s claims of the work’s “vulgarity” with a reassertion of the non-sexual value of women, Fern again suggests that critics condemn “Leaves of Grass” on the basis of the work’s embrace of specifically female sexuality. I’m not quite sure what to make of this given that I interpreted many of the more sexual passages from “Song of Myself” as reflective of Whitman’s own sexuality rather than female sexuality, but I suppose it is unsurprising that the public would have been more uncomfortable with women’s sexuality than men’s sexuality, and this discomfort would have been reflected in the critical reception of “Leaves of Grass.”