In Luke Mancuso’s assessment of the 1867 Leaves of Grass, he writes on “The City Dead-House” of Whitman’s use of the figure of a dead prostitute to present and argue against flawed democracy. As Whitman develops the scene of the prostitute dead and lying within sight of the Capitol, Mancuso posits:
Socially outcast, the body of the prostitute requires the intervention of the poet’s speaker in order that she may be represented visibly, in a democracy in which many are invisible. If persons were rotting on the pavement within sight of the Capitol, this compelling poem enacts a recovery of the rightful place of human solidarity among strangers.
Whitman’s using a prostitute’s death to expose the problems of a “democracy” that chooses to ignore the needs of its members is interesting because prostitution is also an issue he again addresses in “To a Common Prostitute.” This poem struck me particularly due to its closeness with scripture in Jesus’ encounter with the adulteress in John 8:1-11, which says (if you’ll allow my lengthy quotation for those that aren’t familiar with the story):
1But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (New International Version)
This passage struck me as similar to Whitman’s poems in its direct address to a woman who has otherwise been scorned and put out by society (not to mention that this passage is often falsely thought on as being about a prostitute…AND Jesus often hung out among and talked with prostitutes similarly). In “To a Common Prostitute,” Whitman addresses the prostitute in much the same way that Jesus addresses this adulteress, allowing him to again transfer himself (not just the speaker but “Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature” (512) ) into the position of savior. It also allows Whitman to argue for a world in which even those considered different or even immoral would be given an equal opportunity to exist by using subtle biblical allusion as is so often his conduit in driving home many of his points.
Now, in coming back to “The City Dead-House,” Whitman (as Mancuso points out) uses the death of a prostitute to represent the difficulties of the current application and assessment of democracy in the budding and troubled United States. Whitman speaks out for a woman who has both literally and figuratively been silenced by the government. My point here is that it seems to me that Whitman would have (as has been often suggested in class) himself viewed as a Christ-figure, a savior, and further that he would have himself seated as the savior of democracy. In linking these poems through the prostitute, an outcast, he speaks up for his idea of what democracy should (or rather what it should not) be, bringing to mind the prejudices between North and South, blacks and whites, as well as other issues of disagreement and confrontation throughout Whitman’s lifetime.