In the first episode of the new PBS series Mercy Street, nurse Anne Hastings is seen applying a plaster cast to a wounded soldier’s bare legs before a captivated audience of surgeons and hospital workers. This action seems trivial today, even unquestionable, but as the show progressed and more scenes portrayed this seemingly insignificant concept of touch, of intimacy between a female nurse and her male patients, its true magnitude became apparent.
Sex was not a popular topic of discussion in Civil War Era America; Victorian society shunned intimacy between men and women and regarded intercourse solely as a means of reproducing and building families, a convention that led to the establishment of separate spheres. Women were expected to remain pure and chaste, while men were responsible for fighting off their intrinsic sexual instincts (both of these standards are sexist, of course, but that’s a story for another blog post), and interactions between the genders were meant to be courteous and, frankly, prudish. The publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850 did not help this case as women became more apprehensive and fearful of the reactions they might receive; no woman wanted to be the subject of public scorn. Continue reading “Sexual Healing: Nurses, Gender, and Victorian Era Intimacy”
There are two images of masculinity in Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his collection of wartime poetry: one, the strong, hardened soldier, the image of manliness, and the other the boyish, rosy-cheeked recruit. Whitman’s sexuality, while not the Victorian social norm, was no secret, and he wrote openly of the hospitalized soldiers during his time as a Union nurse with admiration, affection, and love. Some critics, such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, castigated Whitman’s queer themes to be overwhelming, distractingly sensual, and “unmanly,” while others, like William Sloane Kennedy, dissented, arguing instead that the overt sexuality present in Whitman’s work was precisely what contributed to its masculinity, whether its desires were traditional or not. Whitman’s work, “Drum-Taps” included, certainly does overflow with themes of gender and sex with hardly any mention of women. How, then, did the poet find himself in a crossroads of contradicting ideas of masculinity, and what are the implications of this dichotomy?
I will admit that it has taken me a while to reach a conclusion to this question, and I still have doubts about my reasoning. I am a lover of Whitman’s poetry, and I have always had a respect for his daring display of his own homosexuality, but diving back into “Drum-Taps” and subsequent research stumped me a bit. I finally decided that my conclusion would not come from what was written or presumed by scholars, but from my own literary analysis. Continue reading “Dead Broets Society: Masculinity in Walt Whitman’s War Verse”