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Manifestos of Personal Liberty: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the Seneca Falls Conference

December 7, 2013

The Seneca Falls Conference (1848) convened for the purposes of debating the role of women in society, and produced a document considered central to the country’s women’s suffrage movement. The resulting “Declaration of Sentiments” was conceived of as a legal document, enumerating instances of woman’s subjugation to man, and declaring and resolving that the sexes shall henceforth be considered equal to one another. Seven years later, in 1885, Walt Whitman wrote what would become the first edition of Leaves of Grass. In his preface, Whitman celebrates America and Americans, calling the United States its own “greatest poem”, and proclaiming its citizens as endowed with a great “poetical nature.”

Though seemingly radically different from one another, the Seneca Falls “Declaration” and Whitman’s masterpiece have stood the test of time as manifestos to, or of, personal liberty. This workshop will consider these documents at the level of form and language, exploring and examining what is gained, or lost, by the use of legal rhetoric, on the one hand, and poetical rhetoric, on the other, and whether their similarities may be greater than their apparent differences. What makes a document, or these documents, central or foundational to us? Why, and how, have they succeeded in capturing our national imagination? What is it about these writings that affirm us as public citizens, while addressing our most private concerns?

 Texts: “Song of Myself”, Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass, 1885 edition introduction by Harold Bloom); “Declaration of Sentiments”, the Seneca Falls Conference of 1848.