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Dara Miller
Dr. Marcy Dinius
ENG 464
American Eden: Whitmans Reimagination of Milton in his Children of Adam Series
In his concluding essay to the 1891-1892 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman
declared that his all-encompassing purpose in creating this text stemmed from his desire
to attempt some worthy record of that entire faith and acceptance (to justify the ways of
God to man is Miltons well-known and ambitious phrase) which is the foundation of
moral America (A Backward Glance 670). Throughout his editions of Leaves of
Grass, the strong religious element to his work evolves, but always remains a consistent
presence in the text. In discussion of the spiritual aspect of his work, Whitman is oft
quoted as proclaiming his lifes work a type of New Bible for America, capable of
spreading a new religion of democracy. In an era rife with religious upheaval, it would
not have been unusual for Whitman to formally create a religion, and many of his
contemporaries pushed far harder to recognize Whitman as a true prophet than he ever
claimed for himself.
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While Whitman did draw on some scriptural material from both
Christian and Eastern religious traditions and certainly absorbed many religious ideas
into his own philosophy, much of the actual language of his spiritual poetry appropriates
ideas and images from the poetic tradition. Although this reimagination of religious
poetry can be found throughout Leaves of Grass, it arguably plays the most significant
role in Whitmans Children of Adam poems. In this series, best known for being the
counterpart to his Calamus poems and for its explicitly sexual themes, I argue that the

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See Robertson for a detailed account of those contemporaries who devoted much of
their lives to proclaiming Whitman as a spiritual leader and religious prophet.
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language of the poems reflects not Biblical, but Miltonic imagery reimagined, and this
reimagination helps form the foundation for his poetry of sensual spirituality within his
final version of Leaves of Grass.
Whitman lived in a unique time in American history; although a strict Protestant
Christianity still dominated the religious culture of the country, during Whitmans
lifetime the advent of Transcendentalist philosophy questioned the authority of traditional
belief systems and prompted people to examine their own lives for truths instead of
blindly accepting conventional doctrine. The growing print industry allowed for a wider
circulation of written word, and spiritual texts offering a wide variety of religious thought
sprang up around the country. As Peter Simonson observes, Whitmans first publications
of Leaves of Grass sat midway between The Book of Mormon (first published in 1830)
and Mary Baker Eddys Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875), among
many other new texts that were also distinctly American efforts to inaugurate new faiths
via the printed word (356). According to Michael Robertson, the advances in print
technology allowed for a new English-language version or translation of the Bible to
emerge almost every two years from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War, and
influential writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau encouraged
readers to look inward towards their own inclinations and outward to Nature for
revelation and spiritual guidance (16). Whitman, then, despite his many revolutionary
ideas, was a part of a fairly large movement as a spiritual writer, and his description of
his work as The Great Construction of the New Bible in his notes on the publication of
the 1860 edition is not any great statement of ego, but rather another entry into a popular
dialogue of the religious community.
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Whitmans work, however, does of course stand out from other contemporary
texts. Whitman realized that a poetry of absolute faith and equality for the use of the
democratic masses never was and that the time had come to reflect all themes and
things, old and new, in the lights thrown on them by the advent of America and
democracy (A Backwards Glance 661). This vision of the old and the new is
significantly a vision of revision; in carving out a new type of poetry that is distinctly
American, democratic, and religious, Whitman draws on his reimagination of the themes,
symbols, and language of the great texts of the past in addition to his own creative genius
to create a poetry fully reflective of the American spirit. He read a variety of religious
and philosophical texts extensively, going thoroughly through the Old and New
Testaments and absorbing OssianEschylus, Sophocles, the old German Nibelungen,
the ancient Hindoo poems, andother masterpieces (A Backwards Glance 665). On
an equal standing with these texts, he also read the poetry of Homer, Shakespeare, and Sir
Walter Scott, and seemed often to conflate the old religious texts into his definition of
poetry. Whitman admits readily that the studies, influence, records, [and] comparisons
of such influential poetry were indispensable, claiming:
If I had not stood before those poems with uncoverd head, fully aware of
their colossal grandeur and beauty of form and spirit, I could not have
written Leaves of Grass. My verdict and conclusions as illustrated in its
pages are arrived at through the temper and inculcation of the old works as
much as through anything else perhaps more than through anything else.
(A Backwards Glance 664)
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Much as America itself can be seen as a revision of England and of the other countries
whose immigrants made up its landscape, so too can Whitmans work be seen as a
revision of the great poetic works that preceded it. Within his Children of Adam series,
this process can be explored microcosmically in its specific reimagination of the Edenic
language and imagery employed in the Genesis narrative of John Miltons Paradise Lost.
Interestingly, Whitman as an individual seemingly did not care for Miltons
poetry; in conversation with Horace Traubel in 1888, Whitman stated that Milton seems
to me like a birdsoaring yet overweighted: dragged down, as if burdenedtoo greatly
burdened: its flight not graceful, powerful, beautiful, satisfying, like the gulls we see
over the Delaware in midwinter soaring, soaring, irrespective of cold or storm. It is
true, Milton soars, but with dull, unwieldly motion (Traubel 185). The burden that
weighs Milton down, in Whitmans view, is his saturation in the complex politics of
Christian doctrine; however, it is this very burden that makes Paradise Lost an ideal text
for Whitmans reimagination. According to Whitman, Nothing is better than
simplicity.Nothing can make up for excess or for the lack of definiteness, (Preface
13) and his appropriation of Milton is also a process of simplification through his
reimagination, the transformed pieces of Miltons text take flight in their newly realized
simplicity.
In his article The Original Eye: Whitman, Schelling, and the Return to
Origins, Robert Scholnick examines the concept of Whitman as an original poet, and
notes that much as he had been formed by tradition, he had also found a way to move
outside it (177). In the Children of Adam series, Whitman makes this move by
employing the Genesis myth as a framing device for his creation of a new paradise found
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through an acceptance of and delight in the body. By subtly evoking Miltons
interpretation of the Genesis story, Whitman not only privileges the power of poetry over
that of scripture, but also provides the poem with the opportunity to engage in a dialogue
about the morality of sex and the significance of the body. This framework additionally
allows him to address at length the respective roles of men and women, as these issues
are explored throughout much of Paradise Lost but receive only a cursory treatment in
the Biblical account.
Fittingly, Whitman employs the creation myth as the foundation for his
philosophy of a spiritual sensuality, for like William Blake and the Romantic poets,
Whitman seemed to understand that the creation storyand invocations of itplayed a
key role in de-territorializing, and re-territorializing, sacred forces (Marovich 348). This
re-territorializing allows Whitman to appropriate the image, the symbol, or the even the
word, and then to strip it of its assumed meaning and imbue it with new meaning that
adds to the construction of his own religious poetic philosophy. Marovich also notes that
through the creation myth poets aligned themselves with divine, creative urges,
signaling their intent to recreate the poetic symbolics of human being. The poet as new
creator returns to origins (348) and, in Whitmans case, reconstructs those origins to fit a
new world and a new time.
Whitmans Eden begins where Miltons ends; in To the Garden the World,
Whitman conjures an image of poetic speaker viewing the world anew ascending,
seemingly seeing the entire stretch of humanity spread out before him in a vision of
Potent mates, daughters, sons (248). While this poem has no connection to the Biblical
account beyond the mention of the garden and Eve, the image succinctly echoes Adams
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vision in Book XI of Paradise Lost, in which the Archangel Michael leads Adam to the
top of a Hill of Paradise the highest, from whose top he views the scope of humanitys
future (PL 11.377). From this similar image, however, Whitman develops the message of
his poetic speaker in contrast to Miltons in order to establish the foundation of his
spiritual message within the poem. In Paradise Lost, both the angel and the man
ascend / In the Visions of God (PL 11.376-7), and it is Michaels ministrations that
make Adams vision of the future possible. Whitmans Adamic figure is notably alone,
and unconcerned about finding Gods vision in what he sees before him. Adams vision
inspires him to worship God, but Whitmans speaker, when he beholds the world anew
ascending is inspired instead to worship everything Amorous, including his own body
(To the Garden 248).
Steven Olsen-Smith rightly claims that this episode marks Whitmans
proclamation that a new and spiritually liberating view of sex is available to America, a
nation long repressed (he felt) by institutionalized sexual prudery and denial (518), but
he fails to recognize the authority through which Whitman makes this proclamation.
Whitmans speaker in To the Garden of the World exists as an omnipresent part of
humanity; he, instead of the Christ figure Miltons Adam sees in his vision, is the one
who has been resurrected. By assigning the resurrection trope to his speaker, Whitman
presents him as the savior. Thus, he simultaneously eliminates the need for the
didacticism of Miltons mediating angel and imbues his speaker with the authority to
usher in a new order; an order that introduces a new form of human paradise grounded in
an omnisexual sensuality.
In Miltons version, Adam laments the passing of time and the subsequent aging
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of the human body, crying that what was once / So goodly and erect (PL 11.508-9)
eventually becomes unsightly (PL 11.510) and deformed. Whitmans speaker sees
beyond this shallow concern, and considers his maturity all beautiful, and all
wondrous, and glories in the quivering fire that ever plays through his body (To
the Garden 248). To this figure, the essential spark of his humanity does not diminish
with age. He sees the past and present and is content, and apparently unworried about
the future (To the Garden 248). This figure is self-contained, and apparently self-
generated; a new type of Adam formed not of dust but of flesh and bone. He is an Adam
attune to the intricacies of humanity around him, to the love, the life of their bodies,
meaning and being, a figure who just by existing is able to peer and penetrate still
into a knowledge that can lead to contentment (To the Garden 248). He needs no
elaborate plan of salvation, for he does not need saving. In Whitmans one brief mention
of Eve, his language is again reminiscent of Milton as he presents the idea of following
(and thus, implicitly, leading). In Miltons text, a penitent Eve asks Adam to lead on
(PL 11. 614) as they prepare to leave Eden, and though they exit the garden hand in
hand (PL 11.648), her subservience is still implied, emphasizing the hierarchal nature of
male-female relationships that Milton develops throughout his work. Whitman, however,
reimagines an Eve with significantly more autonomy. The poems casual treatment of
Eves companionship By my side or back of me Eve following, / Or in front, and I
following her just the same implies a democratic equality (To the Garden 248). Her
place is insignificant because in this garden, it is not a part of a hierarchical arrangement.
These key shifts, as the foundation for the series, establish a line of thinking that provides
a radically new revision of Paradise; in this new religious poetry, the appreciation and
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delight in the body and in the joining of equal bodies becomes in itself a form of worship
that reclaims the fallen elements of a Miltonic interpretation of the creation myth and
transform those elements into a new and sensualized democracy.
In From Pent-up Aching Rivers and I Sing the Body Electric, the concept of
singing again reimagines a Miltonic theme. In the tradition of the epic poem, Paradise
Lost famously invokes the Heavenly Muse to Sing (PL 1.10) the song of creation,
and throughout the text the concept of singing is mentioned over fifty times. In Milton,
singing takes on a variety of roles and is performed by a multitude of creatures: angels,
birds (and other animals), saints, prophets, and lovers all sing praises to God. As Adam
and Eve consummate their love, heavnly Choirs the Hymenaean sung (PL 4.710) in
honor of their union. Upon waking, the Miltonic couple each Morning duly paidThir
Maker, in fit strains pronounced or sun Unmediated (PL 5.145-7). Conversely, in Milton
singing can also take on less positive notes: in Book VII, the poet describes how he sings
In darkness, and with dangers compast round, / And solitude (7.26-27) as he implores
his muse not to leave him, and in Adams vision of humanitys future, he sees singing
take on the sinister tones of seduction in the mouths of wanton women. In this light,
singing is primarily intended as a tool for worshipping God, and only perversions of the
song divert it from its eternal purpose.
Whitman, on the other hand, famously sings himself. In the Children of Adam
poems, the Adamic speaker sings his own voice resonant; he sings the phallus, the
song of procreation, the muscular urge and the blending, the bedfellows song, and
the true song of the soul fitful at random (Pent-Up Aching Rivers 248). Whitmans
songs, like Miltons, are primarily tools of worship; however, his songs celebrate creation
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rather than a creator. In Ages and Ages Returning at Intervals, the speaker proclaims
himself as the chanter of Adamic songs (264). The poetic persona takes on a God-like
power through this chant, playing with the Biblical idea of the creative powers of
language and reversing the Miltonic image of Adam chanting his morning praises.
Whitmans Adamic speaker is omnipresent, encompassing the power to create within his
potent original loins (Ages and Ages 264) throughout the ages and ages in which he
appears. His song, then, both calls into existence and celebrates the sex that makes
creation possible, and it is a song specifically sung to the new Garden the West (Ages
and Ages 264). In this reimagination of a paradise bath[ed] in sex, (Ages and Ages
264) Whitman draws on the natural and universalized sexual yearning (Olsen-Smith
519) of the world around him; he champions the pairing of birds, the wet of woods,
and the mad pushes of waves upon the land (Pent-up Aching Rivers 249) in order to
usher in his montage of sexuality in all its many and varied manifestations (Miller).
Although the poem now known as I Sing the Body Electric was included in the
1855 edition of Leaves of Grass as one of Whitmans twelve unnamed poems, the poem
in its original conception is significantly different than the version that ends up in his
final deathbed edition. At its core, the poem has always been an unabashed celebration
of the body in the 1856 publication, it was even entitled Poem of the Body and this
celebration creates the spiritual nature of sexuality within the poem. As Whitman
continued to revise and add to his poem, he shaped it to fit more coherently into the
Children of Adam series. In keeping with the Edenic themes within the series, the
additions to the poems opening lines allow the poem to take on new spiritual nuances:
I sing the body electric,
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The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge
of the soul. (251)
Whitmans ideas of corruption and discorruption specifically connect to his
reimagination of Miltons themes of sexuality in Paradise Lost. In Miltons account, the
fall of Adam and Eve corrupted the innocence of their original lovemaking, which had
previously been chastely described in terms of the celebration of nature around them as
the gentle Airs / Whisperd their virtuous passion (PL 8.515). After the fall, however,
the nature of their passion changes: Adam looks at Eve with Carnal desire and
lascivious Eyes, and she wantonly repays him as they burn in a Lust that only
leads them to exhaustion and To guilty shame (PL 11.1013-1055). Neither the pre nor
postlapsarian description of their coupling, however, actually enters the nuptial bower.
Readers are kept at a safe distance, and the couples passions are measured in terms of
gaze rather than in physical touch. In contrast, Robertson notes that Whitmans work
often provides a direct challenge to conventional Christian concepts of shame and sin
by developing a sensual spiritualitythat refuses to recognize any distinction between
the body and soul (19). In the same vein, this series of poems provides that same
challenge to the temperate passion glorified by Milton. Section 5 of I Sing the Body
Electric exposes what Miltons bower kept hidden as Whitmans speaker describes the
divine nimbus of the female form and explicitly glories in the love-flesh swelling and
deliciously aching and the Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering
jelly of love, / white-blow and delirious juice of intercourse (253). In Miltons paradise,
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Nature merely gives sign[s] of gratulation in tribute to Adam and Eves blessed
copulation. In Whitmans reimagined Eden, however, Nature itself is an active participant
in the universal act of lovemaking, as the Bridegroom night of love [works] surely and
softly into the / prostrate dawn, / Undulating into the willing and yielding day, / Lost in
the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh day (I Sing the Body Electric 253).
Although Miltons sanctioning of marital love was revolutionary in its time, Whitmans
version extends beyond the need for sanctions: in his version of paradise, since body and
soul are one, no external order can restrict the one in the name of the other.
According James E. Miller, Whitman exhorts a return to the Garden by
recovering the sexual innocence of Adam and Eve before the Fall, but in terms of
Christian religious tradition, this phrasing is limited and vague; little is mentioned in the
Bible about what Adam and Eves sexual innocence entailed, and many traditional ideas
regarding prelapsarian love stem from Miltons poem. Whitmans religious depictions of
sexuality move beyond attempting to recapture the ideals of an immaculate prelapsarian
love; rather, Whitman claims all forms of sexuality as an essential element of what makes
up the perfect body (I Sing the Body Electric 251). By engirth[ing] the bodies or
armies of men and women around him, the poet can in effect cleanse them of the idea that
they are, as in the Christian tradition, already corrupted beings. The poet does not attempt
to return humanity to a state of prelapsarian sexual innocence or, as Olsen-Smith claims,
to [support a] reversal of the Fall (518), but rather to erase the stigma on sexuality by
eliminating the idea of the fall altogether. In this new American Eden, no original sin
factors in; the only sin, in this poetic line of religious thought, lies in those who corrupt
their own bodies (I Sing the Body Electric 250). This ambiguous line of the poem, I
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argue, takes a much more philosophical role in the 1867 revision. In the original version,
the question Was it dreamed whether those who corrupted their own live bodies could
conceal themselves? seems to connect to a physical corruption that could be evident to
an outside observer. In the revision, the line shifts to Was it doubted that those who
corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves? and turns the emphasis inward; corruption
in this light is a force that suppresses a persons individuality. Corruption, then, becomes
anything that mars or hides a persons natural self, and the poet extols the natural state of
the body as perfect. As a part of the poets spiritual ideology, this perfection is not
dependent on any outside redemptive force, because it exists in humans as they are.
Within his Children of Adam poems, Whitman also revises the complex ideas
of religious hierarchy within Paradise Lost in order to tailor his spiritual message to a
progressive and democratic society. Miltons Adam struggles with the idea of hierarchy
even before the Fall, and in conversation with Raphael he recounts the conflict he
experiences when attempting to reconcile his feelings for Eve with the hierarchical
perspective he believes God has endorsed:
For well I understand in the prime end
Of Nature her th' inferiour, in the mind
And inward Faculties, which most excell,
In outward also her resembling less
His Image who made both, and less expressing
The character of that Dominion giv'n
O're other Creatures; yet when I approach
Her loveliness, so absolute she seems
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And in her self compleat, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say,
Seems wisest, vertuousest, discreetest, best. (PL 8.540-50)
In his reimagining of right relationships between men and women, Whitmans
Adamic chanter addresses the Miltonic Adams concern directly. Whereas Milton
wrestled with complex Christian doctrine regarding the relationship between the sexes
throughout most of the twelve books of Paradise Lost, Whitmans doctrine of sensual
spirituality simplifies the issue to one basic principle: The mans body is sacred, and the
womans body is sacred; / No matter who it is, it is sacred (I Sing the Body Electric
254). This democratic acceptance extends beyond the idea of men and women; in keeping
with this principle, the poet can expand this equality to encompass all types of men and
women, and his extensive catalogues of both people and their discrete body part become
inventories of the sacred (Robertson 19), working together towards a divine mission
that equally values both procreation and self-fulfillment. The poet exuberantly and
unabashedly proclaims that Sex contains all/ All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all
the passions, loves, / beauties, delights of earth, / All the government, judges, gods,
followd persons of the / earth (A Woman Waits 258-9), and thus sex becomes the
act-poem (I Sing the Body Electric 250) that can unify humanity. In Spontaneous
Me, this equality of sexual purposes is again confirmed, as the poet juxtaposes his
commitment to his oath of procreation against masturbatory images which he describes
as providing wholesome relief, repose, content (260). Like his discussion of the
greatest poet in his 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitmans concept of sexuality
rejects none and permits all (Preface 26) in a message of acceptance and inclusion.
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Whitman continues to develop his paradisal manifesto in the latter half of I Sing
the Body Electric, as he claims To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing
laughing / flesh is enoughAll things please the soul, but these please the soul well
(253). For Whitmans speaker, sex is a solution rather than a puzzle, and attempting to
reason out its proper role with an angelic mentor
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would be in itself a transgression of the
sacred nature of the body. Sections 6 and 7 of the same poem implicitly purport to solve
the dilemma over the right usage of sex presented in Paradise Lost; in Whitmans
reimagined ideal, sex is the great democratic equalizer. By asserting that the mans body
is sacred and the womans body is sacred / No matter who it is, it is sacred, the speaker
is able to empathize with and even embody all manners of people, even taking on the role
of the slave at auction (254).
These sections, perhaps more than any throughout the series, pose a direct
challenge to the ideology presented by Milton and carried over into Whitmans
contemporary society. Whereas in Paradise Love, the angel Raphael admonishes Adam
to have confidence in his role as the superior being, so that Eve will readily
acknowledge [him] her Head, / And to realities yield all her shows, (PL 8.574-5)
Whitmans speaker demolishes any supposed natural or spiritual hierarchy through
leveling images of the body. In this new vision of paradise, the democratizing power of
the body extends beyond the dialogue of gender equality to encompass any human who
has ever been downtrodden, and Whitmans speaker affirmatively cuts off any retort to
his argument:
Within [the body] runs blood,

2
See Paradise Lost, Book VIII, Adams conversation with the angel Raphael.
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The same old blood! The same red-running blood!
There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires,
reachings, aspirations,
(Do you think they are not there because they are not
expressd in parlors and lecture-rooms? (I Sing the Body Electric
256)
He continues his development of this idea in A Woman Waits for Me, avowing Sex
contains all, bodies, soulsAll the governments, judges, gods, followd persons of the /
earth, / These are containd in sex as parts of itself and justifications / of itself (259). By
embracing sex and the body, then, Whitmans speaker can dismantle hierarchy altogether,
and his call to return to Paradise! (One Hour 262) becomes less of a return and more
of an entrance into an entirely new kind of democratic society.
The Children of Adam series ends as it began with a Miltonic image
reimagined to suit Whitmans poetic ideas of a sensual and democratic spirituality. The
vision of Adam, early in the morning, / Walking forth from the bower, refreshd with
sleep (Whitman 259) is one taken directly from Paradise Lost. There is no bower in the
Biblical account, and the Genesis story records no specific days within which Adam
could have slept and awoke refreshed. Instead of moving into his daily worship, however,
Whitmans Adam speaks to the people, not to God. He invites them to use their senses to
experience him as both the prophetic poet figure and as a fellow human being, and to
most importantly Be not afraid of [his] body (I Sing the Body Electric Whitman
259). In this invitation lies the challenge of his spiritual message; to throw off the
encumbrances of a religion steeped in fear of the body in favor of a spirituality that
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accepts and embraces the perfection already existent. This final poem also exemplifies
Whitmans transfiguration of Milton; this Adam, timeless and sensual, defies the
centuries of religious and poetic tradition that would keep him a fallen and subservient
figure. He affirms, as Whitman claimed, that there is nothing in the known universe
more divine than men and women (Preface 16), and he walks among men as an
example of self-realization that can be transmitted through mere touch.

















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Miller, James. Children of Adam. Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. Ed. J.R. LeMaster
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