Monday, September 26, 2016

Walt Whitman and Frankenstein's Creature Walk Into a Classroom...

Walt Whitman. Photo credit: marcelo noah 
via / CC BY
My AP students are reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein right now, and, as in previous years, the students' responses to the appearance of Victor Frankenstein's Creature have me thinking. This year, I'm thinking about a poem by Walt Whitman called "This Compost" (published originally with the more evocative title "Poem of Wonder at the Resurrection of the Wheat"). 

In the poem, Whitman marvels at the Earth's ability to transform dead organic matter (including human corpses) into new life. "What chemistry!" he exclaims, "that blackberries are so flavorous and juicy," even though they grow up out of "those strata of sour dead" (lines 31, 37, and 30). The Earth "grows such sweet things out of such corruptions," and "the resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves" (lines 43 and 23). 

Boris Karloff as Victor's "beautiful"
and "hideous" creation (42-3).
Photo credit: 
twm1340 via / CC BY-SA
Victor Frankenstein's act of creation is much different. Although Victor says he had "selected [the Creature's] features as beautiful" from the "charnel-houses," "the dissecting room[,] and the slaughter-house," the result was nevertheless "hideous" (37, 39, 43). 

So what makes one act of transformation (the production of Life from Death) wondrous and sweet, while the other is horrific and disgusting? I think Uncle Walt might have been able to tell poor Victor where he went wrong. 

"Hey, Vic, old buddy, it doesn't matter what bits and pieces you chose to cobble together--your project was doomed from the beginning. Let me tell you why..." 

AP Lit students: Read Whitman's poem and tell me in a comment what you think Walt would have said next! 

And then read, or listen to, this NPR report about a very recent experiment in human DNA editing, which I think Muna I made reference to in discussion. 

Someone, I can't remember who (remind me in a comment) brought up the Creature's vegetarianism, which is discussed at length in Carol Adam's book The Sexual Politics of Meat. You all should read the relevant chapter. [Update (9/29): Take a look at this article, too, as it touches on a topic we discussed yesterday!]

We had a great discussion on Friday--let's keep that trend going!
Look at all those hands up! 


  1. After reading Whitman's poem, I have a better understanding of the Creature's profundity. As we know, the Creature has been crafted by Victor Frankenstein using the parts of previously dead organisms. Essentially, and likely according to Whitman, Frankenstein was playing the role of God. He utilized the deceased pieces of nature in order to create a living being, which is exactly what happens when grass grows from a pile of decomposed animals. However, his experiment was doomed from the beginning. The process of creating life from death (ie. flowers growing in a burned forest or a luscious orchard that was once diseased) is best left to nature. The process is also a cycle, and Frankenstein's approach simply bypassed several natural steps to create a beautiful being. Unlike the deliberate cycle in nature, Frankenstein attempted the impossible. As Whitman would point out, the Earth "grows such sweet things out of such corruptions," but it takes nature's time to complete the process (Whitman 44). Life is a miracle that often occurs from unexplainable tragedy or horrors, but Frankenstein’s feat was not miraculous. It was an attempt to create a beautiful natural being without the aid of nature, effectively a failure from the inception.

  2. In Uncle Walt's poem, he discusses the miracle of nature that allows for dead, composting things to be turned into new life. This cycle of old to new and vice versa is what makes up nature and it shouldn't be interrupted. If Walt were to give poor Frankenstein some advice, he may inform Frankenstein that nature cannot be messed with. Try as you might but creating a new being from old compost will never work. Nature is unique. It is capable of recreating life without the interference of human touch. Frankenstein attempts to imitate the power of nature and ends up creating an unfortunate creature. He interrupts natures natural course and is doomed from the beginning.

  3. I was the one who brought up the Creature's vegetarianism. While reading Frankenstein, we can all agree that nature plays an important role in the novel and the Romantic Era. This fascination of nature is what Whitman focuses on in his poem "This Compost." In his poem, Whitman discusses how extraordinary nature is in regards to the process of creating life from death. Whitman focuses on how nature "grows such sweet things out of such corruptions" (Whitman 44). The point that Whitman is trying to make is that nature moves in a cycle. Nature is a very powerful thing that is ultimately capable of creating life from death. In the novel, we see Victor trying to create life and death from his own hands in an unnatural manner through science instead of allowing nature to go through its cycle. Whitman's advice towards Victor is that Victor's project was doomed from the start. Nature is so beautiful because it is often times inexplainable and breathtaking. Victor's attempt was doomed from the beginning because science cannot create a beautiful life form without the help of nature and its supernatural powers.

  4. After reading the poem, I feel that Uncle Walt would have finished his statement by saying that in order for the earth to grow wonders out of death, something new must be created. The tree doesn't pick up an arm and reanimate it to hold its fruit, instead, it pulls the good things, such as nutrients, out of the arm. Victor Frankenstein simply took the dead pieces and transferred them directly into another form. Victor's project was doomed from the beginning because he didn't allow for something new to grow out of the dead pieces, instead, he skipped a step that nature takes, which is why his project failed.

  5. Nice job, folks! My point was exactly what many of you said, that nothing humans create from death is as beautiful as what nature can make from death. Did anyone read the Carol Adams chapter or listen to the NPR story? I'm also adding, in the post, a link to an article about how murderous human are--something we touched on in our last conversation! Take a look at it.