Whitman in Angels in America

When reading Angels in America, an important intertext to consider is Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself; Kushner himself writes in the Afterword: “We are all children of ‘Song of Myself'” (284). Published in the collection Leaves of Grass, this far-reaching poem of and for everyone and everything, regardless of the size or social worth or any other criteria, is a distinctly American epic poem written in free verse. In long, flowing lines Whitman constructs an extensive catalogue of everything around him with “words simple as grass” – just one of the many uses of the symbol of grass. In Song of Myself, grass is an epitome of equality for it does not discriminate where it grows: it is “a uniform hieroglyphic,” “sprouting alike in broad zone and narrow zones, / growing among black folks as among white.” It is the cycle of life: both death, growing from the buried bodies (“grass of graves”), and rebirth, always giving rise to new life; it is the transcending nature, an image of divinity on earth; it is the world’s playground, our all-seeing and all-knowing surrounding, the God of the modern age; this is Whitman’s grand poetic vision of (American) democracy, equality, unity.

Resonances of this vision can be found throughout the play in Louis’s extravagant speeches (almost soliloquies) on the nature of democracy, but even more interestingly, they can be found in the Angel’s speech. The Angel, seemingly a distinctly conservative and reactionary character turns out to be a much more dialectical figure: she appears female but is revealed to be a hermaphrodite with eight vaginas and “a Bouquet of Phalli” (175). She is both male and female, both hetero- and homosexual, and radiates mystical sexual energy. All of these and a lot of indiscriminate sex in the play are very reminiscent of Whitman’s all-inclusive logic and extremely sensual poetics (also full of homoerotic images). Furthermore, the Angel’s warning to Prior: “Hiding from Me one place you will find me in another. / I I I I stop down the road, waiting for you” (179) echoes the final lines of Song of Myself: “Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you,” and the numerous “I’s” the Angel employs are echoes of a strong “I” narrator persona in Whitman’s poem. He writes:

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue

. . .

I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.

Like Whitman, who embraces all binaries and incorporates them into himself, the Angel turns out to not be so monolithic either. If we re-think the Angel (and the social and cultural forces she seems to represent) and look at her through the prism of the literary legacy she is coming from, the character suddenly becomes much more dialectical and subversive, and the messages and commands she issues much more shaky.

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