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Spinsters, Bachelors, and the Question of Whether Walt Whitman Led a “Partial” Life

Want to see affirming definitions of spinsters and bachelors? Want an example of how to critically assess insults lobbed at even the most monumentally successful single people? Welcome to my latest installment in my series of posts about Fenton Johnson’s new book, At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life.

As I noted previously, Johnson does not equate being single with being a solitary. Some single people are not solitaries and some coupled people are. But single people are at the center of Johnson’s writing. I love the way he writes about them, and how he thinks about the terms for them:

“Throughout this book I liberate the words “bachelor” and “spinster” from their pejorative connotations and restore them to the dignity of their roots in honest labor: bachelor, from Old French bachelor, a knight or squire in service to a greater cause; spinster, an unmarried woman who made her living by spinning fiber into thread, bringing warmth and pleasure to our naked lives.”

In my own writing, I like to use the term “single” instead of “unmarried” because “unmarried” describes people by what they are not. But as Johnson notes, single is “a word that means nothing outside the context of marriage.” One reason he likes the word “solitary” is that, “unlike “bachelor” or “spinster” or “single,” [it] is independent of connotations of gender and sex and doesn’t carry the opprobrium of centuries of marriage-focused mythologies.”

This is important, too:

“To define a solitary as someone who is not married – to define solitude as the absence of coupling – is like defining silence as the absence of noise. Solitude and silence are positive gestures.”

Some of the most delicious passages in At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life were Fenton Johnson’s skewering of people who made what I’d call singlist judgments of his solitaries. For example, he compared Whitman biographer Justin Kaplan very unfavorably to another biographer, saying, “Justin Kaplan, a more conventional, less perceptive biographer, drew from Whitman’s lifelong bachelorhood the lesson that “perhaps [Whitman’s] life had to be partial in order for his work to be whole.”

You may want to pause for a moment to think about how you would evaluate that statement. Now look at what Johnson had to say:

Partial? Walt Whitman, chronicler of nineteenth-century New York, nurse to Civil War soldiers in makeshift hospitals and under rains of bombs and bullets, voyageur down an untamed Mississippi, friend and associate of the greatest nineteenth-century minds, internationally famous – Walt Whitman, a partial life? The mind boggles. How partial must Kaplan’s vision be – how blinkered our own vision, if we believe conventional partnership and marriage to be the only model of a complex emotional life.”

I hope you are enjoying the insights from At the Center of All Beauty as much as I am. Stay tuned for more. (This was Part 2. Part 1 was here.)

Spinsters, Bachelors, and the Question of Whether Walt Whitman Led a “Partial” Life

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2020). Spinsters, Bachelors, and the Question of Whether Walt Whitman Led a “Partial” Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Apr 2020
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