Sandburg’s "Elizabeth Umpstead" presents the individualized voice of a black female prostitute, giving the tragic speaker limited agency in a ruthlessly capitalist society. Such agency, however, is not attained without sacrifice, and does not ultimately compensate for the prostitute’s circumscription within the market economy. That she has "learned what [men] wanted and traded on it" seems to anticipate Langston Hughes’ speaker’s hope for the "dark Mercedes" of Hughes' later poem. Gold, however, does not "fall at the feet" of Elizabeth Umpstead’s "beauty" (line 5), but she commands it, demands it, taking some control over her own commodification by negotiating the price of sexual exchange. Even as she withholds or allows access to her body, however, the fact that Elizabeth Umpstead cannot resist being commodified also contributes to the poem’s sense of despair and cynicism. The poem thus exposes and critiques the harshness of a capitalist system that seems utterly bereft of human compassion.
Sandburg’s speaker is trapped in a world centering around female submission and compliance; the central ambivalence of the poem revolves around her struggle to define herself inevitably within, yet simultaneously against, this world. The tragedy of the speaking voice lies not only in the impossibility of escape from the market system of human property and trade, but also in the heavy price of any empowerment within this system. By the time of her death, Elizabeth Umpstead has completely separated herself from humanity, isolated herself emotionally from those "two-legged moving figures" whom to trust would mean to endanger the secure, if not unproblematic, place she has forged for herself "on top of the earth." Her material dependence upon her own body and those of others necessitates that she compensate with a sort of "internal independence" to avoid total victimization or objectification. As a result, even as she engages with other humans, with men, in physical ways, she consciously appropriates some autonomy by severing herself psychologically from all other "figures" she encounters.
Thus, what authority Elizabeth Umpstead can claim lies largely in her psychological separation from the men who would "own" her body and, similarly, from the poem’s readers who, like the men, can never fully "possess" her as a definable, identifiable voice. Because her body can be temporarily "bought" in the exchange system, her physical self, and her beauty, are undeniably objectified in the gaze of the men who desire her. By wrenching "all I could [get] for it" from the "white men and black men" she attracts, however, she does "manage" herself as object, if only to a limited degree. In this sense, then, she is also a subject who controls how and by whom her body is used, just as she chooses which details of her life readers will and will not be privy to. Much like McKay’s Harlem Dancer constructs an image that may or may not reflect her true "self" on the stage—the male speaker’s assurance that "her self was not in that strange place" is well-intentioned but speaks from a place outside of that "self," resulting in the potential inaccuracy of his reading of her—Elizabeth Umpstead’s words simultaneously reveal and conceal a self that we can never quite grasp, that remains elusive despite our attempts to contain or harness her voice.
One way in which Elizabeth Umpstead’s agency emerges in the specific context of her commodification is through her appropriation of the language of trade as she "scheme[s]" and "haggle[s]" with the men who desire her. While men yearn to "take [her beauty] and crush it and taste it," to make the object their own, her familiarity with the words used by men in their economy, in conjunction with her emotional detachment from them, gives her some claim in a system that has traditionally rendered female prostitutes voiceless and nameless. Though men may know the beauty of her body through sexual encounter, they only "taste" her briefly, fleetingly; never do they actually possess, "take" or "crush" the essence of that beauty itself. Of course, we cannot forget that Elizabeth Umpstead is always, to some extent, used by and contained within capitalist ideology; the poem’s wrenching account of her sufferings underscores this fact. At the same time, her ability to mitigate victimization under such oppressive circumstances, through a pragmatic transformation of her sexuality into a viable resource, cannot be denied. She allows men access to her beauty only under her conditions, and then never wholly, never with true emotion or feeling behind it.
The falling away of innocence is necessary for the woman who "was the most beautiful nigger girl in northern Indiana"; she cannot afford to be used "as a brass cuspidor or a new horse and buggy or a swivel chair," as she is when a lawyer impregnates her and pays her to bear his child. By surrendering her physical self to one man by accepting "$600 . . . for the keep of the child of my womb and his loins," she has also forsaken the psychological distance necessary to some sense of self-preservation within the market economy. Even as the lawyer regards Elizabeth Umpstead as a vehicle for production, valuable for its "cargo" but as devoid of emotional worth as a "brass cuspidor," she has allowed herself to become too trusting, too emotionally involved to reject his offer of ownership, to cast aside the "spot cash" that effectively marks her as the pawn of a system that assumes male consumption of female bodies. Although her position as prostitute certainly necessitates that she continue to exist as consumed body even after this incident, her resolve to separate her internal self from the physical act of bodily consumption keeps her from playing the pawn, from moving mechanically forward from one moment of possession to the next. For the speaker, then, naivete is dangerous, for it subjects her to the harsh reality of the exchange economy without any means of resistance or retaliation. As long as she remains ignorant of a world in which men will possess and control attractive women, her beauty is her greatest liability. Used with shrewd understanding—and in the context of a conscious decision not to be fully incorporated into male desire and ownership—it is a means of ameliorating the already deadening effects of objectification, and of taking some hand in the otherwise bleak reality of her life.
The description of the incident that moves Elizabeth Umpstead from vulnerability to self-protective cunning reveals the cost of her knowledge and says something about the evolution of her self-detachment from the capitalist world. Though she "learn[s] early," her innocence almost destroys her, effects her incorporation into the market system as purely passive commodity. Upon submitting to her lover’s desire for her to keep the child, she commits herself to "service" to the buyer until the fulfillment of her obligation to him. And unlike later years in which she can at least control the conditions of the trade, if not the fact of bodily exchange itself, she is frozen by the nature of the contract, the result of her naïve agreement to it. Thus, her initial weakness causes a painful and almost catastrophic "rebirth" into experience, allowing her to be seduced by the same market system in which she will later attain some form of agency.
The lawyer's confession of his sins in the church, his public revealing of the speaker as a pitiable whore who takes money to have babies, unveils the consequences of Elizabeth Umpstead’s choice:
And then he went to a revival, sang "Jesus Knows All about Our Troubles," moaned he was a sinner and wanted Jesus to wash his sins away. He joined the church and stood up one night before hundreds of people and blabbed to them how he used me, had a child by me, and paid me $600 cash.
For the spiritual "cleansing" of male guilt, the female body becomes simultaneously the vehicle of the lawyer’s "redemption" and an object of shameful spectacle and revulsion. He presents Elizabeth Umpstead as a mere type, a powerless, defenseless victim whose sacrifice as scapegoat for his sins temporarily severs all claims to agency, voice, and individualism. Most important, perhaps, the incident exposes her failure to establish self-reliance as a prostitute. His language encompasses not only her physical self, but also her psychological motivations, trivializing her mistake for the sake of his own advancement. Even as Elizabeth Umpstead prepares to reclaim some internal self in the final lines of the poem, Sandburg comments upon a hypocrisy that extends beyond all monetary façades; capitalist corruption spills into spiritual matters, as well, rendering repentance an illusion that thrives off of vulnerable women’s victimization.
As Elizabeth Umpstead "wait[s] till one night [she] saw him in the public square," and then thrashes the lawyer’s face with a "leather horsewhip," she acts out a partial transformation from owned object to liberated subject. At the same time, her triumph is tempered in that she is still "owned" by the body economy that continues to ensnare her. That she speaks from the dead—as a corpse—symbolizes her ultimate objectification as body within that economy, even as she declares herself apart from the "moving figures" that occupy this realm. Still, although we may concede the impossibility of her escape from the market system, the closing event of the poem lends some element of tragic accomplishment to her completed life.
Elizabeth Umpstead’s violent humiliation of her lover in a public space reciprocates the offense done to her, mimics the cruel shearing away of self-respect that she must now recover. In order to regain some autonomy and authority over her own body—and to close herself off from such emotional attachments in the future—she must expel the violence carried out on her by literally reenacting it onto her perpetrator: "I slashed his face . . . calling all the wild crazy names that came to my tongue to damn him and damn him and damn him, for a sneak in the face of God and man." Though readers may find it difficult to validate the speaker’s choice to repay emotional harm with physical violence, Elizabeth Umpstead’s undiluted emotional reaction, however cruel, allows her to disavow all psychological connections to the "outer" world of commerce. She thus claims the only means of agency available to her, permanently distancing herself from emotional relations that could again rob her from choice and some measure of independence.
Ó Heather Zadra, 2001