I doubt that any national poet has ever been so thoroughly a man of his nation as was Walt Whitman. To discuss Walt Whitman is to discuss what is finest and truest about the American Dream, for Whitman is the American Dream. His volume of poetry, Leaves of Grass, enlarged and refined from 1855 to 1892 in other words, covering America's transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial power by way of a civil war contains the myth that is America. It also reflects the ways in which America has sytematically mutilated its ideals, and Walt Whitman's personal life suffered much at the hands of the American taboo against sex and homosexual love. Yet Whitman remained a steadfast patriot, and retained till the end that cheerful optimism that still enables many to see in America the "bright promise" of the future. I still think that Whitman was exceedingly naive in his faith in such American ideals as the bountifull richness of motherhood, the joy of manual labour, the belief in "progress," the necessity of capitalistic enterprise, etc., but he has nevertheless poduced several handfuls of poems without a belief in which I would lose my own faith in the inevitable success of gay liberation.
Whitman is America's greatest embarrassment, because if what he says about democracy is true, then the American ideal of universal equality is inherently homosexual, and homosexual love is the physiological basis of democracy. Whitman is a much more subversive and radical poet than even Jean Genet, and American school children for the past half-century have been carefully protected from exposure to America's greatest poet. I did not properly read Whitman until I had completed nearly seventeen years of formal education, when I began participating in the gay liberation movement in 1971. Walt Whitman and Gay Liberation are nearly synonymous for me, and the revelations of both have significantly altered my life because they are so closely aligned. I was at a GLF meeting one evening, and the rap session had unfortunately turned into a sharing of each others' sorrows, and the unbearable weight of all our oppressions was threatening to smother us. One man said that the oppressions of society were so immense that we might as well give up in despair. In a burst of anger and grief a butch lesbian shouted at him for his defeatist attitude, stood up, and, tears in her eyes, recited these lines from Walt:
A leaf for hand in hand;It was odd. I had studied literature all my life, but never knew until then how important a poem could be.
It has been said that Walt Whitman was a bohemian, which is true insofar as he never settled into a routine occupation, but it also reveals how much of a solitary man he was, probably not by choice. Born in Long Island, New York, in 1819, he did the usual things until he wisely decided to quit school at the age of eleven. For a while he ran errands for a lawyer, then a doctor, and then became an apprentice typesetter for a Brooklyn paper. From 1834 to 1841 he served as a schoolmaster in seven different schools in various small villages in New York, and occasionally contributed articles to various newspapers. In 1841 he tired of the dull country life and returned to New York City, where he worked for a succession of newspapers as typesetter, reporter, feature writer and editor. He was caught up in the swirl that was Broadway, its cafes and theatres and nightlife, and became something of a dandy, as described by one of his newspaper colleagues:
He was tall and graceful in appearance, neat in attire, and possessed a very pleasing and impressive eye and a cheerful, happy-looking countenance. He usually wore a frock coat and a high hat, carried a small cane, and the lapel of his coat was almost invariably ornamented with a boutonniere.He attented art exhibitions, the Egyptian museum, opera, viewed the ships in the great harbour, and walked among the multitudes down the broad avenues. His two favorite pastimes were to occupy the seat next to the young and ruggedly handsome omnibus drivers, sharing gossip and reciting poetry as they drove down Broadway, and to cross back and forth on the Brooklyn ferry and mingle with the rough deck hands. He had a voracious appetite for the multitude of experiences available in New York, yet he was primarily a loner in a crowd, a spectator rather than a participant, because he was still repressing himself:
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me.In 1848 Whitman visited New Orleans, and discovered the exciting Latin sensuousness of the French Quarter. It was supposed to be for a long stay, but he returned abruptly after three months, and at the same time was fired from his position as editor of the New Orleans Crescent, reasons for both of which remain unknown. A romantic story, no longer in fashion, had it that Whitman had an affair with an aristocratic Creole woman which created a scandal. The story is partly supported by his best-known "heterosexual" love poem, but in 1925 the original hand-written manuscript of this poem was discovered, and it revealed that Whitman had reversed the sex of the beloved in order to make it presentable for publication. Such a subterfuge of course suggests that Whitman, far from being an innocent, was aware of the "queer" nature of his passions. Critics still like to ignore this important discovery, and the heterosexualized version is often printed in the standard anthologies, but I quote the manuscript version:
Once I pass'd through a populous city imprinting my brain for future use with its shows, architecture, customs, tradition,It seems likely that this records Whitman's first homosexual experience, that he did not quite understand it though he was not repulsed by it, and that he ran away to avoid its full implication, and perhaps to avoid a scandal. He returned to Brooklyn to work for the Freeman newspaper, but resigned within less than a year, and returned to his family in Long Island and helped to support them as a carpenter, with only an occasional contribution to newspapers.
Sometime between then and 1855, when Leaves of Grass was first published, he experienced some sort of emotional crisis that transformed the journalist into a poet, though there are few or no documents about what actually happened, or why the city man became almost a hermit in his attic room writing poetry. Rather like gay men in the 1980s, he ceased being a dandy and became "one of the roughs." Some biographers maintain that Whitman literally experienced a mystical conversion similar to those of Christ, St Paul, and Mohammed, and throughout his poems he refers to himself as an "avatar" and a reincarnation of various deities, particularly those who embody Eternal Love.
Whatever the reasons, Whitman certainly became a prophet, and in 1855 America was presented with one of the oddest books of poetry ever produced in that country, before or since. He announced his typical stance is "to announce" his grand theme in the first poem:
One's self I sing, a simple, separate person,The Modern Man of course is none other than Walt himself, and his song is a barbaric yawp:
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,Walt Whitman shattered the world of tennis and tea, the stuffy drawing rooms of decorous morality. And for celebrating reality, a reality which included sex, he was to be branded as an obscene writer throughout his lifetime. The State Department later fired him from a civil service job and attempted to ban his book. Few publishers accepted later editions of the work, and Whitman himself even succumbed at various times to suppressing and expurgating various passages. But in the 1855 edition he had not yet ripped open his own closet door to celebrate his basic message, gay love.
Sometime in 1858 or 1859 he experienced his second love affair, this time with a man one of whose initials is "M" (Whitman often censored his own notebooks, leaving just the bare obscurities). This affair aparently involved a completely frank acceptance of himself as homosexual. From various passages we can tell that it was an affair of passion rather than mere tremulous lips, an abandonment to joy rather than a timid reticence. Unfortunately the intensity of Whitman's love was not reciprocated by M "I loved a certain person aredently and my love was not return'd,/ Yet out of that I have written these songs." Their final separation nearly resulted in Walt's suicide. But it also resulted in Whitman's realization of the true meaning of his prophecy, and produced the Calamus cluster of poems in the 1860 edition. It was a severe crisis, and Whitman in effect came out:
I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me,Whitman's symbol for gay love is the calamus plant, calamus acornus, colloquially called the "sweet-flag" which he refers to as "the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven." It is a hardy perennial that grows by ponds in the mid-eastern States, and has three-foot high tufts, long pointed leaves, yellow-green spikes, and huge sprawling rhizomes (tubers or "roots") that closely resemble penisses in various stages of tumescence. It is named after the river god Calamus who grieved for the death by drowning of his boy lover Carpus. It is not likely that Whitman would have called these "Calamus" poems without being fully aware of the plant's homoerotic coding; within the poems it is the archetypal token of a secret fraternity:
In paths untrodden,Of course this was more than a century ago, and it is not at all true that Whitman really could tell us the secrets of his nights and days. He often kept himself busy changing pronouns, suppressing passages, and even omitting whole poems from later editions. As late as 1890 John Addington Symonds asked Whitman directly if comradeship involved homosexual union, and Whitman in a panic (after all, it was an odd query from a total stranger!) wrote back that he had six illegitimate children and felt that such an interpretation was abhorrent. Needless to say, none of these children have been traced after the most industrious researches ever engaged in by American scholars!
Because Whitman is part of the canon of American literature taught in the classrooms, there is still much resistance to labelling him gay, despite some fairly well documented evidence. A Dr W. C. Rivers in 1913 claimed to have assembled testimony "from working-men, etc., who, when young fellows, had been objects of Whitman's appetite, or knew all about it. And last year I heard from Dr. Hirschfeld that the German-American poet George Sylvester Viereck has told him of a personal avowal he received from an American lawyer still living at Chicago. This lawyer, when a boy of fourteen (!!), has been made an object of fellatio by the great Walt Whitman." (The evidence is reviewed by Martin Duberman, "Walt Whitman's Anomaly," About Time: Exploring the Gay Past (Meridian, 1986, rev. 1991), pp. 106-20.) Edward Carpenter visited Whitman in Camden in 1877 and is said to have slept with him. Carpenter demonstrated the kind of sex he had with Whitman by having sex with Gavin Arthur, who described the incident to Allan Ginsberg, who published Arthur's testimony as "The Gay Succession," Gay Sunshine Journal, 75 (1978). Carpenter later wrote that Whitman did not dare to openly declare his homosexuality for fear of public reprisal:
He knew that the moment he said such a thing he would have the whole American Press at his heels, snarling and slandering, and distorting his words in every possible way. Things are pretty bad in this country [England]; but in the States (in such matters) they are ten times worse.Whitman knew the temper of his times, and knew there were some taboos which not even he, the advocate of openness, could yet challenge:
I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs . . .Whitman acknowledged to Carpenter that what lay behind Leaves of Grass was "concealed, studiedly concealed; some passages left purposely obscure. . . . I think there are truths which it is necessary to envelop or wrap up." But in spite of numerous half-veilings and words unsaid, he can still be quite direct, as for example in his account of the promiscuity that immediately followed his coming out:
I share the midnight orgies of young men . . .Whitman's notebooks of this period are filled with descriptions of buss drivers, ferry-boat men, and other "rude, illiterate" men that he met picked up is really the only accurate word for it in the streets of Manhattan, and "slept with," often keeping notes of their home addresses. Excerpts from his Notebooks have been collected in Charley Shively's Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Camerados (Gay Sunshine Press, 1987):
Whitman was seldom completely at ease with himself as a homosexual, in spite of efforts at self-acceptance. Sometimes, as in City Of Orgies, in which Manhattan is compared to Sodom, he says that "lovers, continual lovers, only repay me"; and yet at other times he says that just holding hands or kissing is enough. He certainly had no person or organization to look to for support, and read about the homosexual Sacred Band of Thebes "with bitterest envy."
But despite the contradictions of his own feelings of guilt ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."), he was determined to institute his convictions about the importance of erotic fraternity:
Come I am determin'd to unbare this broad breast of mine, I have long enough stifled and choked; . . .Whitman's belief in friendship was still taking form when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He did not volunteer, partly because he was then forty-two years old, partly because of his Quaker upbringing and belief in non-violence. During previous years it was his custom to visit sick bus drivers in the New York hospitals, and he became a male nurse for the next four years, and even continued as a nurse until 1867. When he entered the makeshift tent-hospital on the front lines in Virginia, he saw outside the entrance a pile of freshly amputated arms, hands, legs, and feet waiting to be carted away.
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv'd neck and side falling head,Whitman went around the wards distributing oranges and tobacco, dressed the soldiers' wounds, wrote letters to their families and friends, daily attended the sick and dying. He was a man of tremendous personal magnetism and health himself. In an earlier poem he said "Wholly divine I am inside and out. Whoever I touch or am touched by becomes holy," and in some strange way he became a Christ-like healer of the sick. Perhaps we can disregard those who believed that Whitman was literally a saint, but there nevertheless remains the testimony of surgeons that his presence almost miraculously eliminated fevers and brought men from the brink of death. "Adhesiveness" was the cause of his healing powers, as he notes:
The men feel such love more than anything else. I have met very few persons who realize the importance of humoring the yearnings for love and friendship of these American young men, prostrated by sickness and wounds. To many of the wounded and sick, especially the youngsters, there is something in personal love, caresses, and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship, that does, in its way, more good than all the medicine in the world. Many will think this mere sentimentalism, but I know it is the most solid of all facts.Whitman fell in love with many of these men, including a certain Tom Sawyer and Lew Brown, with both of whom he proposed a domestic threesome after the war, but eventually they went their own ways. Later he fell in love with Elijah Fox, whom he also wished to live with after the war, but Elijah eventually got married. Clearly Whitman's ideal of comradeship was an alternative to family life, incompatible with wife and children. All the conventions about men being "merely buddies" were dropped on the front lines and in the hospitals during the war. Physical expressions of love and tenderness were viewed without the batting of an eye, and unions were consummated with a wink by commanding officers who had more important things to worry about. After the war, things returned to "normal" for some men, who returned to their families, but for others such friendships and some men even set up house together.
The experiences of the war resulted in the full formulation of Whitman's philosophy of adhesiveness, or erotic fraternity, most eloquently expressed in the following passages from his prose work Democratic Vistas:
Intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man which, hard to define, underlies the lessons and ideals of the profound saviours of every land and age, and which seems to promise, when thoroughly developed, cultivated, and recognized in manners and literature, the most substantial hope and safety of the future of these states will then be fully expressed.After the war, probably in 1866, Whitman met Peter Doyle, a nineteen-year-old Irish bus conductor in Washington, DC. Doyle was the conductor of a Navy Yard horse car in Washington shortly after the end of the Civil War, when he had fought on the Confederate side. Doyle was interviewed in 1895 and recalled their first meeting one night when there was a terrible storm; Whitman was the only passenger, with a blanket thrown round his shoulders, and Pete sat down to talk with him: "We were familiar at once I put my hand on his knee we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip in fact went all the way back with me. I think the year of this was 1866. From that time on we were the biggest sort of friends.
Pete and Walt were inseparable for the next few years, and every day Whitman would wait for Doyle to finish work. Doyle recalls: "Walt rode with me often often at noon, always at night. He road round with me on the last trip sometimes rode for several trips." At the end of the last journey they would go to a hotel bar and have a drink or two until it closed, then presumably go home together. As Doyle said, "I never knew a case of Walt's being bothered up by a woman. In fact, he had nothing special to do with any woman except Mrs O'Connor and Mrs Burroughs [his landlady and housekeeper]. His disposition was different. Woman in that sense never came into his head. Walt was too clean, he hated anything which was not clean. No trace of any kind of dissipation in him. I ought to know about him those years we were awful close together."
Whitman and Doyle often took long walks in the moonlight, sometimes sleeping together under the stars. On Sundays they would spend the day together strolling on the banks of the Potomac, and sometimes Walt brought Pete some flowers. In 1869 Whitman wanted to move in with Doyle, but the plan never went through. Doyle was illiterate, and Whitman taught him spelling, geography, and arithmetic. They daily shared their lives until Whitman settled with his family in Camden in 1873. Even then they corresponded regularly, and sometimes they visited New York and Canada together. They never really separated until Whitman's death in 1892.
We do not know if they ever shared sexual orgasm, though we do know that they often kissed and embraced and sometimes slept together naked (sometimes called carezze, a kind of naked chastity that Socrates seems to advocate in the Symposium, which in the religious practices of India amounts to prolonged erection without ejaculation, and which is what Carpenter is supposed to have experienced with Whitman). Whitman wrote innumerable letters to the boys he had befriended during the war beginning, like his letters to Peter Doyle, "Dear Boy and Comrade" and many letters written by these soldiers to him still survive (collected by Charley Shively in Drum Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers, Gay Sunshine Press, 1989). Sometimes he received some very revealing replies in return, as this from Alonzo S. Bush on 22 December 1863:
I am glad to Know that you are once more in the hotbed City of Washington So that you can go often and See that Friend of ours at Armory Square, L[ewis] K. B[rown]. The fellow that went down on your BK, both So often with me. I wished that I could See him this evening and go in the Ward Master's Room and have Some fun for he is a gay boy.The idea that Whitman ever participated in a gay subculture is largely rejected on the basis of the mistaken assumption that no gay subculture existed in America until the very late nineteenth century. But there is personal testimony that the gay brotherhood was well established by 1870. One of the men who offered his "case study" for the sexologist Casper-Liman (whose testimony was published in Handbuch der Gerichtlichen Medicin, 1889, and translated by John Addington Symonds in A Problem in Modern Ethics, 1891), said that after returning from serving as a volunteer in the great Franco-German war of 1870-71, he visited America:
Half a year after my return I went to North America, to try my fortune. There the unnatural vice in question is more ordinary than it is here; and I was able to indulge my passions with less fear of punishment or persecution. The American's tastes in this matter resemble my own; and I discovered, in the United States, that I was always immediately recognized as a member of the confraternity.The date of this man's visit was 1871-72. It seems to me to provide the meaning behind the looks of mutual recognition that are so characteristic of men with "adhesive dispositions" as described in Whitman's poetry.
Whitman at the beginning pursued Doyle with remarkable fervour, and he felt humiliated by the possibility that his love would not be returned in like fervour, as in this extract from his notebook for 15 July 1870:
Resolved: To give up absolutely & for good, from this present hour, all this feverish, fluctuating, useless undignified pursuit of 164 too long, (much too long) persevered in, so humiliating -it must come at last & had better come now (It cannot possibly be a success) . . . avoid seeing him, or meeting him, or any talk or explanations.Whitman habitually camouflaged his own notebooks, and all the occurrences of "him" were erased and the word "her" was written over them; but the original word "him" is clearly visible in the manuscript (in the Library of Congress). The object of this note, coded as the figure 164, is a simple numerological disguise: the 16th letter of the alphabet is P and the 4th letter is D; thus 164 = PD: Peter Doyle. The page following this note has been torn out of the notebook; presumably it contained a detail that could not be obscured with code. Nevertheless, the pursuit, however undignified, was actually successful. Whitman and Doyle never separated, and in 1873 Doyle came to live near Whitman in order to daily attend him while he was recovering from a stroke.
In 1889, when Whitman was trying to recover from the last stroke, which would eventually kill him, he was visited by Horace Traubel and Tom Harned, who noticed the famous photograph of Whitman and Doyle taken in the late 1860s, showing them sitting facing one another with wonderful expressions of joy and love. They laughed about the expressions on their faces and their staged pose, and Whitman asked "What do I look like here?" Harned replied, "Fondness, and Doyle should be a girl." Whitman laughed and said, "No, don't be too hard on it: that is my rebel friend, you know . . . That fond expression, as you call it, Tom, has very good cause for being: Pete is a master character. A rare man: knowing nothing of books, knowing everything of life: a great big hearty full-blooded everyday divinely generous working man."
In spite of his robustness, and probably because of his internal struggles and efforts to make a hostile society understand him, Whitman grew old prematurely, and had suffered strokes at an increasing pace. Towards the end he further developed his mystical themes, borrowing from the Bhagavad Gita, and brooded on death and the possibility of reciprocated love in the afterlife with "The Great Camerado," his god-like amalgam of all the gods. He resigned himself to the hope that eventually others would take up the flag of his disposition, that someday the world would finally attain some understanding.
Of me myself the jocund heart yet beating in my breast,In 1888 he read again, with Horace Traubel, a letter he had received from his great British disciple and pioneering gay rights campaigner Edward Carpenter in 1876, in which Carpenter had written:
the distance remains immeasurable . . . As soon as I remember what the end is however great the distance I do not doubt. Dear friend, you have so infused yourself that it is daily more and more possible for men to walk hand in hand over the whole earth. As you have given your life, so will others after you freely, with amplest reward transcending all suffering for the end that you have dreamed.And Walt replied to Horace:
Edward was beautiful then is so now: one of the torch- bearers, as they say: an exemplar of a loftier England: he is not generally known, not wholly a welcome presence, in conventional England: the age is still, while ripe for some things, not ripe for him, for his sort, for us, for the human protest: not ripe though ripening. O Horace, there's a hell of a lot to be done yet: don't you see? A hell of a lot: you fellows coming along now will have your hands full: we're passing a big job on to you.
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "Walt Whitman, Prophet of Gay Liberation", Gay History and Literature, 18 Nov. 1999, updated 20 June 2008 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/whitman.htm>.
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