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Love and Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

by David S. Reynolds
Oxford University Press, 159 pp., $17.95


In August of 1863 Private Erastus Haskell of the 141st New York Volunteers died of typhoid fever in Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter his parents received a long letter from a stranger. “I was very anxious [Erastus] should be saved,” the stranger wrote,

& so were they all—he was well used by the attendants…. Many nights I sat in the hospital by his bedside…—he always liked to have me sit there, but never cared to talk—I shall never forget those nights, it was a curious & solemn scene, the sick & wounded lying around in their cots…& this dear young man close at hand…—I do not know his past life, but what I do know, & what I saw of him, he was a noble boy—I felt he was one I should get very much attached to….

I write you this letter, because I would do something at least in his memory—his fate was a hard one, to die so—He is one of the thousands of our unknown young American men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones…. Poor dear son, though you were not my son, I felt to love you as a son, what short time I saw you sick & dying there.

The letter was signed “Walt Whitman,” with a Brooklyn address.

Writing letters of condolence was just one of the duties that Whitman took upon himself as a Soldiers’ Missionary. Doing the rounds of the hospitals in Washington, he brought the soldiers gifts of fresh underwear, fruit, ice cream, tobacco, postage stamps. He also chatted to them, consoled them, kissed and embraced them, and if they had to die tried to ease their dying. “I never before had my feelings so thoroughly and (so far) permanently absorbed, to the very roots, as by these huge swarms of dear, wounded, sick, dying boys,” he wrote. “I have formed attachments in hospital, that I shall keep to my dying day, & they will the same, without doubt.”

Between 1862 and 1865, Whitman by his own count ministered to some one hundred thousand men. Though his interventions were not universally welcomed—“That odious Walt Whitman, [come] to talk evil and unbelief to my boys,” wrote one nurse—he was nowhere denied entry. One might wonder whether in our day a middle-aged man, a reputed pornographer, would be allowed to haunt the wards, drifting from the bedside of one attractive young man to another, or whether he would not soon find himself hustled to the door by a couple of aides.

Whitman kept notes on his Washington experiences, later working these up into newspaper articles and lectures, which in 1876 he published in a limited edition under the title Memoranda During the War. This in turn became part of Specimen Days, published in 1882, ten years before his death. The Memoranda are now republished under the editorship of Peter Coviello, with a well-informed, thoughtful introduction and succinct notes.

Not everything in the Memoranda comes from firsthand experience. Though Whitman gives the impression that he witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater and provides a dramatic description of the event, he was not in fact there. But he did believe he enjoyed a special relationship with Lincoln. Both men were tall. Whitman was often present when Lincoln passed through the streets and was convinced that, over the heads of the crowd, the elected leader of the people recognized and nodded back to the unacknowledged legislator of mankind (like Shelley, Whitman had elevated ideas about his calling).

As a young man Whitman had been much impressed by the new science of phrenology. He took the standard phrenological test and came out with high scores for amativeness and adhesiveness, middling scores for language skills. He was proud enough of his scores to publish them in advertisements for Leaves of Grass. In phrenological jargon, amativeness is sexual ardor; adhesiveness is attachment, friendship, comradeship. The distinction became important to Whitman in his erotic life, where it gave a name and in effect a respectability to his feelings for other men. It also gave body to his conception of democracy: as a variety of love not confined to the sexual couple, adhesiveness could constitute the grounding of a democratic community. Whitmanian democracy is adhesiveness writ large, a nationwide network of fraternal affection much like the loving comradeship that he witnessed among young soldiers marching out to war, and that he detected in his own heart when he tended them afterward. In the preface to the 1876 Leaves of Grass he would write: “It is by a fervent, accepted development of Comradeship, the beautiful and sane affection of man for man, latent in all the young fellows,…and by what goes directly and indirectly along with it, that the United States of the future… are to be most effectually welded together, intercalated, anneal’d into a Living Union.”

To Whitman, adhesiveness was not simply amativeness in sublimated form but an autonomous erotic force. The most attractive feature of Whitman’s dreamed-of United States is that it does not demand of its citizens the sublimation of eros in the interest of the state. In this it differs from other nineteenth-century utopias.

Whitman was not only highly adhesive but, if one goes by what he wrote, highly amative too: “I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,/I tighten her all night to my thighs and lips.” The question of exactly what physical form his amativeness took has exercised Whitman scholars more and more openly of late.

In the postwar years Whitman formed significant attachments to younger men, among which two stand out: with Peter Doyle, a conductor on the Washington railway; and with Harry Stafford, a printer’s apprentice. The relationship with Doyle—who was near illiterate and according to Whitman thought Leaves of Grass “a great mass of crazy talk & hard words, all tangled up without sense or meaning”—seems to have caused Whitman considerable anguish. In a coded notebook entry Whitman admonishes himself:

Give up absolutely & for good, from this present hour, this feverish, fluctuating, useless undignified pursuit of [Doyle]—too long (much too long) persevered in—so humiliating…. Avoid seeing her [sic], or meeting her, or any talk or explanations—or any meeting, whatever, from this hour forth, for life.

(In the course of censoring his papers, Whitman painstakingly erased culpable masculine pronouns and substituted the feminine.)

The attachment to Harry Stafford appears to have been more tranquil—Whitman was nearly forty years Stafford’s senior. Whitman was accepted by the Stafford family: he stayed as a paying guest on their farm in New Jersey, where he could at leisure practice his morning ritual of a mudbath followed by a dip in the spring, all accompanied by loud singing.

If one reads the so-called Live Oak poems of 1859 autobiographically, there would also appear to have been an important attachment in the late 1850s, one that brought Whitman to realize that his feelings toward other men could not forever be kept private: “An athlete is enamour’d of me, and I of him,/But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me eligible to burst forth,/I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs.”

In the form in which they survive in manuscript, the twelve Live Oak poems tell the story of this attachment. But when it came to publication Whitman lost his nerve and distributed them, out of order, among a larger set of poems entitled “Calamus,” which, broadly speaking, celebrate adhesiveness more than amativeness.

Perhaps for strategic reasons, Whitman liked it to be thought that he had affairs with women. He even circulated rumors of children he had fathered out of wedlock in New Orleans and elsewhere. Women certainly found him attractive; and it is hard to believe that the poet of “I Sing the Body Electric” was ignorant of the pleasures of heterosexual sex: “Bridegroom night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn,/Undulating into the willing and yielding day,/Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweetflesh’d day.”

The erotic passages in Leaves of Grass, particularly passages of narcissism and exhibitionism, where humor is easily mistaken for boasting, troubled many of Whitman’s friends, not least Ralph Waldo Emerson, the older contemporary to whom Whitman owed most. Emerson saw Whitman’s genius from the first, and stood by his protégé even when Whitman shamelessly used his name to promote his book. But Emerson’s mild advice that Whitman tone down the sex for the 1860 edition was ignored.

What surprises us about contemporary responses to Leaves of Grass is that it was the apparently heterosexual sex, rather than the homoeroticism behind the Calamus poems, that gave offense, and that eventually provoked the Boston district attorney to threaten action unless the 1881 edition was purged.

By this time Whitman had a considerable following among gay intellectuals, particularly in England: on a tour of the United States, Oscar Wilde visited Whitman and came away with, he claimed, a kiss fresh upon his lips. The essayist John Addington Symonds pressed Whitman to admit that the veiled subject of the Calamus poems was a love affair with a man. But Whitman, more, one suspects, out of canniness than out of fear, refused. The poems, he replied, would bear no such “morbid inferences—[which] are disavow’d by me & seem damnable.”

Were readers of Whitman’s day then more tolerant of sexual love between men than we usually give them credit for, as long as it did not proclaim itself too blatantly? Was the poet of the body electric tacitly recognized as homosexual? “I am,” he wrote, “the poet of the woman the same as the man…/I am he that walks with the tender and growing night,/I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night./Press close bare-bosom’d night—press close magnetic nourishing night!/Night of south winds—night of the large few stars!/Still nodding night—mad naked summer night.”

In an afterword to a reprint of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, David Reynolds makes fun of Anthony Comstock, the campaigner against indecent literature, who denounced the heterosexual sex in the 1881 edition while ignoring the Calamus poems. How, Reynolds asks, could Comstock have missed what today seems an obvious homosexual substrate? “The answer would seem to be that same-sex love was not interpreted the same way then as it is now.” “Whatever the nature of [Whitman’s] physical relationships with [young men], most of the passages of same-sex in his poems were not out of keeping with then-current theories and practices that underscored the healthiness of such love.”

Reynolds reiterates this position, and repeats some of the wording, in his recent book Walt Whitman:

Although Whitman evidently had one or two affairs with women, he was mainly a romantic comrade who had a series of intense relationships with young men, most of whom went on to get married and have children. Whatever the nature of his physical relationships with them, most of the passages of same-sex love in his poems were not out of keeping with then-current theories and practices that underscored the healthiness of such love.

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