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Love and Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

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

1.

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.

In a similarly cautious vein, Jerome Loving, in his 1999 biography, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself, writes that Peter Doyle “may or may not have been Whitman’s lover.” “It is impossible to know the intimate details of the relationship.” Of Harry Stafford, Loving writes: “Today our view of Whitman’s relationship with [Stafford] may reflect…the current interest in Whitman’s possible homosexual tendencies more than the actual facts.”

Both Reynolds and Loving seem to me to treat the question too simply. What Loving calls “the intimate details” and Reynolds somewhat more delicately “the nature of [Whitman’s] physical relationships” with young men can, in context, refer to only one thing: what Whitman and the young men in question did with their organs of amativeness when they were alone together. If Comstock can be treated as a figure of fun, it is because he stupidly missed the amative content—the “intimate details”—underlying the lofty adhesive locutions of the Calamus poems.

Without siding with the censors (though to ridicule Comstock for being “bewhiskered and paunchy,” as Reynolds does, is hardly to the point—Whitman was bewhiskered and more than a little paunchy himself), might one not argue that, among readers who did not take offense at the Calamus poems, some might have missed the amative content not because they were blinded by preconceptions about what intimacy between men had to consist of but because they did not feel they needed to ask themselves what the amative content of that intimacy might be, that is, because their notion of intimacy did not boil down to what the men in question did with their sexual organs?

It is a post-Victorian commonplace that from their early years Victorians were taught to repress certain thoughts, particularly thoughts about “the facts of life,” until the very air became clouded with sexual repression. But the anathema on repression is part of the Freudian agenda, one of the weapons Sigmund Freud forged in his intimate war with his parents’ generation. Pace Freud, it is perfectly possible to refrain from having fantasies about the private lives of other people, even of our parents, without having to repress those fantasies and to bear the consequences of repression—the notorious return of the repressed—in our own psychic life. We pay no psychic price when, for example, we refrain from ruminating on “the intimate details,” “the actual facts,” of what other people do when they visit the bathroom.

In other words, believing that contemporary readers of Whitman’s poems of love missed what those poems were really about may reveal more about simpleminded notions of what it means to be “really about” something than it reveals about Whitman’s readers.

Peter Coviello’s response to the question of how Whitman got away with writing poems of same-sex love is more subtle than Loving’s or Reynolds’s but in the end also misses the mark. The attachments that underlie the Calamus poems and the Memoranda, Coviello writes, “frustrate the available taxonomies of intimate relations.”

There has been I think a good deal of misbegotten hand-wringing over these attachments, born partially of a wish not to describe anachronistically kinds of relations—desiring same-sex relations—in terms that were not current in Whitman’s time. But this well-meaning hesitancy oughtn’t to lead us to mantle Whitman’s relations among the soldiers with a counterfeit chastity. (To do so is to forget, in the first place, the relative latitude afforded to mid-century men …in an era before the more explicitly punishing language of sexual deviancy had gained broad currency.)

Mid-nineteenth-century men did indeed have a freedom that mid-twentieth-century men did not: they could kiss in public, they could hold hands, they could write poems to each other born out of the deepest love (Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” is a case in point), they could even share a bed, all without being ostracized by society or punished by the law. But Coviello’s implicit point seems to be that such behavior would not have been punished because it would not have been misinterpreted: specifically, it would not have been interpreted as a sign of unchaste hanky-panky with the amative organs when the lights were out.

The question to ask instead is whether such behavior would have been interpreted at all, that is, subjected to interrogation for chastity or unchastity. There is a certain sophistication, governed by unspoken social consensus, whose nature lies in taking things simply for what they seem to be. It is this sort of social wisdom, whose other name might be tact, that we are in danger of denying to our Victorian forebears.

(The consensus in question, if there was one, seems to have broken down in the 1890s, when the “punishing language of sexual deviancy” that Coviello alludes to took hold. It would be interesting to know how the breakdown occurred.)

2.

Whitman, born in 1819, was raised in a family of radical Democrats. Throughout his life he believed in an America of yeoman farmers and independent artisans, even though this Jacksonian social ideal became increasingly fanciful as, by mid-century, the new industrial economy took hold and the native artisan class—to say nothing of streams of immigrants from the Old World—were turned into wage laborers in factories.

As a journalist and newspaper editor in the 1840s and early 1850s, Whitman involved himself from the radical side in the politics of the Democratic Party. By 1855, however, disenchanted with the evasiveness of the Democrats on the issue of slavery, he had dropped out of political life. In their essentials his political beliefs were by now fixed: the world might change around him but he would not change.

Despite his opposition to slavery, it would be too much to say that in his views on race Whitman was ahead of his times. He was never an abolitionist—indeed he thundered against the “abominable fanaticism” of the abolitionists. The point of conflict between North and South was the extension of slaveholding to the new western states. Because slavery was antidemocratic in its effects, because a slave economy was in his eyes the antithesis of an economy of independent yeoman farmers, Whitman supported war against the slaveholders. He did not support the war in order to win for slaves a rightful place in a democratic order.

Nor was the condition of the South in the wake of the war a source of celebration to him. He lamented the “measureless degradation and insult” of Reconstruction; he deplored “black domination, but little above the beasts,” such as could not be allowed to continue. If slavery had presented a terrible problem to his century, he wrote in an 1876 note to his Memoranda, “how if the mass of the blacks in freedom in the U.S. all through the ensuing century, should present a yet more terrible and more deeply complicated problem?” While he did not reiterate his pre-war proposal that the best solution to the “problem” of blacks in America would be to create a national home for them elsewhere, he did not withdraw it either.

The long celebratory catalogs of Americans at work that we find in “Song of Myself” and “A Song for Occupations” are therefore tilted toward a diversity in everyday working life that even when Leaves of Grass first came out in 1855 no longer reflected reality: “The carpenter dresses his plank…/The mate stands braced in the whale-boat…/The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,/The farmer…looks at the oats and rye….” Yet it is this vision that Whitman is concerned to project as the future of the nation. To be the poet of America, the national poet, he had to make his vision of a world already receding into the past prevail over a reality increasingly dictated by the market in human labor and by an ideology of competitive individualism.

What is most striking in the face of this insuperable task is Whitman’s optimism. To his dying day he seems to have believed that the force that had given birth to the republic, a force to which he gave the name democ-racy, would prevail. His faith came out of a conviction, growing stronger as his interest in politics waned, that democracy was not one of the superficial inventions of human reason but an aspect of the ever-developing human spirit, rooted in eros: “I cannot too often repeat that [democracy] is a word the real gist of which still sleeps…. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.”

Whitman’s democracy is a civic religion energized by a broadly erotic feeling that men have for women, and women for men, and women for women, but above all that men have for other men. For this reason the social vision expressed in his poetry (the prose is another story) has a pervasive erotic coloring. The poetry does its work by a kind of erotic spellbinding, drawing its readers into a world in which a more or less benign, more or less promiscuous affection of all for all reigns. Even the call of death in poems like “Out of the Cradle” has its erotic allure.

It is no wonder that by his middle years Whitman had become enveloped in the aura of prophet and sage (the flowing beard helped), or that he attracted not so much ad-mirers of his poetic art as disciples, Whitmanians, held together by a disaffection from modern life, aspirations toward the cosmic, and a longing for more and better sex. In his biography, Loving suggests that Whitman even introduced to American shores the phenomenon of the groupie, quoting one Susan Garnet Smith from Hartford, Connecticut, who out of the blue wrote to the gay poet informing him that her womb was “clean and pure” and ready for his child. “Angels guard the vestibule,” she assured him, “until thou comest to deposit our and the world’s precious treasure.”

Meanwhile under the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant the United States was descending into the unrestrained money-grubbing and ostentation of the Gilded Age. Whitman saw all of this clearly enough. Nevertheless, in the role of the Sage of Camden and in a spirit of what Paul Zweig calls “frozen optimism” he continued to enounce cosmic-sounding prophecies, to which a reading of Hegel seems to have contributed, of the triumph of adhesive democracy.

3.

Though Whitman had only a rude formal education, it would be a mistake to think of him as uncultivated or intellectually parochial. For most of his life he was pretty much master of his own time, and used that time to read omnivorously. Despite his pose as a workingman, he hung around with artists and writers as much as with what he liked to call roughs. During his years as a newspaperman he reviewed hundreds of books, including serious works of philosophy and social criticism. He followed the main British reviews and was up to date with currents in European thought. In the 1840s he fell under the spell of Thomas Carlyle—as did many other restless young people—and absorbed Carlyle’s critique of capitalism and industrialism. The failures of the European revolutions of 1848 jolted him badly. Of the writers of his day, the two who influenced him most deeply and to whom he found it hardest to acknowledge his indebtedness were an American, Emerson, and an Englishman, Tennyson.

Though he proclaimed, and indeed trumpeted, the cultural autonomy of America, he was sorely attracted by the idea of a triumphal lecture tour of England. Such a tour never took place, not because he lacked adherents in England but because as a form of entertainment the celebrity lecture never caught on there as it did in the United States. For the sake of publication in England he submitted to having Leaves of Grass purged of its more risqué items, something he never allowed in the United States.

M. Wynn Thomas is a British scholar indebted to the independently minded Marxist critic Raymond Williams and to the New Historicism that Williams did much to foster. The two chapters of Wynn Thomas’s book Transatlantic Connections devoted to Whitman’s class allegiances in mid-century America and his response to the new money economy are constantly illuminating. In his eyes, Whitman was a “revolutionist” in the sense that he believed the voice of the people welled up spontaneously from the streets, rather than being articulated by elected representatives. Pitting himself against the political machine, Whitman the revolutionist ended up as one of the losers in the contest to speak for the streets of New York.

Wynn Thomas’s reading of The Song of Hiawatha (1855) as Longfellow’s intervention in the political crisis that would lead to the Civil War, and his account of the genesis of Edward Carpenter’s poem Toward Democracy (1905) in an “intense psycho-sexual twinning with Whitman,” are similarly admirable. Carpenter was a utopian-ist and a figure of note on the intellectual left in turn-of-the-century Britain. In Wynn Thomas’s account, he emerges as the first writer to develop a British idiom into which to convert Whitman’s very American poetic example.

4.

To collect one’s poems, to bring out a Collected Poems, does not mean to republish all the poems one has written in a lifetime. By convention, the collector is entitled to revise old poems and quietly omit those he or she no longer cares to acknowledge. The Collected Poems is thus a handy way to shape one’s own past.

Whitman seems to have had it in mind from the beginning that Leaves of Grass would be an ongoing Collected Poems, growing and changing as his self-conception changed. It went through six editions in all, several of which occur in variant forms as Whitman had new poems stitched into already printed volumes. It is hard to know—and in a way it is a mistake to ask—which of the six is the best, the one we ought to read to the exclusion of others, since they represent six formulations and reformulations of who Walt Whitman was. A simple example: whereas in 1855 he was “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,” by 1881 he was “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son.” (“That [Whitman] was a kosmos, is a piece of news we were hardly prepared for. Precisely what a kosmos is, we trust [he] will take an early occasion to inform the impatient public,” wrote Charles Eliot Norton in a review of the 1855 edition.)

The rule of thumb in the scholarly world is to take an author’s last revision, his or her last word, as definitive. But there are exceptions, cases where the critical consensus is that the late revision is inferior to or even traduces the original. Thus we tend to read the 1805 version of Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude in preference to the 1850 revision. In much the same way, one might argue in favor of reading Whitman’s early poems in their first published form, since his tendency after 1865 was to revise in the direction of the “poetic” (i.e., the Tennysonian) in the hope of winning a wider readership.

Whitman intended the sixth edition of Leaves of Grass to be the definitive one. Published in Boston in 1881, the edition was withdrawn from sale when threatened with prosecution on the grounds of obscenity. Whitman found himself a new publisher in Philadelphia, where its sudden notoriety did wonders for the book’s sales.

This sixth edition contains some three hundred poems, grouped together under themes and in numbered series. Its core consists of the survivors of the twelve-poem first edition of 1855, principally the long poem later titled “Song of Myself,” plus “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (added in 1856); “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and the amative poems (added in 1860); and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and the “Drum-Taps” poems (added to various issues of the 1867 edition).

This core is not large. Despite all the labor he put into reevaluating and revising and reordering and retitling and reissuing his poems, and despite the claims he liked to repeat in his later years that there was a hidden, cathedral-like structure to Leaves of Grass toward which he had all his life been groping, it seems likely that, except to specialists, Whitman will always be known for a few individual poems rather than as the author of a single great book, the new poetic bible of America.

The 150th anniversary of the first publication of Leaves of Grass has occasioned two reissues. The Penguin edition comes with a substantial introduction by Harold Bloom. By situating Whitman in the context of Protestant Revivalism, Bloom illuminates the strain of testimony so strong in Whitman (“I am the man…I suffered…I was there”). It is less easy to see that calling Whitman a kabbalist unbeknown to himself leads anywhere useful. On the subject of sex Bloom is bracingly direct: the real scandal, he writes, is that Leaves of Grass celebrates autoerotic love—masturbation—more enthusiastically than homoerotic love. His introduction is more than a little rambling, but it is brimful of ideas and allows the exhilarating spectacle of a master reader responding with gratitude and feeling to a great poet, “the greatest artist his nation has brought forth… [whose] peers are Milton, Bach, Michelangelo, baroque masters of sublimity.”

The Oxford University Press reprint, edited by David S. Reynolds, imitates the format of the original quarto to the extent of following Whitman’s line breaks and page layout. The idea is not as odd as it may seem: Whitman supervised the printing of each edition of Leaves of Grass, sometimes doing the typesetting himself. But for no good reason Oxford University Press retains the wide page design for the extensive supporting material (an editor’s afterword, contemporary reviews, the exchange of letters between Whitman and Emerson). The small print, long lines, and cramped margins make for an unpleasant reading experience.

The anniversary has also spurred two eminent Whitman scholars to bring out new books, neither of great ambition. Among the essays in To Walt Whitman, America by Kenneth M. Price, author of the excellent Whitman and Tradition (1990), the most interesting are on Whitman’s impact on Edith Wharton and on the English writers Edward Carpenter, D.H. Lawrence, and E.M. Forster. Whitman showed all of these writers how conventional gender roles could be infringed in a liberating way. Wharton’s posthumous papers include sketches for a study of Whitman.

David Reynolds has produced an introduction to Whitman drawn heavily from his own earlier writings. His survey of Whitman’s varied interests (Italian opera, Egyptology, clairvoyance, Swedenborg, chemistry, sexology inter alia) is excellent. He is less good on Whitman’s erotic life and his political environment, where the quest for brevity leads to crudity. In one respect he is also misleading. Whitman is buried not “under a stone that simply says ‘Walt Whitman’”—Whitman was in no sense a modest man—but in a granite mausoleum personally commissioned by the poet at huge cost, surmounted by the stone in question. Reynolds’s claim that “the current book is the first to describe concisely [Whitman’s] transformation of cultural materials into poetry” holds only if one places inordinate emphasis on the word “concisely.”

Letters

The Concise Whitman November 3, 2005

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