Monday, October 8, 2018
October 8, 2018: American Gay Studies: Walt Whitman
[October 11th marks the 30th annual National Coming Out Day, an important occasion in the unfolding story of gay rights in America. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of figures and stories from the history of gay rights, leading up to a special weekend post on gay identities in American popular culture!]
On vexing but important questions of sexuality, textuality, and identity.
Critics, biographers, and literary scholars have been trying to figure out the question of Walt Whitman’s sexuality since the poet’s own lifetime. In a review of Leaves of Grass shortly after the book’s initial 1855 publication, critic Rufus Griswold accused Whitman of “that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians.” More sympathetically, the late 19th century English poet and critic John Addington Symonds, a lifelong advocate for gay rights, corresponded with Whitman for many years in an attempt to pry out the poet’s sexuality, asking in 1890 this hesitant but loaded question of Whitman: “In your conception of Comradeship, do you contemplate the possible intrusion of those semi-sexual emotions and actions which no doubt do occur between men?” Although Whitman denied that he did so, since his 1892 death numerous biographers have identified possible male romantic partners and love interests, from unknown figures such as Washington, DC streetcar conductor Peter Doyle and teenage Camden neighbor Bill Duckett to one of the 19th century’s most famous gay men, Oscar Wilde. It seems clear that Whitman had at least romantic attraction to or feelings for these and other men, although much of his biography remains ambiguous to be sure.
Textuality isn’t the same as biography, however. It can be easy to equate the two when it comes to poetry, particularly the kinds of personal, autobiographical, or even confessional poetry that Whitman helped inaugurate in American literature (and about which I wrote in this post on Sylvia Plath and a prominent late 20th and early 21st century confessional gay poet, Mark Doty). But even though Whitman introduces himself directly in “Song of Myself,” the first poem in Leaves of Grass—writing in the poem’s first section, “I, now thirty-seven years old,” and then in the 24th section describing “Walt Whitman” directly and at length—that’s still a poetic persona within a literary text, not the actual person wielding the pen. It’s the perspective and voice of that poetic persona, and more exactly that persona’s expressions of sexual and romantic attraction to men within certain Leaves of Grass poems—particularly the cluster of texts that first appeared in the book’s 1860 edition and have come to be known as the “Calamus” poems—to which critics like Griswold and Symonds were responding. Which is to say, identifying homoerotic themes in Leaves of Grass isn’t identical to tracing gay relationships in Walt Whitman’s life, although of course the two efforts are not unrelated.
I would also argue that the stakes or effects of those two efforts are somewhat distinct, and in each case significant. Of course Whitman’s sexuality was an integral part of his identity (as it is of all of ours), and so learning more about it in his biography can help us better understand this hugely influential American writer and figure. So too can such efforts help us consider what it meant to be gay, bisexual, or in any way not the heterosexual norm in 19th century America, and thus why (for example) Whitman might have felt the need to deny any homosexuality so fully in his 1890 response to Symonds. Whereas working to understand homoerotic imagery and themes in Whitman’s poems, while of course those elements can be connected to identities and histories outside of the text, can help us consider the distinct questions of representation, of how cultural works engage with issues of sex and sexuality, of the particular formal choices authors make in creating those engagements, of how such representations might impact audiences (from individual readers to collective and communal readership), and so on. Taken together, all of these efforts and effects help us better understand not just one important poet and his works, but some of the many layers to sexuality and identity in 19th century America.
Next story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Gay rights figures or stories you’d highlight?