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Walt Whitman and Homosexuality

15 Nov 2017Essay Samples

Throughout Whitman's writings there are consistent references to his homosexuality. Leaves of Grass perhaps serves as the best indication of this reality, as Whitman made many analogies to his sexual orientation. Indeed, Whitman's poetry does appear to indicate that Whitman was a homosexual, and it is evident from his notebooks, his letters, and the patterns of his personal relationships as well. Poetry appears to have served as a metaphor for his sexual tendencies, and it offered indications of his sexual desire and conduct. In many respects, therefore, his writings were a species of sexually specific self-revelation. Leaves of Grass produced this revelation. (Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

Author Max Eastman has argued that Walt Whitman was clearly a homosexual, and that at certain moments of his life, he was even strongly in love with himself. (Eastman, "Menshevizing," p.12). Indeed, Eastman pointed out much evidence from Whitman's writings about the poet's attraction to the same sex. In confronting a review of Whitman written by one critic, Eastman argued that the critics (Hollaway) attempted to judge Whitman with "negative moralisms" of the Christian culture. He denounced Hollaway's attempt to "dehomosexualize" Whitman. This was because the reviewer had refused to discuss Whitman's homosexuality. To a large extent, this exchange indicated, in and of itself, that there was an issue connected to Whitman's homosexuality.

According to Eastman, Whitman's homosexuality was directly related to his greatest strength. This is why he argued that Hollaway's treatment of Whitman minimized Whitman and brought him down "from the height of himself." Hollaway, in other words, knew that Whitman was gay, but he saw it as a failure and refused to raise the issue. Yet what Hollaway envisioned as a failure, Eastman saw as a triumph. (Eastman, "Menshevising," p.12).

Thus, what is illuminating is that this criticism of a critic brought out Whitman's homosexuality into the open. Hollaway, for instance, refused to even accept the homosexuality of Whitman in that he refused to discuss it. He did, however, make it clear that he saw him as an impure failure, and, as Eastman charged, "of that peculiar sentimentality which expressed itself in caresses." Eastman also affirmed that by ignoring Whitman's homosexuality, he had refused "anything having the remotest similitude to the reality of Walt Whitman." In other words, for Eastman, Whitman's homosexuality represented Whitman himself. Therefore, so did his work as well. (Eastman, "Menshevising," p.12).

Eastman charges Hollaway with misrecognizing the point that Whitman's homosexual identity was not a failure to connect to "a happy home life," but precisely a triumph over superficial connections that society imposed. The "solid state" that Hollaway locates in "paternity," Eastman locates in a homosexual identity that is "self-sufficient," "independent," and part of the life of "a great poetic life of real action and free natural experience." (Eastman, "Menshevising," p.12)

Thus, Eastman's championing of Whitman's homosexuality is surely an indication, to say the least, of Whitman's sexual orientation. Eastman was happy with Whitman's erotic resource, and he felt that "perpetual indulgence" was a containment and conservation of desire in the homosexuality. Eastman regards the "honest word" of Whitman's homosexuality as the source of Whitman's independence and power. Consequently, in Eastman's estimation, Whitman's "natural free experience" is that of identity free from desire, in which all the marks of identity flourish. (Eastman, "Menshevising," p.12)

Eastman's discourse was based on much evidence, which obviously included Whitman's poetry. True the poetry did naturally lend itself to biographical speculations, but it also managed to confirm the indications of Whitman's orientation. Indeed, there are frequent interplays between passionate engagement and abrupt disengagement in Whitman's poetry, and they encourage us to believe that Whitman is communicating something about "athletic friendship" while not daring to speak its name. In other words, he was clearly referring to his homosexuality, but in a very subtle way. Obviously we can see that he cherished the spectacle of the Manhattan streets, and he clearly entered those streets partly on the sexual prowl, which occupied him no less in other areas. Biographer David Reynolds has shown this well. (Reynolds, pp.2-12)

Reynolds given an account of many intense "male pairings" that Whitman confessed to in his notebooks. (Reynolds) The biographer also leans toward the view that the poet was more homoerotic than homosexual. This is very interesting, though somewhat ambiguous.

Author Michael Gold has also referred to Whitman's homosexuality. "Writers are queer, variable folk," he wrote in one public letter, "liable to many accidents of the spirit" (Gold, "Let" p.20). What keeps them from variation and "accidents," according to Gold, "as it kept Walt Whitman," is that "they become as little children" (Hold, "Let" p.24). But this regression to childhood is less in the service of a return to innocence than to a certain "revolt" - the "one choice" left to the writer today. "Revolt," according to Gold, "is the organ-bass that softly or harshly throbs through the young literature of America today." It is not far from this throbbing organ-bass to the "full, bold, hard consciousness" enabled by such an organ's throbbing "through" the writer. (Gold, "Let," p.20) There is clear homosexual metaphor being made here.

It is telling that in the "Song of the Open Road" in Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, Strong and content I travel the open road. (Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1-7)

One could point out that it appears illuminating that Whitman refers to the "long brown path," which one could say is an analogy to something quite sexually obvious.

On this point, it would do well to add that there is a certain contemporary rehabilitation of Whitman, as well as other gay figures, undertaken by current gay studies. In some ways, this development largely, and perhaps necessarily, "recovers" oppositional gay figures and practices in history. Thus Whitman is being outed after his life, and his homosexual desire, and overturning of his own self, has become possible.

In the end, it is biographer david Reynolds that leaves us with the most evidence. His research confirms that Walt Whitman was devoted to family and friends, a champion of equality for women, and ambivalent on religion. As for the discussion of Whitman's homosexuality, Reynolds appears to see the issue in a straight-forward manner. He describes well the many editions of "Leaves of Grass," from the earliest in 1855 to the final "deathbed edition" published in December 1891.

Reynolds shows that the sexuality of Whitman's poems falls into a long tradition of erotic mysticism wherein "insubstantial death" is "amorous." To come is to go; to leap into a beloved, the reader in this and many other instances, is at the same time to be called away: "So Long!" is the poem's title. "Is it night? Are we together alone?" Yes, and therefore we must go. "Missing me one place search another," he concludes "Song of Myself," "I stop somewhere waiting for you." All of this is clearly about a forbidden male love.

From his writings, it is clear that Whitman was quite fearful of getting detained in a personal, particularly in a sexual, relationship, or of being locked into one identity. It is no surprise, therefore, that he created an image of himself which included "my self," "my soul" and, "Me myself" or the "real Me." In other words, he refused to only have one identity.

While discussing Whitman's homosexuality, however, one cannot at least briefly mention that Whitman was obviously much more than just his sexual orientation. Above and beyond, he was a great poet. And without a doubt, somewhere the despair of his sexual orientation was connected to his general despair. The Civil War, as we know, had an indelible effect on him. As a poet, he attempted to portray what the war meant to him, and in many respects, no examination of Whitman can go without mentioning this aspect of his life. In Drum Taps, which became a collection of fifty three poems that appeared at the war's end in 1865, he discussed his truest feelings. That same year, the American poet came out with a continuation entitled Sequel to Drum Taps. This edition included his tribute to Abraham Lincoln, who had been assassinated.

Whitman experienced the war firsthand in that his brother George was wounded at the battle of Fredricksberg. Whitman was very traumatized about Americans killing Americans, and he wrote about this bloody inner feud in his poetry. In the end, he had his own war experiences, since he visited many hospitals and was very much near the battle front. In many respects, this bloody conflict amplified his vision of the tragedy of the human condition, just as it nurtured his compassion for his fellow man. In many respects, therefore, from another perspective, one must consider that maybe Whitman's sensitivity and love of men may have been slightly misinterpreted in a sexual manner.

Indeed, his poetry appeared to reflect his growing faith not in democracy but also in his fellow man. The war appeared to bring out just as much optimism as it did pessimism. For instance, in his poem "First O Songs For A Prelude" he begins with a narrative of war and patriotism: "First O songs for a prelude, Lightly strike on the stretch'd tympanum pride and joy in my city, How she led the rest to arms, how she gave the clue,....How Manhattan drumtaps led." He uses this to lead into his main theme: how human beings are beginning to prepare the task of getting ready for battle. They are ready to sacrifice for their lives for their own side. (Whitman, Drum Taps)

Whitman continues: "At dead of night, at news from the south,...To the drum-taps prompt, The young men falling in and arming,...The lawyer leaving his office and arming, the judge leaving the court,....Squads gather everywhere by common consent and arm, The new recruits, even boys, the old men show them how to wear their accoutrements, they buckle the straps carefully,..." Here Whitman portrays the enthusiasm that the soldiers and their supporters had in going to war, no matter how ugly and senseless it might have been. We see the potential of love of country and love of one's own fellow man.

Whitman clearly shows how people are ready for war and how they are confident in their own potential. In writing about this, Whitman is not necessarily alluding to a naivete on behalf of people going to war. He is clearly more interested in his own countryman's vision of society and the future, and the incredible confidence that he sees it in.

"War! an arm'd race is advancing! the welcome for battle, no turning away; War! be it weeks, months, or years, an arm'd race is advancing to welcome it." Here we see how Whitman is showing that his fellow man is willing to face any burden when it comes to fighting in battle. One can see that Whitman very much was fascinated with the call to arms that the war represented, and the passionate and patriotic way in which Americans responded to them. He seemed very much fascinated with the pride that people felt within the context of nationalism.

In conclusion, while noting the genius of Whitman's poetry in general, it is easy to recognize that throughout Whitman's writings there were consistent references to his homosexuality. He left much metaphorical evidence of his sexual desire and conduct. He consistently engaged in sexually specific self-revelation. As eastman showed us, perhaps it is true that Whitman's homosexuality was directly related to his greatest strength. Indeed, it may have very well allowed him, as his poetry did as well, to transcend the superficial structures that society imposed. In this way, the poet was able to achieve a certain self-sufficiency and independence which was necessary for a poet to have. Indeed, Eastman might have been right that Whitman's independence and power resulted from his homosexuality. More than anything else, Whitman appears to have been infatuated with the idea of "athletic friendship," and in many respects, as his Civil War poems showed, there was also a non-sexual dimension to this disposition. More than anything else, the poet was interested int he reality of "male pairings."

References

  • Eastman, Max. "Menshevizing Walt Whitman." New Masses, December, 1926.
  • Gold, Mike. "Let it Be Really New." New Masses June 1926: 4.
  • Reynolds, David. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Knopf, 1996)
  • Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. (Sculley Bradley. New York: Norton, 1973).
  • Whitman, Walt. Drum Taps and Sequel to Drum Taps (Scholars Facsimilies and Reprint, 1979) 

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