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The Casualties of Walt Whitman

ISSUE:  Spring 2005

In a journal I kept the summer before moving to New York in 1990 to study creative writing at NYU, I find an odd entry about Walt Whitman. I had been reading D. H. Lawrence’s essay “Whitman,” published in 1923, and I agreed with his statement that “Something is overdone in Whitman; there is something that is too much.” “I finally found someone,” I wrote, “who speaks sensibly about Whitman’s exaggerated mass of deafening declarations!” I was then under the spell of Rilke and Yeats (so much so that in the list of qualities on the facing page that I found essential for a long-term relationship with a man, I find “European” at the top). Whitman hurt my ears—he sounded arrogant, brash, positively overwhelming in the length of his poems, in his long lists, his parallel structures, his biblical rhythms. I felt trapped by Whitman: once he hooked his voice in my head, I had a difficult time extricating it. Though this would soon change, especially after I met Galway Kinnell, who cites Whitman as his “principal master,” before I arrived at the writing workshop, I wanted to shrug off Whitman’s kisses and his forever-reaching arms, his beard, his boots, his surging afflatus, that open-collared shirt, and, oddly enough, his manly muscle.

Of course I could not escape him. After all, 1992 would be the centenary of his death, and I strongly felt his presence, not only in relation to Galway but also through Sharon Olds, whose exquisite, minutely rendered, “apparently personal” poems echoed Whitman’s wish to include sexuality and the body as valid subjects for our art. I felt Whitman in off-campus environs as well, especially those all-male hang-outs that I found (with the help of the short-lived Outweek magazine and the soon-to-be-defunct New York Native) in the Lower East Side and the Bowery. Reading him for American literature classes, I slowly began to change my attitude toward Whitman. But before he would start to influence my own poems, I would first have to become embroiled in a violent argument in an East Village gay bar, as I almost became a casualty, in the hands of a brawny young hunk who appeared to spend much time beneath a bench press, one balmy spring night in Mannahatta, over the poetry of Walt Whitman.

The Tunnel Bar was a cramped affair—a dark, hot, male-smelling place located on 1st Avenue and 7th Street, next to a locksmith, two doors down from a Polish diner. It had the usual East Village amenities: a two-person toilet that doubled as a back room, a much-in-demand pool table, a pinball machine in a nook this side of the toilet where someone always seemed to be smoking a joint. Two or three guys usually sat or lay on the beat-up couch no one knew the color of and where I would one day meet my first Buddhist boyfriend. Brazen, cute men sauntered and caroused and never seemed to stop celebrating themselves in the back room while others leaned and loafed at their ease, observing the many pumped-up and pierced East Villagers, empty bottles of Bud at their elbows. Industrial rock shook the place all night long, and weekends didn’t get going until two or three a.m., long after the early bedtime I needed to continue writing new poems by day.

This was the time when gay men debated the benefits of AZT, delivered Meals On Wheels, were friends in deed who dutifully accompanied our lovers to yet another doctor’s appointment. We taught poetry workshops at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and to remain sane, we signed up for seminars, such as the one I’d been to that day, “Sex, Dating and Intimacy in the Age of AIDS.” Afterwards I either craved a gin and tonic or wanted to try out my new conversational skills, so I went to the Tunnel.

And there was Jim: a tall, bearded blonde whose well-defined arms and solid chest immediately caught my attention. A grin kept crossing his face when our eyes met, and he soon detached himself from the wall and sauntered toward me. Yes, he did grin a lot; yes, he did like Joy Division; yes, he did live in the city. When he leaned toward me I caught a whiff of the workday smell of him. He had a killer smile, and soon we were sitting next to each other at the corner of the bar, our hands sometimes touching when we put our drinks down.  The dreaded moment came, and he asked what I did in the city.

I was used to blank stares when I told potential boyfriends that I’d moved here from Colorado to study poetry. I’d often get the usual questions about what I’d do with my degree after I graduated, how I’d afford to stay in the city, keep my video collection up to date, buy the next Hüsker Dü CD. But when I told Jim that I’d been reading poems for Denis Donoghue’s Modern British and American Poetry class, he proceeded to tell me that he loved poetry, in particular that of Frank O’Hara, Cavafy, Galway Kinnell, and—fairy tales do happen—Walt Whitman. I said that I was working through Leaves of Grass and was scheduled to take Galway’s workshop the following year, and good ole Jim ordered a round of Rolling Rock and shots of Cuervo. As we raised our glasses, he shouted above a Patti Smith song, “To male adhesiveness.”

By this point I was swooning with my sense of good fortune. Poetry Man of Dreams Discovered in East Village Dive. House in Country with Large Writing Studio Stocked with Poetry of the Ages and Music of the Ramones. That is, until we began to speak in specifics about dear Walt, whom Jim referred to as “Our Reigning Queen of the Bowery.” At this pronouncement, I said that I found it wishful dreaming to think that when Whitman wrote “dear friend my lover” or “we two boys together clinging” or “manly love” that he meant, in 1855 or ’60, what we now call “gay rights.” In my best tequila-soaked voice I said I didn’t feel that people had the right to appropriate dead writers for personal and political advantage.

Jim’s grin quickly turned to consternation, and he began tapping his beer bottle with rhythmic flicks of his fingers. “So you think he was straight? And that the ‘Calamus’ poems are—what?—a version of male friendship? That’s absurd. Just ridiculous!” I said that it was possible, but that Victorian America, with its evangelical Puritan roots, would probably prevent anyone declaring from the rooftops such a “sin” as homosexuality. Jim became enraged. “What I want to know,” he snapped, “is why you’re so against the idea that Whitman was gay. You’re as homophobic as the rest of this country. Only you’re worse—you’re homophobic against your own self!”

He pushed away from the bar, stood up, and lunged at me, sideswiping a couple of innocents in the process so that he could give me a punch square in the shoulder. Not hard, mind you, but with force enough to push me back and make me realize that this was one angry guy. So I did what any queer poet who avoided the gym would do: I grabbed my book bag and started to leave. Jim came at me again, this time yelling, “C’mon, let’s go outside so you can prove you’re a real man.” That’s when I maneuvered my way, ever so quickly, through the sweaty, muscle-throbbing crowd, turning at the door just in time to see Jim duck into the bathroom at the back of the bar.

As I walked the eight blocks to the subway—down Broadway and past Bleeker to catch the train at Houston—I let all my prejudices come to the fore: how East Village men have no decorum, how gays who don’t get their way become infantile, how we’re so concerned with position in society that we’ll do anything to get a leg up, including sweeping dead writers into the queer canon regardless of whether they considered themselves gay or not. I didn’t know that I was passing the location, in Whitman’s time, of Metropolitan Hall, where Whitman had gone on June 23, 1852, to hear Maria Alboni sing, an event that critics such as Gary Schmidgall say transformed Whitman from a two-bit journalist to the man who wrote one of the greatest experimental books of poetry produced in this country. I didn’t know that a block south was the location of a bar called Pfaff’s, where Whitman spent many a friendly hour drinking, carousing, and cruising and where he may have met Fred Vaughan, the man whom Whitman lived with from 1856 to 1859, on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn and who may have inspired some of Whitman’s finest (and gayest) verse. I thought about those around me who loved Whitman, including Harold Bloom, who implied that Whitman didn’t have a sexual life at all, and Donoghue himself, whose lectures I recorded and carefully transcribed each night after class, noticing how he discussed many items of interest to the student of Whitman, but homosexuality wasn’t one of them. And Galway, whom I greatly admire, never told me, as far as I recollect, that I had a brother in arms. I had been struggling through the Norton Critical Edition of Leaves of Grass, edited by Sculley Bradley and Harold Blodgett and touted as the “Authoritative Texts” of the master’s work.

I had heard that on the centenary of Whitman’s death in March 1992, there would be a series of events in the city, including a reading of all fifty-two sections of “Song of Myself” by some of the most celebrated poets of our day. I wondered, as I boarded the train at Broadway-Lafayette to take me back to my Brooklyn apartment, what Whitman aficionados would think of Jim’s pronouncement.

One thing was for sure: a chance encounter with a stranger in a bar had made me realize that I knew next to nothing about Whitman’s sexual nature. Had I been a casualty in the war against gay poets voicing their truths in a world determined to silence them? I decided, as I turned onto my street and checked to be sure that no gay poetry vigilante was hot on my trail, that I would have to put aside my distaste for Whitman’s grandeur and find out, if possible, what his sexual orientation was. Or, better yet, maybe Whitman would simply go away, just as I’d wished, ten years before, that my own sexual longing for men would disappear. As I locked the door behind me, I felt strangely committed to proving Jim wrong.

Whitman, of course, would not go away. This was, after all, a man who wrote, forty-three sections and more than fifty pages into “Song of Myself,” “It is time to explain myself”—a line which never fails, even now, to get a laugh out of me. This is a man who tells us that he absorbs all into himself, that he is deathless, an omnipresent mystery, a “kosmos” who will swallow us up with his immortal yawp. He knows “the amplitude of time” and will be found in the air, the water, and, if all else fails, “under your boot-soles.” Like homosexuality itself (even among those who have gone for the deprogramming cure), Whitman refuses to be shaken off.

So the day after my barroom scuffle with Jim, I took a deep Empire State breath and dove headlong into the Norton Critical Edition of the Leaves. I soon realized that my focus would be on the “Calamus” section, as that appeared to have the most direct application to Jim’s argument. There I began to sense that Bradley and Blodgett had gone to great pains, as Whitman himself had done, to dismiss any hint that Whitman might have been gay, such as the inclusion of a footnote concerning Whitman’s being asked a brazen question by John Addington Symonds, an Englishman. In a letter dated August 3, 1890, Symonds inquired, “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?” According to the Norton editors’ footnote, Whitman had given “an emphatic denial, alleging his normal sexuality.” Symond’s question was perhaps too close to the bone for Whitman, for on August 19 he responded with a scathing denouncement of homosexuality, angrily stating, “[T]hat the calamus part has even allow’d the possibility of such construction as mention’d is terrible—I am fain to hope the pages themselves are not to be even mention’d for such gratuitous and quite at this time entirely undream’d & unreck’d possibility of morbid inferences—wh’ are disavow’d by me and seem damnable.” In this same letter Whitman claimed to have “six children—two are dead—One living southern grandchild, fine boy, who writes to me occasionally.” A mere nineteen months before his death, we find Whitman prevaricating, downplaying, and outright lying in order to document his “normal” sexuality.

sexuality? Six children? Was it any surprise that readers, both gay and straight, might wonder about a pronouncement such as Jim’s? Yet when I read this letter, I thought about my own life and how I, up to that point, would sometimes provide cryptic responses when my sexuality was mentioned or would offer up a red herring, such as talk about my first “girlfriend” (when I was eighteen!). Or I would lie outright. After all, I had been fired from a job because of my sexual orientation (something that Whitman experienced when, in 1865, he was dismissed from a clerk job at the Interior Department for writing a book his boss considered obscene). And even though I had worked on a gay rights ordinance in Colorado, there had been times when I was less than forthcoming about my sexual orientation. It wasn’t difficult to imagine how much more dangerous it was in 1890 and before to acknowledge one’s homosexuality.

I did not then know that, despite considerable effort on the part of at least one biographer who had a stake in proving Whitman’s “normal” sexuality, no correspondence had been discovered, either from this “fine boy” to Whitman or vice versa, to silence this matter. It did indeed seem curious for a man determined to prove his sexual “normalcy” to come up empty-handed on this score, even for one such as Whitman, who apparently destroyed much of his personal correspondence before his death. With comments like the one from the Norton editors, it’s easy to see why critics and readers alike would view Whitman’s poetry through the rose-tinted glasses of “proper” heterosexuality.

The editors further raised red flags in the remainder of their footnote: “Of all the groups in LG, the ‘Calamus’ poems, first appearing in the text in 1860, possess the closest autonomy, held together by a sentiment of manly attachment (‘adhesiveness’ was Whitman’s term)… . Their beginning may be surmised in an MS cluster of twelve poems (out of sequence in their present position) which appear originally to have been intended for a commemorative notebook… . These poems reveal a story of attachment and renunciation whose symbol at first was not ‘Calamus’ but ‘Live Oak with Moss.’ See Bowers, lxiii-lxxiv.”

The editors also state that the “Calamus” poems appear “more intimate and compelling” than the related “Children of Adam” section, and this struck a chord in me. A “story of attachment” sounded euphemistic. My curiosity was piqued and became only more so when I read that “The compelling factor was his sudden focusing upon two special themes … : 1) the celebration of comradeship in ‘Calamus,’ 2) or procreation in ‘Children of Adam’.” These editors appeared to be snowballing. For “comradeship” could, of course, be understood as Whitman’s code for homosexual love. In a text used at many leading universities, these editors’ use of the term “comradeship” sounded, even to my anti-Whitman ear, dissonant and possibly homophobic.

While holding tight to my skepticism, I soon learned that biographers jumped through hoops to state that male bonding was different during Whitman’s time, that “He believed he was doing neither more nor less than claiming for men the emotional freedom and physical expressiveness—holding hands, touching, hugging, kissing—that society allowed women to enjoy with each other,” a statement that is rife with shoddy logic. For what is the natural outcome of this kind of hand-holding if carried further? Another such biographer was Emory Holloway, whose Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative won the 1927 Pulitzer. He writes:

Every poet must make terms with sex, since so much poetry is an expression, crude or sublimated, of the sex instinct. But what did this young poet know of sex? … That Whitman was no stranger to woman is evident to any reader of his verse. That he was never married he himself has declared. All the evidence points to New Orleans as the place where he learned what can be taught by romantic passion. Though we perhaps shall never know a great deal concerning the circumstances attending the progress of his entanglement it is essential to the story of Walt Whitman to fit that episode into his history as truthfully as we can.

Holloway proceeds to tell the reader that the key to understanding Whitman’s sexuality is found in a line he wrote and later threw out about “the prostitute, who detained me when I went to the city.” Even though Holloway had discovered evidence that Whitman had transposed “he” to “she” in his poem about this experience, “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City,” he preferred to publish that Whitman had slept with a prostitute rather than a man.

These men of letters went to great lengths to state that Whitman didn’t really mean homosexuality by such lines as “the play of masculine muscle through cleansetting trowsers and waistbands” or “a contact of something unseen.”  Whitman wasn’t so shameless, they implied, that he meant anything sexually provocative by “If you meet some stranger in the street and love him or her” or “I love him though I do not know him” or “a loving bedfellow” who “sleeps at my side all night and close on the peep of the day.” I began to see myself as having been duped, especially when I read of

two simple men I saw to-day, on the pier, in the midst of the crowd,
        parting the parting of dear friends,
The one to remain hung on the other’s neck, and passionately kiss’d him,
While the one to depart, tightly prest the one to remain in his arms.

These lines, from “What Think You I Take My Pen in Hand,” I would learn came from a longer poem called “Live-Oak, with Moss,” a poem that the Norton editors had led me to and which was about to transform my understanding not only of Whitman’s poems but also of sexual nature.

Fredson Bowers’ Whitman’s Manuscripts: Leaves of Grass (1860) was published in 1955. In his introduction, Bowers discusses his discovery of a Whitman notebook that contains the twelve-part poem “Live-Oak, with Moss.” Reading “Live-Oak, with Moss” was and continues to be one of the most enjoyable experiences in my literary life. In the American tradition few poems exist which approach gay love with directness, honesty, clarity, tenderness, and lack of sensationalism. Rare indeed is it to find gay love poems which express deep, abiding love. All too often poems by gay men prior to the AIDS pandemic are tainted with the sense of the poet’s having invested in the dominant culture’s view that homosexuality, even between two committed partners, is deviant, firmly “other.” The result of this assumption is that homosexual love poems have been tarnished by poets’ attempts to prettify gay life in order to make it palatable to the mainstream culture. Too often queer poems invest themselves in proving that homoeroticism is an end and not a given. The result has been poems weakened by self-loathing, the very thing bequeathed to us from a culture which chooses to dismiss us, resign us to the lesser tiers, keep us scrambling for a way to eke out the meagerest of emotional existences. We fall prey to the very condemnations that we are trying to surmount.

Whitman’s “Live-Oak, with Moss,” written in the late 1850s, probably while he was still living with Fred Vaughan, is free of these trappings. What a miracle indeed that Whitman was able to write this at a time when gay people had even fewer rights than we have now. Against all odds, this poem tells of homosexual desire, loss, and loneliness in a poet whose enormous body of work is, on the whole, obsessively optimistic and exuberant. But it also shows, as we shall see, that Whitman’s treatment of the poem after it was drafted is evidence for how conflicted he was about telling of his truest feelings.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the poem begins with a series of negations and alternates between moments of passionate affirmation and abysmal rejection. “Not the heat flames up and consumes, / Not the sea-waves hurry in and out, / Not the air, delicious and dry, the air of the ripe summer, bears lightly along white down-balls of myriads of seeds, wafted, sailing gracefully, to drop where they may, / Not these—O none of these, more than the flames of me, consuming, burning for his love whom I love.” This is a bold beginning, one which should provide a shock of recognition for most gay men who read it today. For the wish to desire someone and the concomitant fear of that wish is something gays and lesbians throughout history have understood all too well. We also understand affirmation and rejection, the former a mostly 20th-century invention, the latter a long-standing fact of queer life. Thus, the poem generally acts as an index of the emotional life of the homosexual person. First we are shocked at the recognition of our own desires. Then we try to ignore them and, often at any cost, attempt to conceal them from others. This in turn causes depression—or, as is too often the case, suicide. If we’re lucky we meet someone who desires us also, and that produces overflowing joy. And more often than not, this first sexual/emotional union doesn’t last and the joy is snuffed out. Depression once again ensues until we experience the happiness of a subsequent union. At some point, many of us enter into long-term relationships and the roller-coaster ride of depression/elation stabilizes, at least to some degree. But no matter how intact our relation, no matter how strong the love harbored between any two people of the same gender, we must go out each day and contend with a world crammed with antigay newspaper articles, homophobic epithets, discrimination at work, disgrace, violence, murder in fiercely heterosexual Hollywood films and gay-loathing television broadcasts—all of which may keep the emotional life of the homosexual within the cycles of despondence and joy that Whitman’s poem speaks of.

To counteract these negative experiences, Whitman includes elements of nature throughout the poem. We find sea waves, “the air of ripe summer,” airborne dandelion seeds, “the high rain-emitting clouds,” the sunrise, “the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands,” and the live oak itself, all of which show that homosexuality is a natural variant of heterosexuality. Nature itself, in the moving second section of the poem (“I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing”), from which the entire sequence takes its title, offers an image of male love. For Whitman, who appears to be alone for much of the poem, cuts a branch of the tree, winds it with moss, and places it “in sight in my room,” where it remains “a curious token—it makes me think of manly love.” Thus, the love Leviticus terms an “abomination” in the biblical passage that has been levied against homosexuals throughout American history to prove their unnaturalness is in Whitman’s poem equated with the natural “sweet breath” of the world.

Whitman doesn’t stop there (it’s not in his nature to pull up short); no, he goes on to show that the natural world approves of Whitman’s homosexual union with his friend, his lover, and of their “manly love”:

I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands, as directed to me,
        whispering to congratulate me—For the friend I love lay sleeping
        by my side,
In the stillness his face was inclined towards me, while the moon’s clear
        beams shone,
And his arm lay lightly over my breast—And that night I was happy.

The sounds of the beach seem, to the man pining for his male lover’s return, to congratulate the poet. Once the lover appears, the moon shines down, as if offering a beatific halo over the lover’s face, as he “lay sleeping by my side.”

To give homosexuality a place in the natural order is a brave act indeed (especially considering not only sodomy laws, which were repealed 379 years after the first “sodomite,” Richard Cornish, was executed in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1624, but also something as quotidian as the method in which our libraries arrange books on homosexuality beside those on drug addiction, prostitution, child molestation, and the like).

Part V is a fascinating section that appears to force the poet to choose between his art and his male lover. The life-versus-art argument is here alive and well, uncharacteristic of a poet who makes a point throughout his work of not dividing the two. Again we find the poet speaking directly to nature (“But now take notice, Land of the Prairies, Land of the south savannas, Ohio’s land / Take notice you Kanuck woods—and you Lake Huron”), telling the natural world, which has previously blessed his sexual union with another man, that “I can be your singer of songs no longer—I have ceased to enjoy them.” This is indeed curious, for it appears that the poet is choosing total silence about homosexual love, an understandable response to the hateful stares, the physical attacks, the inflammatory verbal assaults homosexuals must endure with regularity throughout their lives. Yet in a poem which attempts to give voice to the sorrow and joy (in that order) of loving a person of one’s own gender, section V of “Live-Oak, with Moss” seems to wish to erase all that has previously been said in exchange for simply loving a man. Whitman, a representative homosexual man, got cold feet and declared himself mute (something that many in our current capital, and indeed, judging by the recent referendums, our country as a whole, would indeed welcome with resounding plaudits). The poet who published, wrote, and reworked his poems for forty years, here, and perhaps for the one and only time, had nothing left to say.

Or so it seems—for he does of course continue by inquiring (to himself?) about the subject matter he is to include in his verse. Whitman again returns to negation—“not the battle-ship … Nor the splendors of the past day … Nor the glory and growth of the great city spread around me”—but then breaks out into perhaps the single most tender and lovingly positive image of homosexuality in all of American poetry:

… the two men I saw to-day on the pier, parting the parting of dear friends.
The one to remain hung on the other’s neck and passionately kissed him—while the one to depart tightly prest the one to remain in his arms.

Positive not because of their parting but because of the sheer ardor of their embrace, their impassioned plea to remain together as a couple despite the odds, both literal (the parting itself) and figurative (homophobic society determined to keep any two of the same gender apart).

In section VIII, Whitman is “leaning my face in my hands … stifling plaintive cries” and gives as reason, “For he, the one I cannot content myself without—soon I saw him content himself without me.” His love has left him, and Whitman, like the millions after him, feels dejected, as if life is not worth living. This is not the Whitman who celebrates himself, not the Whitman who likes to “roll head over heels and tangle my hair full of wisps.” It’s not the “nothing collapses” Whitman, or the “earth good and the stars good” Whitman. This is a Whitman who says (almost in a whisper), “I am ashamed—but it is useless—I am what I am” and “I dare not tell it in words—not even in these songs.” He wonders, “Is there even one other like me,” a question every queer teenager in America has asked him- or herself at least once. And of that particular contemporary unknown and youthful stranger, Whitman asks if “the casual mention of a name” brings to mind the one who left (and we may overhear the Hoagy Carmichael song “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” an important rendition of the homosexual lover’s plight). Yet imagine if we’d had, in addition to Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt, “Live-Oak, with Moss” as balm for our queer wounds.

Along with the elation of finding this poem, it was also a shock and a dismal disappointment to find that the brave, rough, nervy, and arrogant Whitman had gone through a good deal of trouble to destroy what Alan Helms, in his groundbreaking essay “Whitman’s ‘Live Oak with Moss,’” calls “the only sustained treatment of homosexual love in all his poetry.” I would go further and say that until Allen Ginsberg no gay American poet had written so eloquently of male emotional and sexual bonding, and that few have done so since.

Yes, I came to realize—this is without doubt a side of Whitman rarely seen and therefore very important to our understanding of him as the queer poet he was. This is Whitman at his most naked. For the man who declares in “Song of Myself” that he is “hankering, gross, mystical, nude” was not, when all was said and done, as transparent as he’d wanted us to believe. Whitman had a secret that kept insinuating itself into his work no matter how hard he tried to conceal it. Here, in Whitman’s gayest, most forthright poem, we find him vulnerable, soft-spoken, weak—stances he would not have wished revealed to his public. Thus, he censored himself and never printed this great poem in its original form, becoming his own casualty, nearly taking from us a poem that was revolutionary not only in Whitman’s time but in our own.

No sooner had Whitman copied “Live-Oak, with Moss” into his notebook than he began to reconsider. Even Walt got the willies! Without a doubt, he must have worried about how his poem would be received. He therefore set out to make the poem “respectable” by altering it in ways that can only be considered as censorship.

First, he separated the poem’s twelve sections, scattering them throughout the forty-five poems found in the “Calamus” section of the 1860 edition of the Leaves, where the poems, duly separated, first appeared. By dispersing the original poem’s twelve sections, he weakened its gay narrative. The original section I became, in the 1860 version of Leaves of Grass,“Calamus” section 14; section II became 20; section III, 11; IV, 23; V, 8; VI, 32; VII, 10; VIII, 9; IX, 34; X, 43; XI, 36; XII, 42. The original poem’s tender beauty, unity, and balance were thus destroyed.

Whitman then proceeded, in subsequent editions of the Leaves, to delete a number of important lines which may have seemed to him too personal, too flagrantly homosexual. He cut “to seek my life-long lover” from the first section, “I have found him who loves me, as I him, in perfect love” from the fifth; the word “manly” was deleted from “the manly shoulder” in the seventh part of the poem. Even more significantly, IX was transformed so as to be nearly unrecognizable. Since this section is only four lines long, I will reproduce both versions here:

I dreamed in a dream of a city where all the men were like brothers,
O I saw them tenderly love each other—I often saw them, in numbers,
        walking hand in hand;
I dreamed that was the city of robust friends—Nothing was greater there
        than manly love—it led the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city, and in all their
        looks and words.—

This became in the 1860 version:

I dreamed in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole
        of the rest of the earth,
I dreamed that was the new City of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love—it led the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.

Talk about getting cold feet! What could he have been thinking other than that he was going to be rejected by a public that, at this point, hadn’t yet applauded him?

Even more unfortunate is Whitman’s deletion, upon publication of all subsequent editions of LG, of two complete sections of the poem, V and VIII. Section V, with its desire to love a man tipping the scales of life over art, a notion that runs counter to everything Whitman stood for, is fair game for cutting. It’s not difficult to see why Whitman would wish to expurgate this poem from his oeuvre. But the second instance, that of VIII, is a particularly hard loss to American poetry (though since Bowers’ discovery the poem has appeared in both general readership and GLBT anthologies). For here we find a portrait of an emotionally distraught Whitman. It seems to me that he revoked this poem because it shows him in a weakened (and therefore less “manly” than he wished?) state. Yet that is part of the beauty of this poem. We finally see Whitman in a vulnerable state, one in which he is capable of showing all of his emotions, not just the ones that show him assuming that he is an everyman, haughty and bold and everywhere at once. Here he is in mourning, and it is because of the loss of his male lover. What a pity that the American literary canon suffered the loss of this poem for nearly a century.

In addition to dismantling his poem’s structure and deleting possibly incriminating language, Whitman also used, with noted infrequency in this particular poem but with greater frequency elsewhere, the genderless “you” rather than the revealing “he.” This is a trope that many lesbian and gay writers, such as James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, and W. H. Auden, have used throughout history (if one reads through an anthology such as Love Speaks Its Name: Gay and Lesbian Love Poems, one will find many poems that utilize this gender-hiding device).

Temptation is strong within the writer. Reputation must be considered! Posterity is the promised carrot at the end of the good-boy stick. Money, fame, a house of one’s own (Whitman, who never married, bought his one and only house on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, in 1884, after the unexpected success of the 1882 version of Leaves of Grass). As a gay writer, I have felt the pull of leaving my poems in a drawer somewhere rather than sending them out to potential publishers. I have felt the lure of pronoun transposition, something Whitman used not only in the famous case of “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City” but also in his own private notebook (!) when he was speaking about his lover Peter Doyle (he also used numbered code, based on the alphabetical position of the letters of Doyle’s name, to refer to him, raising the question of what was private and what, in Whitman’s mind, was for public consumption). I have known the power of the genderless “you” and the desire to be, in my poems, openly, gratefully heterosexual, not because it is the morally correct choice, but because I would not have to contend with constant, fierce discrimination based on holy words turned to epithets of mass homosexual destruction. After all, our reputations and livelihoods rest on the laurels of those who hold the key to the prize kingdom, the drawbridge over the moat of second, third, fiftieth printings. By transforming the gender in a poem, the poet becomes his or her own pariah and self-loathing casualty of the cultural war which has since the beginning of the United States worked without respite to discredit, defame, and destroy the homosexual person.

Whitman states that Emerson “wanted the book to sell” and “thought I had given it no chance to be popularly seen, apprehended: thought that if I cut out the bits here and there that offended the censors I might have a book that would go through editions—perhaps many editions.” Does homosexuality have a stigma that might prevent these things? Without question. Simply look at the recent election, in which 11 states overwhelmingly voted not only to define marriage as being between a man and a woman but also to essentially nullify gay relationships. Our society does indeed fear the homosexual. (Ask former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, who, upon resigning after having had a scandalous affair with a man, was accused by some of not having run as an out gay man. Yet how many governors have we had in the past or do we have now who are out gay or lesbian persons? He would never have been elected in the first place.) Homophobia is so much a part of the American mind-set that it is second nature to conceal ourselves from public view. We are discriminated against by compassionate conservatives and blatant homophobes alike (and often can’t tell the difference between the two). Yet here was a 19th-century man who had the courage to produce great poetry that included a homosexual theme. That he didn’t publish all of it is at once a shame and understandable. Even Walt Whitman didn’t have the hootzpa to fight pervasive homophobia.

The great contradiction in Whitman is how much confessional truth about his life, including his homosexuality, he is willing to sacrifice for fame and immortality. In 1860 he is only beginning to see this contradiction in himself, and therefore the censorship is minimal (though it does unfortunately include the original draft of “Live-Oak, with Moss”). But by 1892, with the difficulty of finding a publisher behind him, with loves forever lost and death sidling up beside him—Whitman bent to the homophobic pressures of his (and, to a lesser degree, our) society. He published the flawed, censored, final version of the Leaves—and became his own greatest casualty. The loss has been incalculable.

The critics and reviewers of his day, those who carry societal mores forward, were indeed responsible for Whitman’s becoming his own casualty. But it should be noted that these writers engendered casualties for generations to come, as they left written testimony to their distorted views of Whitman’s character and work, thus influencing the writers, critics, and reviewers of our own day. His work was called “a mass of stupid filth” (New York Criterion, November 10, 1855); “indecent” (Oliver Windell Holmes, Atlantic Monthly, September 1890); “uncouth,” “grotesque,” and “reckless” (Charles A. Dana, Tribune 1894); “intolerable” and “disgusting” (critic Charles Eliot Norton, 1913); and “trashy, profane, and obscene” (J. P. Lesley, a geologist who apparently liked poetry). “It’s as if the beasts spoke,” Thoreau famously quipped. Emily Dickinson, also famously, indicated that though she’d never read his book and of course had never met him, she “was told he was disgraceful,” a phrase that would resonate with Willa Cather’s stance that Whitman was a “dirty old man.” Booksellers withdrew Whitman’s vanity-published 1855 Leaves from their stocks, and libraries, most famously Harvard, kept the book under lock and key, even unto Whitman’s death. Is it any wonder that the Norton Critical Edition failed miserably in giving a true indication of the poet and his work?

Much as today’s GLBT people are casualties of today’s right-wing evangelicals, Whitman fell prey to the general consensus of his time that homosexuals were subhuman. Whitman’s “Live-Oak, with Moss” reminds us that, contrary to the thinking that much has changed for gays and lesbians, we continue to live in a time not entirely unlike Whitman’s, a time in which the bravery of being queer is astounding. When my well-meaning straight friends attempt to persuade me that much has changed for gays and lesbians since the ’60s, I remind them (sometimes gently, sometimes not) that yes, we can be more “out” than we used to be, but the price is extreme: loss of jobs, disownment by our families (my father did not speak to me for a number of years after I came out in 1980, at the age of nineteen). And—lest we forget!—gays are treated unequally in the eyes of the law. For instance, if my partner of five years is called into a court of law, he may not cite spousal privilege and would have to testify against me (as Rosie O’Donnell’s partner had to do in a recent court case). I also do not have the right to inherit my partner’s social security check in the event that he should die. Gays and lesbians do not have adoption rights. Added to that is discrimination in employment and housing, as well as random beatings by strangers who might see us holding hands in public. And for our pains, what do we get: taunts from our straight brothers and sisters who say we are trying to get “special rights.” Or we get knocked off by 11 states in a presidential election which promises to add a Constitutional amendment forever mandating my second-class status. Go ahead, count the 11 states. Call me queer. Tell me I’m evil and vile. But don’t tell me how much better off gays are than we were in the past.

Critics, writers, and general readers have been casualties of all that has come before them. By not even acknowledging, let alone accepting, the homosexuality in Whitman’s work, by not being able to say it clearly and from the outset in biographies, theses, dissertations, essays, and our own poems, we have been unable to clearly read Whitman’s work. This has been particularly damaging to gay writers like myself who have felt as though we were writing in a cultural vacuum when in fact there was a strong history behind us. For there were indeed “other men, in other lands, yearning and pensive.” Whitman’s secret wish has been granted.

On the night of March 26, 1992, in the dark hush of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, seven poets read “Song of Myself” in its entirety. Two stone pillars rose twelve feet up off the ground, separated by thirty feet. Lucille Clifton’s commanding and mellifluous voice announced the importance of that moment: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” and by the time she finished the first section, Sharon Olds was beginning the second, her voice a tinkling bell, finely resonating across the cathedral’s transept. Galway Kinnell read in his solid, deep-timbered voice that perfectly suits Whitman’s poems, as did the voices of Michael Harper and Gerald Stern. Allen Ginsberg’s wild, grey hair shook when he read the 11th section (“Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore”), as if he were with those men in their frolicsome, glistening, sexual play. And C. K. Williams rounded out this remarkable group of readers, each in her or his way one of Whitman’s offspring.

For without Whitman, many of us would never have written poems. He is the musical mentor as well as the poet many contemporary American poets have turned to when we’ve felt the urge to censor ourselves, to take the body out of our poems, to write poems devoid of sexuality, poems of love and union and desire, subjects for which Whitman, as well as many after him, was censored. After I discovered Whitman’s sexual nature, I became less afraid to speak the truth about my life and the lives of other gay men and lesbians around me. My own poems became emotionally easier to write, even when they were about illness and death in the age of AIDS, as if I’d received lessons from the great master himself. He seemed always to be telling me to tell the truth head-on. Though I felt the impulse to censor myself, especially when writing poems such as “Sacred Anus” (which includes Whitman’s twenty-eight young men) and gay love poems such as “The Ascension,” “Love as an Argument in Time and Loss,” and “Blood Test,” I thought of “Live-Oak, with Moss” and forged ahead. When lesbian poet Marilyn Hacker chose my first book, The Apprentice of Fever, for the Wick Poetry Prize, I like to think that Whitman somewhere approved.

Luckily for us, the tide of Whitman’s reputation in the literary world has turned. Not only is he considered the chief pioneer of American poetry, he is also one of the few poets whose homosexuality is discussed with greater frequency than ever, largely because of an increase in solid scholarship that accepts (or at least tolerates) Whitman’s sexual nature. With books like Gary Schmidgall’s exhaustive (and humorous!) critical study A Gay Life and the all-important Walt Whitman: Selected Poems 1855–1892, also edited by Schmidgall, as well as groundbreaking work by Robert K. Martin, Charles Shively, Alan Helms, and Christine Stansell, Whitman’s homosexuality may now be seen as central to the poet’s vision.

Norton finally updated itself when, in its fourth edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, it included Whitman’s homosexuality in no small measure:

From 1857 to 1859 …Whitman wrote a group of twelve poems, “Live Oak, with Moss,” that seems to tell a straightforward story of his love for another man… . In this sequence … he chooses to be happy in private with his lover. If he had printed it, the sequence would have constituted a new and highly public sexual program, nothing short of an open homosexual manifesto.”

After 135 years, college students now have Walt Whitman’s truest, least censored poetry.

Which brings me back to an argument I had nearly fourteen years ago. The Tunnel Bar closed in the late nineties. Saifee Hardware now stands in its place and Village Farm and Grocery is across the street. Yet this corner of New York will forever be, for this gay man at least, one of the essential places where a stranger reflected back to me my own homophobic attitude toward the quintessential American poet. Did I, like the nongay majority, believe that a true poet, a great poet, couldn’t be gay?

Though I haven’t been to East Village bars for years, I still hope that I might one day run into Jim in the streets. If you read this essay, look me up. I’d like to thank you for knocking some sense into me.


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Penny Culliton's picture
Penny Culliton · 8 years ago

In a used bookstore some 15-20 years ago, I found a c. 1936 "deathbed edition" of LofG. Being a teacher in need of extra copies for students at times, I bought it. Then my heart skipped a beat when I opened it later. Inside the front cover was glued a typed copy of "Hours continuing long..." Yes, Walt,there was clearly one other like you, and he or she corrected your mistake of deleting the poem from all but the 1860 edition.


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