Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

(1819 – 1892) American poet

Whitman was born on a Long Island (New York) farm to a typically heterosexual family. His father drank too much; his mother suffered; and his eight siblings did poorly except for two brothers. The poet idolised his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, and credited her with inspiring his poetry. From first to last, his writings applaud sexual love. ‘Song of Myself’, published in 1855, contains Section V, which celebrates the soul through the trope of fellatio: ‘Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat, / … Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice’. Leaves of Grass, the title Whitman gave his collected poems, pivots upon this dalliance with a young man in the grass. In 1889, the poet told an interviewer, ‘Sex, sex, sex: sex is the root of it all.’

During the Civil War, Whitman worked in Washington. An outraged Methodist fired him from the Interior Department after discovering a copy of Leaves of Grass in Whitman’s desk, but Attorney-General James Speed quickly found him another position. Speed’s brother Joshua had spent four years sleeping with Abraham Lincoln in Illinois. Lincoln himself had read and admired the second edition of Leaves of Grass. One of the soldiers, Alonzo Bush, wrote Whitman about a friend who ‘went down on your BK, both so often with me. I wished that I could … have some fun for he is a gay boy’ (22 December 1863); ‘BK’ might mean ‘buck’ or ‘book’, but one writer suggests ‘Big Cock’. The death of President Lincoln devastated Whitman. He wrote his last great poem, ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed’, for Lincoln. The poet himself suffered a stroke in 1873 and he moved to Camden, New Jersey, with his brother. The later poems became more abstract and less homoerotic, although Whitman’s health recovered after he swam in Timber Creek with his lover Harry Stafford, Carpenter and other young men.

Whitman may now be the premier United States poet, but his work had to overcome much resistance. Leaves of Grass first appeared in a self-published edition in 1855 with few readers; it underwent multiple transformations before the so-called ‘death-bed’ edition in 1892. Leaves of Grass certainly marked the boldest departure from standard English prosody. Of the five reviews to the first edition, Whitman wrote three anonymous favourable ones. Another reviewer was lukewarm, but the other denounced ‘that horrible crime not to be mentioned among Christians’. The fervently homoerotic 1860 edition with the Calamus cluster attracted little attention and the publisher quickly went bankrupt; the 1882 edition was banned in Boston.

During the 1950s, biographer Gay Wilson Allen established Whitman as the philopietistic poet for what Henry Luce (head of the Time-Life conglomerate) called the ‘American Century’. When the Roman Catholic authorities in New Jersey protested against naming a bridge from Camden to Philadelphia after the poet, Allen certified that Whitman was no queer. New Jersey later added a Whitman rest stop on their turnpike. Gay interpretations outraged traditional Whitman scholars; they excoriated Robert K. Martin, whose Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (1979, 1998) declared, ‘Whitman intended his work to communicate his homosexuality to his readers.’

Good evidence supports the view that Whitman was an urban sophisticate. He followed theatre and opera and during the 1850s was associated with musical, dramatic and literary critics in New York City; ‘my darlings my gossips’, he called them. Whitman wrote in 1863, recalling these ‘dear boys’ company & their gayety & electricity, their precious friendship’. The poet claimed that contral to Marietta Alboni inspired his work; he attended her every performance in New York City. He encouraged his lover Peter Doyle to attend the theatre regularly; in Ford’s Theater on 14 April 1865, Doyle saw actor John Wilkes Booth assassinate President Lincoln. Whitman was then visiting his mother in Brooklyn, where he wrote his extraordinary memorial to Lincoln, which follows the outline of an opera.