Whitman, Walt 1819–1892
Walt Whitman was born near Huntington, Long Island, New York, on May 31 and lived primarily in the northeastern United States except for a few years in Washington, DC, and a brief period in New Orleans. He died in Camden, New Jersey, on March 26. The Walt Whitman Bridge connecting Camden with Philadelphia is named in his honor.
Whitman had many occupations, usually in publishing and education, but is most famous as a poet. His subject matter is distinctly American, and many of his poems celebrate the United States and mourn the losses of the Civil War. He also is known for his innovative use of free verse, a poetic form that rejects strict rhyme or meter, and he often is credited with developing a poetic form that was new, forward-looking, and removed from European tradition, making his poetry an analog for the United States itself. Whitman's poetry also is recognized for its overt homoeroticism. His homosexuality is well documented; his notebooks mention at least 150 anonymous sexual encounters with men. Many critics have refused to accept this, uncomfortable with having the quintessentially American poetic form tied to homosexuality.
THE EARLY YEARS
In his early years Whitman preferred to dress as a dandy, or fop. He was a well-known figure in his native Brooklyn for his unique fashion sense. Although associated with homosexuality in Europe, that mode of dress was new to the United States, bringing Whitman a great deal of attention but not causing opinions to be formed about his sexuality. Despite his extravagant taste in dress, he preferred the company of working-class men and spent a great deal of time on the Brooklyn docks watching and talking to the stevedores.
He also rode the ferry between Brooklyn and Manhattan with the dockworkers; that experience became the inspiration for his poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856). The poem describes the anonymity of the crowd on the ferry and the feel of the bodies pressing against him. It often is understood as an expression of unexpressed sexual desire. In 1848 Whitman moved to New Orleans to work for the Crescent as a reporter, but he returned to Brooklyn three months later. He then adopted the rough clothing of dockworkers. His sex life focused on the working-class men he encountered, leading to his adoption of their mode of dress and possibly inspiring his devotion to the working people of America in his poetry.
LEAVES OF GRASS
Whitman's major poetic work was a volume titled Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855. It was edited, expanded, and rewritten over the course of Whitman's life, with the ninth and final version issued in 1892, just months before his death. The first edition consisted of twelve poems, and the final edition had grown to 383 poems.
The preface to the first edition includes several statements of Whitman's philosophy that apply equally to poetry, nationhood, and sexuality. "Men and women and the earth and all upon it are simply to be taken as they are" and "Every man shall be his own priest" express his fundamental egalitarianism and belief in the sacred status of each individual as well as the tenet that each person's desires and values should be respected. His own values are expressed quite directly. The final sentence of the preface states, "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it."
Whitman not only loved his country and its people passionately, he wished to be loved and respected in turn. His overt desire to be a popular poet, a poet of the people as much as a person who writes poems about the people, led him to revise and edit his work over time. The earliest versions are often explicit in their expression of same-sex desire, but the later versions are more ambiguous and thus more palatable to a public ready for a new poetic form but not for a new vision of American sexuality.
The "Calamus" poems of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass are considered the most overtly homoerotic. The entire sequence celebrates a lost lover, whom many scholars think is Fred Vaughan (b. 1837), a younger man with whom Whitman had a relationship for many years. The two kept in touch after Vaughan married, a pattern that was to be repeated by Whitman and later lovers. The poems, including ones with evocative titles such as "We Two Boys Together Clinging" and "Sometimes to One I Love," were not shocking to contemporary readers who had little experience with such material and thus did not recognize its content. Whitman is credited with helping to formulate a gay aesthetic, a language that could be used to convey same-sex desire.
Some of Whitman's most famous poems are "Song of Myself" and "I Sing the Body Electric" from the first edition of Leaves of Grass and "I Hear America Singing" from the 1860 edition. In those poems Whitman created his mythology of America and of himself as its priest. To Whitman America often was represented by the strong, virile bodies of its working men, and "at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, / Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs" ("I Hear America Singing"). The communality of men, as well as the juxtaposition of their bodies and mouths, demonstrates Whitman's social, political, and sexual interests. His later fame derives largely from his postwar poems, including "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "O Captain! My Captain!" both from 1865 and 1866, which mourn Abraham Lincoln and American innocence, both of which were lost in the Civil War.
WHITMAN'S PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
Although most of Whitman's sexual life consisted of accounts of encounters with unnamed working-class men, he also had long-term relationships. Peter Doyle (1843–1907) was a bus conductor in Washington, DC, whom Whitman befriended in 1865. Although Whitman was in his late forties, he and the nineteen-year-old Doyle formed a bond that lasted until 1873, when Whitman returned to Camden. They visited and corresponded throughout Whitman's life, and Doyle seems to have been jealous of Whitman's later relationship with Henry Stafford, a young man who became Whitman's companion in Camden. Whitman and Stafford often traveled together, with Whitman requesting a single room and bed for himself and his nephew to share. They were together for ten years until Stafford married.
Whitman also carried on a relationship via correspondence with Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), the homosexual Irish poet and playwright. They met in 1882 when Wilde was on a lecture tour of the United States. "The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips," he wrote, and there has been much speculation about the nature of their meeting. Whitman was in his sixties and recovering from a stroke, whereas Wilde was twenty-seven, and so the likelihood of a physical encounter is slight. However, there is no doubt that Wilde felt artistically indebted to Whitman and thought it important to meet "the good gray poet."
INFLUENCE ON LATER POETS
Whitman's formal innovations were influential on a great number of later poets, although few achieved the degree of freedom that he did in his verse. Christina (1830–1894) and William (1829–1919) Rossetti, T. E. Brown (1830–1897), J. A. Symonds (1840–1893), and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) emulated Whitman by abandoning strict meter but usually wrote rhymed poetry. Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) used free verse in some of his symbolist poetry, and T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) and Ezra Pound (1885–1972) both utilized the form, although they claimed only minimal influence from Whitman.
Allen, Gay Wilson. 1975. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. New York: New York University Press.
Fone, Byrne R. S. 1992. Masculine Landscapes: Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Kaplan, Justin. 1980. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. 1989. Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Lawson, Andrew. 2006. Walt Whitman and the Class Struggle. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Loving, Jerome. 1999. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Maslan, Mark. 2001. Whitman Possessed: Poetry, Sexuality, and Popular Authority. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
McElroy, John Harmon, ed. 1999. The Sacrificial Years: A Chronicle of Walt Whitman's Experiences in the Civil War. Boston: David R. Godine.
Moon, Michael. 1991. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Reynolds, David S. 1995. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf.
Schmidgall, Gary. 1997. Walt Whitman: A Gay Life. New York: Dutton.
Whitman, Walt. 1860. Leaves of Grass. Boston: Thayer & Eldridge. [Orig. pub. 1855.]
Brian D. Holcomb