“Walt Whitman, Poet of a Contradictory America: During the Civil War era, the writer emerged as an emblem of the country’s dissonance. Now, in the midst of another all-consuming national crisis, his work feels uncannily relevant.”
By Jesse Green
The New York Times
September. 14, 2020
This article includes “pictures, the essay’s writer and T’s editors chose some of their favorite passages of Walt Whitman’s poetry — excerpted below as he published them in the 1891-92 edition of “Leaves of Grass” — which the photographer, stylist and models referenced to inspire the images, taken on July 24, 2020, at St. Josaphat’s Monastery in Glen Cove, N.Y.”
Take a look for yourself to see how tawdry and pitiful this is.
The following are excerpts from the article, by Jesse Green, the Times’s co-chief theater critic. With thoughts/comments by me in ALL CAPS.
The 13-part newspaper series on manly health he wrote a few years earlier, in 1858, under the pseudonym Mose Velsor, is full of epigrammatic dictums — “the beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat” and “we have spoken against the use of the potato” — but for long passages comes off as unintentional gay porn.
Of course, so do long passages of his signed work.
GAY PORN? COME ON! I HAVE READ THE ENTIRE 1858 NEWSPAPER SERIES BY WHITMAN REFERRED TO. (IT WAS RECENTLY PUBLISHED IN BOOK FORM AS Manly Health and Training.) GREEN DELIBERATELY MISCHARACTERIZES THIS WORK OR ITS INTENTION.
Six years before the war, in June 1855, Whitman published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” a book of poems he would prune and shape, like a massive topiary, until his death in 1892 at the age of 72. That he believed it to be not just his masterpiece but America’s, and that America somehow came to agree, seems so wildly unlikely when you actually read it that the reading throws you into a time warp. Are we in classical Greece, as the antique cadences and references sometimes suggest? Adamic Eden? The Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury? Pre-Columbian America? Or tonight on Grindr? (Polar Bear, highly verbal, Masc4Masc.) Not many other masterpieces of the 19th century fill their pages with kisses among “camerados,” testicular gropes (“the sensitive, orbic, underlapp’d brothers”), hydrothermal ejaculations (“the pent-up rivers of myself”) and the scent of armpits “finer than prayer.” Even in the unlikely event that Whitman merely imagined such things, they have the authenticity of aspiration. You can see it in the portrait he chose for the frontispiece of the first edition: an engraving of the author with his hips, hat and eyebrows all cocked, with his lanky frame in a louche slouch that any gay man in Brooklyn Heights today (I live a quarter-mile from the printing house where it was typeset) would take as a welcome, a come-on, a song of himself.
TOTALLY UNJUSTIFIED INSINUATIONS/INFERENCES, “CRITICAL OBSERVATIONS” ABOUT LEAVES OF GRASS. THE REFERENCE TO ‘ANTIQUE CADENCES” SHOWS IGNORANCE. WHITMAN WANTED, CHOSE DELIBERATELY, TO AVOID ALL ECHOES OF CLASSICAL LITERATURE.
It is only as an icon of queerness that Whitman’s legacy is sometimes denied, as if gay people, rooting through the crypts of time, had dug up the wrong body. For decades, heterosexual critics commonly treated the homoerotic passages as metaphor or, like Harold Bloom, asserted that all those loving comrades were actually just platonic friends. (Bloom called Whitman’s sexuality “onanistic.”) And though it’s true (as Justin Kaplan tells us in “Walt Whitman: A Life,” his 1980 biography) that in old age the poet casually, even cruelly, dismissed an anguished acolyte’s plea to acknowledge the actual sex shadowing the metaphysical sex in his work — “morbid inferences,” he answered in an 1890 letter, “disavow’d” and “damnable” — that hasn’t stopped gay men since liberation from celebrating the truth for what it is and making Walt their poster boy. After all, how metaphysical can an erection be? (In the preface to the 1856 edition of “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman pledges to restore the “desires, lusty animations, organs, acts” that had been “driven to skulk out of literature with whatever belongs to them.”) Whether or not he sired six children, as he sometimes claimed, though none are known to have come knocking in search of a handout or benediction, they would not be dispositive anyway: Most homophile men have until recently also had wives and children — and Whitman called at least one of his likely young lovers “dear son.”
RE WHITMAN AS AN ICON OF QUEERNESS, SEE MY COMMENTS BELOW.
RE “In old age the poet casually, even cruelly, dismissed an anguished acolyte’s plea,” [ITALICS ADDED], THE LETTER OF WHITMAN TO AN ENGLISH ACOLYTE (JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS) IS PRESERVED IN DRAFT FORM — I.E., A DRAFT BY WHITMAN. SYMONDS’S LETTER (I.E., FROM WHITMAN TO HIM) HAS NOT BEEN PRESERVED APPARENTLY. (IT HAS NOT BEEN PUBLISHED.) I HAVE POSTED HERE (ABOVE) AS A WORD DOCUMENT MY TRANSCRIPTION OF WHITMAN’S DRAFT. TO CALL THE LETTER OR ITS TONE CRUEL AND TO SAY THAT IT AMOUNTED TO CASUAL DISMISSAL IS OVERREACH — TO SAY NOTHING OF BEING INACCURATE.
GREEN DID NOT STUDY WHITMAN’S DRAFT LETTER CLOSELY. HE LEARNED ABOUT IT FROM JUSTIN KAPLAN’S BIOGRAPHY OF WHITMAN. KAPLAN STATES THAT WHITMAN’S LETTER (DRAFT OF SAME) TO SYMONDS WAS “CALCULATINGLY CASUAL,” WHICH IS NOT THE SAME AS CASUAL. IN FACT, WHILE WHITMAN DID TRY TO KEEP THE TONE MEASURED, IT IS OBVIOUS HOW CAREFULLY HE DRAFTED THE REPLY. WHITMAN, IN WRITING TO SYMONDS, CLEARLY WAS ON THE SPOT, FELT DEFENSIVE. HE WRITES WITH RESERVE AND ISSUES A FIRM DENIAL. NOTHING LESS AND NOTHING MORE.
What he isn’t, at least at the time he went on his milk diet, nor during the years when he produced the first editions of “Leaves of Grass,” is amatively mature. “The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,” he admits in the same poem. “Many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word.” Despite their enthusiastic (and unquestionably transporting) wide-world embraces, these early writings often suggest high school aesthetes pining in diaries for high school athletes. They want more from others than they dare say directly.
THIS IS PSYCHOBABBLE TRIVIALIZING THE WORK OF A GREAT POET (AMERICA’S GREATEST), AS IF HE WERE THE WRITER OF LYRICS TO POP SONGS OR PERHAPS GRAPHIC NOVELS.
… his need for the “comradeship and sometimes affection” of stevedores, farmhands and omnibus drivers begins to make sense when you recognize that unresolved split in him. Here was a nascent voice of the common man but also a mama’s boy, theater buff and opera freak who shared elderberry wine with Oscar Wilde. Wobbling like an adolescent between wanting to possess the other and be him, Whitman — and, because he represented America, America — did not yet know what destiny held or how to find it. In that way, his diet was spiritual: a means of annealing his body for the great work ahead.
MORE JEJUNE PSYCHOBABBLE.
Whitman embodied cognitive dissonance. His freethinking coexisted with a lifelong project of self-editing, literal and otherwise, in service not just to his art but his ambition. “Leaves of Grass” was no less ruthlessly pruned and reshaped over the decades than his own public persona; he could not have become The Good Gray Poet without sanding down his pervy edges in deference to prejudices he may or may not have outgrown himself. It remains impossible to say whether his denial of gay affairs, like his denial of full personhood for Black and Indigenous people, was unexamined prejudice or savvy self-promotion.
“COGNITIVE DISSONANCE” … “PERVY EDGES”: MORE PSYCHOBABBLE AND DEMEANING WITH CANT.
How different he sounds from his contemporaries, even American ones, except for Emily Dickinson, whose similarly pioneering and proto-queer work would not become widely known until after her death in 1886.
NOTE THE SNARKY, CONFIDENT ASSERTION THAT EMILY DICKENSON’S POETRY WAS “PROTO-QUEER.” THIS IS MORE CUTE GLIBNESS. SERIOUS LITERARY SCHOLARS HAVE RECENTLY WRITTEN ESSAYS INVESTIGATING WHETHER EMILY DICKINSON HAD LONGINGS FOR WOMEN AND RELATIONSHIPS WITH THEM. IT MAY BE TRUE. IS IT PROVEN?
My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp Jr. – a highly literate and well-read person and a scholar in his own right, how many MDs and psychiatrists or therapists can this be said of? – made two significant observations to me about Whitman. First, that gays were very eager to claim him as one of them, and that this reflected something gays tend to do. Second, that he (Dr. Colp) felt that Whitman handled questions about his sexual orientation very well – meaning discretion, not disclosing more than he wished to – as Whitman’s way of dealing with such inquiries.
A comment (responding to the Times article) that was posted on the Times site yesterday reads as follows:
It’s not that anything this article says is wrong. It’s just that because of the lens the writer writes through (proud gay) and the contextual pictures (over-expensive clothing), there is nothing quite right here either. Whitman celebrated sexuality — all sexual desires and behaviors — and he celebrated freedom, including the freedom to NOT be defined by any particular bent of those sexual desires. This is the exact opposite of modern gay movements, which insist on the definition of the self by one’s sexual preference. This is why Whitman denounced “an anguished acolyte’s [John Addington Symonds, not named by Green] plea” – because the acolyte got it wrong and wanted to pigeon-hole a man whose manifesto was freedom.
Whitman’s poetry isn’t gay. It’s pan-sexual, free to ever cross borders and return back — completely free of being defined by the preference of the moment. This sort of freedom is almost entirely unknown today in a world where people want to loudly define themselves by all sorts of preferences, and do not seek or admire the freedom that comes with refusing to be defined by one definition and embracing a multitude of possibilities. That is what Whitman continually did: he included everything in his self-definition; he “contained multitudes.”
As for the pictures with the article . . . really? How tone-deaf can you be?
I completely agree with Samuel. I don’t care whatsoever whether Whitman was gay or not. I think he probably was gay. But there is no conclusive proof. And, anyway, as I just said, I don’t care.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
September 16, 2020