May 31,1918– When I write about individuals from history that were homosexual, I avoid using the term Gay, because for me, there was no Gay before the 20th century, until I consider Walt Whitman. Whitman was Gay, using the 20th/21st century definition.
Has there ever been a poet so thoroughly American as Walt Whitman? Whitman’s book of poetry Leaves Of Grass holds the essence of being an American. It also reflects the ways in which our country’s ideals have been forsaken. Whitman’s personal life suffered much because of our American Puritan taboos against sex.
For too many people, Whitman is also this country’s biggest embarrassment. If what he says about our democracy is true, the American ideal of universal equality must embrace gay people. Whitman is a subversive & radical poet. American school children for the past 50 years have been carefully protected from exposure to America’s greatest poet. I have always been an avid reader, but I did not read Whitman until I was finished with college, when my mother, of all people, gave me a volume of Leaves Of Grass as a gift.
A leaf for hand in hand;
You natural persons old and young!
You on the Mississippi & on all the branches & bayous of the Mississippi!
You friendly boatmen & mechanics! You roughs!
You twain! & all processions moving along the streets!
I wish to infuse myself among you till I see it common for you to walk hand in hand.
I identify as bohemian, but Walt Whitman was a true bohemian. He never gave into having a regular occupation & he was a singularly solitary man, probably not by choice.
In 1819, Whitman was born on Long Island. He did the usual boy things until he was 11, when he quit school. He ran errands for a lawyer & a doctor, & then became an apprentice typesetter for a Brooklyn newspaper.
He then taught school in several small villages & contributed articles to various periodicals. In 1841 he left country life for the big city. In NYC he worked for newspapers, starting as a typesetter, & working his way up reporter, feature writer & eventually an editor. Whitman also took to a life of theatres, cafes & nightclubs. He went to art exhibitions, museums & the opera. He watched the ships come into the harbor & walked among the people of the great city. He made a habit out of sitting near the hot, rugged carriage drivers, & cross back & forth on the Brooklyn ferry to gaze at the deck hands. Because he was repressing his gayness, he was a loner in the crowd. He liked to watch.
Sometime after 1855, when Leaves Of Grass was first published, Whitman experienced a kind of emotional/spiritual crisis that transformed him from a newspaper man to a poet. In the manner of so many gay men in NYC & San Francisco in late 1970s, he gave up being a dandy & he became a hyper-masculine clone.
Crowds of men & women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me
On the ferry-boats the hundreds & hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose
& you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, & more in my meditations, than you might suppose…
I was one with the rest, the days & haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word.
Nowadays, if Whitman is taught in school as part of the canon of American literature, there is still much resistance to identifying him as gay, despite well documented evidence.
I share the midnight orgies of young men…
I pick out some low person for my dearest friend,
He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate, he shall be condemned by others for deeds done
I will play a part no longer, why should I exile myself from my companions?
As I have been noting the protests of the right-wingers & religious fundamentalists to the recent legislation adding references to gay people in history to the curriculum in public schools of California, I consider how liberating it will be for young gay people to acknowledge that the most notable American poet was not just a homosexual, he was gay.
I recommend the excellent & very readable: Walt Whitman: A Gay Life by Gary Schmidgall.