For Greater Understanding

1. What role did New York City play in the shaping of Whitman's work?

2. What was notable about Whitman's poem "The Sleepers"?

3. What was public reaction to "The Sleepers"? Did this impact Whitman's next edition of Leaves of Grass?

Suggested Reading

Whitman, Walt. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Sculley Bradley, Gay W. Allen, and Edward F. Grier (eds.). New York: New York University Press, 1984.

Other Books of Interest

Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Durham, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Dunbar, David S. Empire City: New York Through the Centuries. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman's New York. Henry M. Christman (ed.). New York: Ira R. Dee Publisher, 1989.

Article of Interest

Whelan, Carol Zapata. '"Do I Contradict Myself?' Progression through Contraries in Walt Whitman's The Sleepers,'" Watt Whitman Quarterly Review, Volume 10, 1992, pp. 25-39.

Sites to Visit

1. New York History Net, a collection of internet resources on the city that fascinated Whitman —

2. Homepage for the Museum of the City of New York —

Lecture 5: Sex Is the Root of It All

Before beginning this lecture you may want to ...

Read Walt Whitman's "To a Common Prostitute," "The Calamus," and "Children of Adam."

"Sex is the root of it all: sex—the coming together of men and women: sex: sex."—Whitman to H Traubel

The American culture of Whitman's time was steeped in Victorian ideas. Sex was a taboo topic that didn't enter polite conversation. The word "underwear" wasn't used; these items were actually called "unmentionables." Piano legs were deemed too sensual to be seen and were often covered. Even arms and legs were called "limbs" or "branches."

However, just as Americans today are full of contradictions, there was a dark underbelly to Whitman's America. From 1820 to 1865, the number of brothels in New York City tripled from 200 to more than 600. By 1865, prostitution was a S6.35-million business, second only to tailor shops in revenue. Prostitution, though frowned upon, was lucrative for the women involved. In the 1840s, women in standard jobs made two to three dollars average per week, but one could make ten to fifty dollars turning a single trick.

Whitman neither wanted to be associated with the tight-lipped behavior of the reformers or the raw obscenity that he saw in some types of American life. He tried to position himself between these two extremes and glorify sex in a fresh and natural way.

Even so, in a repressive environment, it is easy to understand why vice squads banned poems like Whitman's "To a Common Prostitute."

Be composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature, Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you, Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you, and the leaves to rustle for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.

My girl, I appoint with you an appointment—and I charge you that you make preparation to be worthy to meet me, And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come. Till then, I salute you with a significant look, that you do not forget me.

This was one of the "banned poems" of 1881. His point with this poem is quite clear; Whitman gave to these women, who were considered the lowest of the low in society, a new respect, and dignity. Whitman took great pride in his directness and in his own words, wrote in a journal:

Avoid all the 'intellectual subtleties' and 'withering doubts' and 'blasted hopes' and 'unrequited loves' and 'ennui' and 'wretchedness' and the whole lurid and artistical and melo-dramatic effects. Preserve perfect calmness and sanity ... in the best poems appears the human body, well-formed, natural, accepting itself, unaware of shame, loving that which is necessary to make it complete, proud of its strength, active, receptive, a father, a mother...

For Whitman sexuality is not just a dirty subject that gets talked about in dark corners but is something that is represented by strong, ordinary people like mothers, fathers, and athletes.

However, even with this new openness in mind, there was a fine line to be drawn that Whitman seems to cross at times. Consider "Spontaneous Me," otherwise known as "Bunch Poem," one of the poems "banned in Boston," as discussed in a later lecture.

The real poems (what we call poems being merely pictures), The poems of the privacy of the night, and of men like me, This poem, drooping shy and unseen, that I always carry, and that all men carry (Know, once for all, avowed on purpose, wherever are men like me, are our lusty, lurking, masculine poems), Love-thoughts, love-joice, love-odor, love-yielding, love-climbers, and the climbing sap, Arms and hands of love—lips of love—phallic thumb of love—

breasts of love—bellies, pressed and glued together with love, Earth of chaste love—life that is only life after love, The body of my love—the body of the woman I love—

the body of the man—the body of the earth ... (lines 7-14)

Notice phrases such as "phallic thumb of love," "love-juice," and "love odor." Consider your own thoughts about this poem and what impact it must have had on Whitman's own world. Should there be a line and if so, where should it be drawn?

In fact, sometimes Whitman himself would censor his own behavior. The first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 is the most raw, aggressive, and sexual of editions. As time went on Whitman himself decided to excise certain words and phrases, as can be seen in this example:

"I hear the train'd soprano ... she convulses me like the climax of my love grip" from the original edition later became, "I hear the train'd soprano ... what work with hers is this?"

Even some of Whitman's biggest supporters came down hard on his use of certain words and phases. Emerson in a famous 1860 exchange in Boston Commons about "The Children of Adam" series, asked of Whitman after suggesting certain changes to the poem because of its content, "What have you to say to such things?" Whitman replied," Only that while I can't answer them at all, I feel more settled than ever to adhere to my own theory, and exemplify it." Even though Whitman would change some of his content, it is clear from this that philosophically he felt very strongly about preserving the feelings within the poems.

There are other examples of censorship; Whitman's boss at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. where he worked during the Civil War, fired him on June 30, 1865, after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan was told that Whitman's poems were "indecent." In addition, Thoreau, who admired Whitman greatly, was prompted to write to a friend with regards to some of the poems.

There are two or three passages in the book which are disagreeable, to say the least: simply sensual. He does not celebrate love at all. It is as if the beasts spoke. I think that men have not been ashamed of themselves without reason. No doubt there have always been dens where such deeds were unblushingly recited, and it is no merit to compete with their inhabitants ...

What Kind of Sex Life Did This Poet of Sex Have?

In M. Jimmie Killingsworth's book, Whitman's Poetry of the Body, Sexuality, Politics, and the Text, he argues that Whitman is the "first gay American"— that he "invented gayness" in literature. Remember, the word "homosexuality" did not appear until Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds coined it in their groundbreaking study, Sexual Inversion (1897).

In his poetry, Whitman suggests that he is heterosexual or sometimes bisexual, though arguably he writes that way to include women's points of view and to appeal to a universal audience. During his life though, certain patterns appear that suggest he was defensive about his sexual orientation and that he had experiences with women. When the English critic John Symonds wrote to him with certain questions about the Calamus poems Whitman wrote back:

My life, young manhood, mid-age, times South etc., have been jolly, bodily, and doubtless open to criticism. Though unmarried I have had six children—two are dead, one living Southern grandchild, fine boy, writes to me occasionally—circumstances (connected with their fortune and benefit) have separated me from intimate relations.

Research has been done to verify these claims of progeny on Whitman's part, but to date no solid evidence has surfaced to support these suggestions. We can't say though, that Whitman was fearful of being known as a homosexual, it seems far more likely that his concern lay in not being narrowly categorized as a

Walt Whitman with Pete Doyle

homosexual writer, for he felt this would deny him the universal appeal that he believed so very important for a writer.

Far more distinct patterns in his life seem to illustrate quite soundly that he was indeed a homosexual. Around 1859 Whitman befriended a man named Fred Vaughn and from his writing from this period it is quite evident that Whitman and Vaughn most likely had a very certain type of friendship Then in 1865, Whitman met Pete Doyle, a former Confederate soldier who became his close companion for many years, and, in essence, the love of his life. In fact, Whitman saw Pete into the 1880s, though their attachment started fizzling out in the mid-1870s. During the late 1850s through the early 1860s, Whitman wrote extensively in his notebooks about meeting dozens of men and his relationships with them.

Whether or not he had sex regularly, Whitman's life and poetry suggest he was a very physical person and deeply interested in the body and its functions. He was fascinated, for example, with the pseudoscience of phrenology (the physical manifestation of spiritual and emotional conditions). He also was interested in other experiments having to do with sexuality, such as the Free Love movement that took root in America in the 1840s. Though he does not seem to have been directly involved, he certainly mingled with participants like Henry Clapp of the Pfaffs circle, who appears to have been active in the Brooklyn branch of the Commune of Free Love. Whitman was also very interested in anatomy and physiology. He was a fan of works such as The Illustrated Family Gymnasium (1857), and with the euphemistically titled "Anatomy Museums."

Whatever his sexuality, he was clearly a sexual and physical poet and no work represents this better than the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.

The Calamus and Children of Adam Clusters

The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass is made up of several poem groupings that Whitman termed "Clusters.'' The two clusters that are most interesting with regards to Whitman's sexuality are:

1. "The Calamus" (A Calamus is a reed-like plant with obvious phallic connotations, making this title appropriate for the homosexual qualities of these poems.)

2. "The Children of Adam" (As the title suggests, these clusters have more to do with procreative/heterosex-ual concerns.)

Whitman intended that these two collections be juxtaposed. The reasons he includes both these clusters together comes back to his desire to appeal to as universal of an audience as possible. However, there is much more passion and feeling in the "Calamus" cluster than in the "Children of Eden" cluster. In addition, the "Calamus" poems are arguably the strongest evidence to prove that Whitman was indeed a homosexual.

If one compares the first "Children of Adam" poem with the first "Calamus" poem, several important distinctions can be made. "Children of Adam 1" clearly shows Whitman as the universal man of poetry walking through the new Eden of America with Eve both in front and behind him, suggesting that they are all on an equal basis. The poem has an emphasis on the procreative capacity of man and woman and shows Whitman's ideas about heterosexual-ity and its utilitarian capacities and the beauty of those possibilities. If you compare these with "Calamus 1," which emphasizes homoeroticism and male upon male friendship, the distinction becomes very clear. The poem uses words like "secret" and "need" and has a much more personal and daring feel to it. You see Whitman talking for the first time to a selective group, even mentioning "young men" and "comrades." This poem heralds the beginning of a collection that dives to a deeper space within Whitman's world. As you read on in the "Calamus"IJ series the personal passion of Whitman becomes stronger and more direct and highlights directly his deep beliefs and feelings.

Following chronologically from these poems, we find Whitman traveling to the Civil War front in 1862. In the next lecture, Whitman's involvement and connection with Civil War poetry will be discussed.

Acorus calamus

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Acorus calamus

Robert H. MohUOUOCh Q USOA-NRCS PLANTS Database uSOA NRCS 1999 Northeast tlcra Fietd ortet guNJo to plant spec«« Northeast Nauonel Technic« Center Chester PA

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