The Question of Homoeroticism in Whitman’s Poetry
Mark Doty on Sexuality and 'Unspeakability' in Leaves of Grass
“Unspeakable”—unspeakability? —comes in three varieties.
First, that which cannot be said because one does not know it, and therefore cannot say it.
Second, that which cannot be spoken because it is culturally impermissible to do so.
And third, that which cannot be named because it is impossible, since the language provides no terms, no words to enable articulation.
I do not think that the unsayable, in Whitman, partakes much of the first quality, though critics have argued that only a complex internal mechanism of repression could allow a poet to both proclaim a radical philosophy of sexual fellowship, especially same-sex coupling, as a basis for political change and expect that he would be absorbed by his country . . . This is indeed a shattering contradiction, but Whitman seems to have been acutely self-aware, and he surely knew that in America we cannot reconcile horniness and wisdom. (That this is still the case is richly demonstrated in the debacle of the last years of the Clinton administration, when the president famously gave a young White House intern a copy of Leaves of Grass as part of a process of seducing her, and the nation knew far more about the stain on her blue dress than most would have wished to know.)
Perhaps this irreconcilability lies behind the formal tensions between “verse paragraphing” and the tight construct of the couplet; the transparence of one sits beside the opacity of the other, and the contradiction cannot be resolved, but instead must simply be accommodated. A great poem of self-doubt of the later 1850s, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” shows us a speaker ferociously disappointed in the reception of his own vision, acutely aware of the strangeness of what he’s said.
Whitman’s best poems demonstrate an almost unimaginable prescience; he and Dickinson, among 19th-century American poets, possess a nearly chilling self-consciousness, an acute self-analysis. Edward Carpenter, the British anarchist, writer, and champion of the Arts and Crafts movement whose life and romance were the model for E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice, wrote this elegant description of a visit with Whitman in 1877; the emphases are Carpenter’s own:
“If I had thought before (and I do not know that I had) that Whitman was eccentric, unbalanced, violent, my first interview certainly produced quite a contrary effect. No one could be more considerate, I may almost say courteous; no one could have more simplicity of manner and freedom from egotistic wrigglings; and I never met any one who gave me more the impression of knowing what he was doing more than he did.”
But the second and third forms of the unsayable are central to a reading of the poems. In the realm of the impermissible, Whitman astonishes over and over with his forthrightness. From 1855 until the final edition of the Leaves in 1892, he persisted in importing the unnamed into the public world of the sayable. Of course he made choices that seem, to the contemporary reader, ill-advised; surely the funniest of these is his revision of a line in “Native Moments” which shifts from 1860s “I take for my love some prostitute . . .” to 1876’s “I pick out some low person for my dearest friend . . .” If he sometimes changed his pronouns, or shifted the order of poems in order to blur the nature of a particular allegiance, and if he betrayed his own sexuality when confronted head-on, it would nonetheless be absurd to expect him to have been any more radical than he actually managed to be.
In Section 24 of “Song of Myself” alone, there are passages so odd and nervy that they have lost little of their power to startle. Here Whitman discusses the voices that move through him:
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars—and of wombs
and of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised,
Of fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of dung.
This is startlingly bold in its identification with the suffering, with all those who—in an endearing Yankee-ism—“the others are down upon.” But who could have imagined the end of the list? Whitman will also vocalize the least likely of actors, the ephemeral fog, the ignored beetle. These images are figures for the invisibility of the downtrodden, but they are actual things, too—and what an utter demonstration of sympathy, how completely unexpected that they should also be citizens of the world deserving voice and justice.
Later in this same section, the speaker praises his own clean bowels, the famously “finer than prayer” scent of his armpits, his genitals—and then, in one of those moves with which Whitman takes his reader’s breath away again, the genitals of the wind, and even suggests that the daybreak represents a kind of gorgeous atmospheric come-shot:
Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs,
Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven.
The abiding strangeness! Whence did the nerve to write these poems arise? How did he do it?
One answer to that question has to do with the third form of the unspeakable, that which is wordless, undefined. It is the most difficult form of silence to talk about, since once a word exists for something it does, and the quality of being nameless, outside the realm of speech, becomes irrecoverable.
The polymathic science-fiction writer, memoirist, and cultural critic Samuel Delaney tells an instructive story about this problem in one of his essays. He describes meeting a man in a Times Square porn theater, a shoe fetishist who’s passionately turned on, in several wordless encounters, by the writer’s sneakers. When Delaney needs to buy a new pair, he figures he might as well make the guy happy, and so he breaks their silence and asks him what kind of new sneakers he’d most enjoy. The questioned man is speechless, stricken; he flees; later he returns and manages to choke out only the words “light blue.” But though the desired shoes are purchased, the sexual relationship is never the same. Delaney speculates that the man’s desire exists in the realm of the unsaid; it has never been brought into the light of articulation, and to do so, in this case, damages or limits, or at least changes, the experience.Delaney speculates that the man’s desire exists in the realm of the unsaid; it has never been brought into the light of articulation, and to do so, in this case, damages or limits, or at least changes, the experience.
That there were words for homosexual behavior in Whitman’s day there can be no doubt. Social structures for enabling same-sex congress seem to have been a feature of life in the modern city at least since the later 18th century, when the “Molly houses” in London offered a zone of permission for transvestism. Herman Melville, in Redburn, carefully evokes the nattily dressed fellows who hang out in front of a downtown restaurant where opera singers perform; he means us to understand what these stylish outfits convey. Historian and theorist Luc Sante describes a 19th-century pamphlet that takes as its project the publication of the locations of various quite particular spots of diverse sexual practice in New York City—so that those informed of, say, the address of a bordello featuring willing boys can take special care to avoid this hazard. Trenchant evidence comes from Rufus Griswold’s review of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:
“We have found it impossible to convey any, even the most faint idea of style and contents, and of our disgust and detestation of them, without employing language that cannot be pleasing to ears polite; but it does seem that someone should, under circumstances like these, undertake a most disagreeable, yet stern duty. The records of crime show that many monsters have gone on in impunity, because the exposure of their vileness was attended with too great indelicacy. Peccatum illud horrible, inter Christianos non nominandum.”
The Latin, from Blackstone’s 1811 Commentaries on the Laws of England, indicates the crime of sodomy as that sin which cannot be named among Christians. Surely, placing his specific identification of Whitman’s particular form of “vileness” in Latin in a New York newspaper limits the audience for the review severely. What does it mean, to be warned away from what must remain nameless? To be told that one must never commit the sin that is so great it can’t be spoken—isn’t that necessarily an invitation as well as a warning, an act of pointing to a possibility, just like the self-contradictory guidebook described by Sante? It seems impossible to know, now, if Griswold truly means to condemn the book or to advertise it to a knowing clientele.
None of these examples posits a homosexual identity. Instead, they reveal instances of same-sex behavior. The archives of the 19th century are rich with evidence of intense same-sex friendship, passionate attachment. Does sex lie right beneath the surface, like those buds folded beneath speech?
The answer isn’t really recoverable, though I can’t help but think of a man I met in north-central Vermont, in the 1980s. A native Vermonter from a rural town, he was in his seventies then, and newly and proudly out; gay political associations in Vermont accepted him as a delightful sort of mascot. He told a story that is instructive, placed beside Delaney’s anecdote of speechlessness. Near the town of his boyhood was a river that featured one of those delightful Vermont swimming holes, and beyond this inviting spot were wooded islands and farther streams.
All summer, the place was the hang-out of adolescent boys, and it was understood among them that they would pair off, wander to some more private spot, and enjoy one another’s bodies. This behavior was neither named nor spoken of, and it clearly did not constitute an identity; the teller of the tale did not, in fact, come out for sixty more years! Vermont, in the 1920s, was arguably a 19th-century place, and I wonder if this man’s experience might not be as close as we could come to a sense of what same-sex practice might have been like before the coining of terms for it, before the imposition of the binary, the rigid enforcing and policing of the newly named heterosexual norm. It is an erotic landscape that appears in the paintings and photographs of Thomas Eakins, and certainly in the poems of Whitman—a free-floating, unfettered homosexual practice that was, to use the terms the poet had gleaned from phrenology, both amative and adhesive at once.
But still not an identity. The boys didn’t think they were queers, and presumably most didn’t go on having sex with men; that was not an available position for them, just as it wasn’t supposed to be such for Whitman. His poems suggest an erotic life that is centered around encounters (often outdoors, but not always) with working-class guys and with younger men. He is at some pains to construct this as an experience of the love of equals, because this notion, a same-sex relation founded on equality (and not the Greek model of transmission of knowledge from older man to younger, or the Renaissance model of boy-loving, or a sort of fin-de-siècle notion of the sensitive esthete enjoying the more animal sexuality of working-class youths, as in Oscar Wilde’s “feasting with panthers”) is entirely new.
Its genesis can be found in the new cities where one can leave the fixed social and familial roles of rural life and decide who one wants to be today. Does this new sense of freedom inform Whitman’s slippery use of “you”—and his free-ranging, interpenetrating, omnipresent “I”? The new subject isn’t simply a farmer, a son, a father, a teacher, a soldier: the citizen of the new world comes and goes, participates, observes, empathizes, slips into new relations and positions with a freedom the past couldn’t have foreseen. How characteristic of its century this new freedom is: like the railroad, it moves you from one place to another swiftly; like the photograph, it allows you to travel in time. One of the more benign projects of industrialism, finally, is the liberation of subjectivity from the bonds of limited roles.
Which is all a way of saying that Whitman inscribes his sexuality on the frontier of modernity; he is writing into being—particularly in the “Calamus” poems of 1860, with their frank male-to-male loving, their assumption of equality on the part of the lovers—a new situation. He does not know how to proceed—he has no path —but he does it anyway. My guess is that he couldn’t have written “Calamus,” or the boldly homoerotic portions of the 1855 Leaves, even ten years later, as the advent of psychology increasingly led to a public perception of the normative, and imagery of the sacred family becomes the object of Victorian romance. As a category of identity—sodomite, invert, debauchee, pervert, Uranian—begins to emerge, so the poems with their claims of a loving, healthy, freely embraced same-sex desire become unwriteable, paradoxically, just as new language of homosexual identity begins to appear. Unwriteable, and, it would seem from Whitman’s later remarks, and some of his revisions, barely defensible.
Thus comes about more than a century of remarkably agitated, confused, and fascinating writing about the subject of Whitman and sex, a dialogue (or shouting match) that seems to have begun with Griswold’s review, published mere months after the Leaves’ first edition. A confusion Whitman himself furthered, in his attempt to both say what he felt and still reach wide audiences, gaining the love and admiration of his nation. The history of the reading of Whitman’s sexuality is a drama in itself, and it shows no real sign of letting up. Depending on your critic, Whitman’s an onanist who never touched anybody, or a bisexual fantasist who might have had a little queer sex, or a trailblazing sexual pioneer.
What is not at all vague are the needs that Whitman’s poems met, the powerful voice they gave or lent to an emergent class of men who had felt themselves isolated and voiceless. The most moving example of this I’ve seen is Edward Carpenter’s book Days with Walt Whitman, with some Notes on his Life and Work, published in London in 1906. Carpenter describes his powerful impression of his first encounters with his hero in limpid prose:
I was aware of a certain radiant power in him, a large benign effluence and inclusiveness, as of the sun, which filled out the place where he was—yet with something of reserve and sadness in it too, and a sense of remoteness and inaccessibility.
Carpenter goes on to chronicle a subsequent visit, and then to generalize about Whitman’s work, suggesting that the poet extends his affections to women and men alike, circling repeatedly around this theme, then asserting the physicality of these affections, the poet’s bodily embrace, and finally coming out with it, late in his text: these affections are expressed sexually as well. It is a thrilling rhetorical performance; Carpenter, clearly, wishes to signal to the flock; he wants the like-minded to find in Whitman their experience reflected, their voices—their soundless voices—carried.
I read the first edition of Carpenter’s book, a handsome old green volume, in the library at Rice University. Penciled in the front was an unreadable name in a man’s hand; stenciled at the bottom of the page was the name and address of a long-ago bookshop in L.A. What had been this book’s odyssey? It had to have been passed hand to hand from one man like me to another, in a more-or-less underground transmission; they had to have known of Carpenter’s pioneering work, and perhaps of the courage he took from Whitman. Would any of them have known, later on in the life of this gentle and startling little book, that Carpenter and his partner of forty years, George Merrill, were buried together, in 1929, in Surrey?
I do not wish to suggest that the contents of the unspeakable, for Whitman, are entirely sexual, for there is more deep down in his pockets than what obviously resides there. Carpenter and his readers were reaching for signposts of a gay identity when such a thing barely existed, but Whitman is ultimately a queer poet in the deepest sense of the word: he destabilizes, he unsettles, he removes the doors from their jambs. There is an uncanniness in “Song of Myself” and the other great poems of the 1850s that, for all his vaunted certainty, Whitman wishes to underscore. Again and again, he points us toward what, it seems, must remain folded in the buds beneath speech, since it cannot be brought to the surface. Here are two instances, the first from Section 50.
There is that in me . . . . I do not know what it is . . . . but I
know it is in me . . .
I do not know it . . . . it is without name . . . . it is a word
It is not in any dictionary or utterance or symbol.
The second comes from Section 8 of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” from 1856:
We understand then do we not?
What I promised without mentioning it, have you not
What the study could not teach—what the preaching
could not accomplish is accomplished, is it not?
In more or less a lifetime of reading these poems, I’ve never been able to encounter those last lines without a bit of a shiver. How does he know this? How does he understand what has happened to me as I’ve read his poem—how, just as he predicted, “distance avails not,/ I am with you . . .” He has written his audience into being in this poem, and explained to us something crucial—something unsayable—about the transmission taking place. Surely sexuality is part of this transmission—the fact of the speaker’s longing, connected body, its material and sensual presence in the world from which he addresses us—but as sexuality is inclined to be, it is and is not the entire story.
As in Section 29 of “Song of Myself,” the exchange is deeply eroticized, but it points on past the simple interaction of bodies toward a larger understanding of the structure of the real. Sex colors everything, shapes every aspect of our perception, and as the erotics of exchange, of faith, of writing itself, it defines the ethos of participation. Is desire itself a lust toward the unsayable? Something about Whitman’s outsiderness—his participation in what cannot be said, his huge pressurizing awareness of all that resists language—thrums in these passages; that presence, felt and almost-named, makes these poems as alive as the hour they were written. For all their vast claims, there is a silence at their center. He’s a genius to use form to point toward this necessary silence, but a further kind of genius—one marked by a nearly unthinkable nerve—is at work in these passages too, where the poem resolutely addresses itself to the underside of speech, our common human possession: untranslatable perception, unvoiced longing, and what glimmers at the edges of knowledge: all we do not know.
Excerpted from What is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life by Mark Doty. Copyright © 2020 by Mark Doty. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton.
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