On Whitman and Wilde, Homosexuality and History… and some Meta Questions as well

I think that the first thing I ever read in which I recognized gay themes was Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol.” We read it in my Grade 10 English class, along with The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest (one of the best pieces of amateur dramatics I was ever involved in, if I do say so myself), but very little attention was paid in our class to the double-life themes in the novel and the play that I would later regard as common sense. As far as I can recall, I learned the story of the trial and two years’ hard labor, and used the 10th-grade version of biographical criticism to discover the tragedy of “Reading Gaol” for myself, particularly in its final stanza:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

We had to do a final, capstone project at the end of the year, and my friend and I put on a skit making fun of everything we’d read. The only texts I couldn’t find it in myself to write jokes for were Elie Wiesel’s Night, and “Reading Gaol.” I don’t think I could have expressed then in so many words what I found particularly awful about Wilde’s two years’ hard labor, and how the relentless meter of the poem represents to me how jail stripped the life out of Wilde. In 10th grade, I certainly didn’t know that there is a school of thought which understands Wilde as a watershed figure in gay literary history; I don’t think I knew that the trial of Oscar Wilde brought homosexuality—or something like it—into the public consciousness. If I did know it then, I certainly wouldn’t have thought it as important or as relevant as I do now. But three years ago (it seems like a lifetime ago, now), I figured (though I probably wouldn’t have said it in this way, either) that the three dozen cucumber sandwiches I made for our staging of Importance of Being Earnest were some sort of Edenic precursor to the fallen world of post-trial Reading Gaol.

I know, I know, there are dangers in telling the Wilde story this way. And I’d be the first person to argue that things are always more complex than the Wilde-is-a-martyr-for-the-gay-cause reading. I guess you could even say that, as I have learned more and more about gay culture and the history of gay culture and the history of the history of gay culture, I have proceeded from not understanding Wilde at all to memorizing a famous story to being able to complicate that famous story. That’s something, I think, to be proud of; in this world we have so little opportunity to learn queer literature and queer history that it’s an accomplishment to have any understanding of the genre even at the most basic level. Now, however, I’m reading Richard Ellman’s landmark biography of Wilde, and finding it tempting to fall back upon that romanticized narrative of decline and fall. Ellman makes it easy, I think (though maybe I just know the old story too well by now, and am superimposing it upon Ellman’s rendering); his Bosie captures the giant Oscar and enthralls him and pulls him down; the prose, moreover, is as ebullient in the chapters telling of Wilde’s travels in America as it is dull during the prison sentence. It’s really quite an incredible piece of scholarship, all the same; I can see why it has been so successful. (Incidentally, I wonder why the person who created the Wikipedia entry on Ellman copy-pasted only the first half of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry. Seems an odd choice.) But I can see how the 1997 Wilde film (with Stephen Fry, who must have gotten such a kick out of getting to play Wilde) was based so heavily on Ellman’s work—both portray unquestionably gay Wildes. This is what, I suppose, I’m finding unexpected, coming back to Wilde after months or even years of reading about gay stuff and drumming into my head that it’s dangerous to impose modern notions of sexual orientation upon historical figures. Ellman’s portrait of Wilde is all aestheticism, but also all rentboys and also all petulant Oscar-Bosie quarrels. The interesting thing that is actually quite surprising me is that if Ellman is to be believed, this “aesthetic” version of homosexuality wasn’t all Platonic pederasty; in fact, the London life which eventually resulted in Wilde’s downfall as he became blackmailable by Queensberry and others seems to me to adhere pretty damn closely to modern patterns of sexual and romantic behavior, casual sex interspersed with long-term relationships, Robbie Ross and rentboys and back and forth to Bosie (yes, the alliteration was intentional).

Ellman devotes a great section to the famous meeting between Wilde and Whitman in the course of Wilde’s grand tour of America. Wilde paid a visit to Camden (I said to my friend a little while ago, “Could you imagine Oscar Wilde paying a visit to Camden today?), where Whitman was living with his brother and sister-in-law; the two men drank elderberry wine and uttered many now-famous lines, Wilde questioning Whitman as to his views on all manner of poetics and aesthetics. Ellman concludes the passage about Whitman with these lines:

Wilde would later tell George Ives, a proselytizer for sexual deviation in the nineties, that Whitman had made no effort to conceal his homosexuality from him, as he would do with John Addington Symonds. ‘The kiss of Walt Whitman,’ Wilde said, ‘is still on my lips.’ He would expand upon this theme a little later when signing John Boyle O’Reilly’s autograph book in Boston. Under an inscription by Whitman, Wilde wrote of him, ‘The spirit who living blamelessly but dared to kiss the smitten mouth of his own century.’

See, I’ll confess I did something of a double-take on reading the word “homosexuality” there. I have spent a reasonable amout of time in my life advancing my belief that it’s erroneous to call Whitman a gay or even a homosexual poet, since I’m not persuaded that’s how Whitman would have understood his own sexuality, nor how his poetry suggests that he understood it. I’m of the opinion that it’s unwise to attribute labels to people posthumously that they wouldn’t have used or understood themselves, and moreover I think it’s important to recognize that Whitman really does extol the virtues of all humanity in his writing. People who read this post will know better than I do, certainly, but I’m disinclined to think that the countless times Whitman writes about the beauty and sexual allure of women are just a front to distract readers from the times he writes about the beauty and sexual allure of men. That seems a bit too contrived, and while apparently I lack the vocabulary to write about this issue properly, it just doesn’t seem right to talk about Whitman in terms of sexual object choice.

But what, I suppose, Ellman’s biography is making me question is whether maybe we can talk about Wilde in terms of sexual object choice. He certainly seems to want to. Is that a product of 1895 (the year of Wilde’s trial) versus 1882 (the year of Wilde’s trip to America)? Is it a product of the 19th century versus the 20th, and of 1987 (the year Ellman’s biography was published) in particular? 1987 seems like a not-unexpected year, zeitgeist-wise, to talk up the homosexuality of famous people. Or is it a reading which we can ever resolve as objectively accurate, whatever the historical context?

I have to confess that this idea that things might not be objective is really quite alarming to me. I’m used to being able to trust things that authors say when I’m not in possession of all the facts, and the idea (as obvious as it may seem) that even different people who have quite a lot of facts could arrive at different interpretations of historical events and characters is sort of earth-shattering. I’m still trying to figure out what that means—and, at the bottom line, whether I should trust what Ellman is saying. He cites an impressive array of sources, to be sure, but can I and should I take that as an indication that it is reasonable to think of Wilde as homosexual in modern sexual-object-choice terms? And then what about Whitman? If Ellman is right about Wilde, is he right about Whitman too? Or can anyone ever be right? What is objectivity, anyway?

Okay, okay, so I’m working myself up into a frenzy, and I know perfectly well that there are no answers to these questions. I also know that to a certain extent it is pointless to reconstruct the lives and motivations and desires of people whose social contexts could not have given us a clear picture of what those might have been (i.e. if we can’t prove homosexuality in Whitman’s case, we can’t rule it out, either). These are things you don’t get answers to, no matter how much more learned in Literary Gay Men Studies you become, no matter how many years of school you have. I suppose all I can really say is that I’ve known Wilde’s writing for years, but that—as with so many other cultural stalwarts I’ve rediscovered more recently—interpretations change so much with knowledge (for example, instead of writing 1,800 words ranting about Wilde and Whitman, I should really be writing 1,800 words analyzing Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass for a paper which has caused me to learn more about Victorian intellectuals than I’d thought possible).

I know, at some level, I should be able to accept the enormity of my new world after the provincialism of high school. I know that, just as I swallow and accept the bizarre-seeming premises on which Kant bases his metaphysics of morals, or just as I skim over the names of Victorian intellectuals with whom I know I’m supposed to be familiar (if only my secondary education hadn’t been a bit thin on Victorian intellectuals) and wait for context to make all clear, I should be able to accept the premise that knowledge and the universe which it touches upon are infinite, and wait for the context to slowly illuminate the ever-widening edges of the sphere of enlightenment. (That may have been a mixed metaphor.) But more often than not I find myself standing back, agape, dumbstruck, unable to believe how far the mental journey from high school has taken me, back from that first reading of “Reading Gaol” a lifetime ago.

One thought on “On Whitman and Wilde, Homosexuality and History… and some Meta Questions as well

  1. I enjoyed reading your essay(?), both subject matter and style.I became aware of Wilde because of The Smiths. When I was half way though Picture of Dorian Gray a professor informed of the trial. Reading about his time in prison left quite an impression. Normally, I do not memorize words but several epigrams of Wilde have stuck with me, and the lines from Reading Gaol that are his epitaph. I am hoping to right a one-act of the encounter between the two.

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