QOTD (2010-05-15), “Whitman Is Not a Gay Poet” Edition

From Michael Robertson, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples:

Whitman was not suggesting that all men were repressing a supposedly shameful tendency; rather, he was celebrating the seeds of a politically powerful democratic affection that existed within every person and that only needed encouragement to blossom. Whitman’s poems of adhesiveness were intended not to set a few men apart but to bring all Americans together.

It is this inclusiveness that has made arguments about Whitman’s sexuality so intense. When Oscar Wilde said, years after his visit to the United States, that the kiss of Walt Whitman was still on his lips, he was claiming an artistic consecration, a mark of special favor. Symonds and Carpenter used Whitman to defend the rights of a persecuted minority, to suggest that same-sex passion was natural and innate in a certain portion of the population. But Walt Whitman refused to consider himself as special or different. He was not a minority but a kosmos. In depicting himself he was depicting you, any reader, every reader—the erms of adhesive love are in all people. It is a message that remains more radical and unsettling than any that Symonds, Carpenter, or Wilde—for all their transgressive courage—ever offered.

Ahistorical determination to claim Whitman for the cause of homosexuality usually tends to ignore the fairly obvious contextual point that no one aside from a few German sexologists and their British acolytes was really developing a framework in which to understand men’s sexual attraction to men (in contrast to a more romantic “manly love of comrades”). It goes without saying that American contemporaries of Whitman’s would not have read the “Calamus” poems as homosexual or even precisely homoerotic, simply because of the cultural context in which they all existed; this is in part why Whitman so enthusiastically rebuffed Symonds’ and Carpenter’s attempts to read “Calamus” love as “Uranian.” Homoerotic relationships and men who engaged in them as a distinct social category did not exist for Whitman or in his America. As Robertson points out earlier in this chapter, an allusion to (female) prostitution elsewhere in Whitman’s oeuvre generated the cultural concern—and censorship&mdash that the “Calamus” poems never did.

But I think it is worth noting that in this passage, Robertson seems to be suggesting that even if a cultural construction of homosexuality had existed in Whitman’s America, he wouldn’t have considered himself part of it. Sexual orientation is ever a question of self-identification, and Whitman would neither have understood himself to be writing on gay themes nor would have understood himself to be gay. Indeed, identity politics and the ensuing cultural divisiveness were exactly what concerned Whitman: remember that so much of his poetry comes directly out of the Civil War; remember the degree of patriotic concern with which he mourned the death of Lincoln and worried about what it would mean to the Union. I don’t understand the amative-adhesive dialectic nearly as well as I should, and it is possible that it has more in common with Carpenter’s gender-transgressive utopian vision than we might expect. But recent attempts to call upon Whitman in the name of an identity politics do a disservice to the poet’s own, I believe more complex, cosmology.

At the entrance to the Dupont Circle Metro station in Washington, DC, there is a Whitman quote inscribed into the stone: it reads, “Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,/Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;/The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,/I sit by the restless all dark night – some are so young;/Some suffer so much – I recall the experience sweet and sad…” So, I assume, was Whitman’s experience as a Civil War nurse adopted for the cause of an AIDS memorial, and so, once again, was Whitman’s cultural status as the bard of homoeroticism brought to bear on this particular memory of a virus which claimed a generation of gay men. I like, however, to think that Whitman—despite his own rejection of the Uranian association, and despite the ahistoricity of labelling him with an identity which did not exist in his cultural context—would not have hesitated to minister to dying AIDS patients in the virus’s first couple decades, nor as it continues to ravage indiscriminately today. At risk of lapsing into my own particular brand of ahistoricity, I can only believe that Whitman would treat the young gay man of the 1980s, wasting away in a hospital bed before his time, with the same reverence which he did the young soldier of the 1860s dying a not-entirely-different, equally-undeserved death. Adhesive and amative love, after all, are not needlessly squeamish about whom they touch.

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