Walt Whitman to his fan/secretary/biographer Horace Traubel, December 1888:
The world is so topsy turvy, so afraid to love, so afraid to demonstrate, so good, so respectable, so aloof, that when it sees two people or more people who really, greatly, wholly care for each other and say so—when they see such people they wonder and are incredulous or suspicious or defamatory, just as if they had somehow been the victims of an outrage.”
Note, here, that Whitman does not say “two men,” does not use the language which would signal homoeroticism. I mean not to draw us into another argument about Whitman and homoerotic identity politics, but rather to point out what a glorious spokesperson Whitman is for all kinds of improbable loves, and for the need of a little more love in this world. Whitman knew firsthand the pain of a country divided against itself in a war which laid out on the battlefield all kinds of questions of human dignity; he wrote about these questions, and wrote answers to these questions, and in so doing explained that we are all—whatever we look like, whatever kinds of bodies we have—part of the same people, and the same States, and have so much to give one another.
Perhaps Pete Seeger says it best in his introductions to “The Water is Wide”: “We can sing all sorts of militant songs, but if we can’t bridge that ocean of misunderstanding we are not going to get this world together.”
And how do we do that? I think Whitman, writing in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, has the answer:
There shall from me be a new friendship—It shall be called after my name,
It shall circulate through The States, indifferent of place,
It shall twist and intertwist them through and around each other—Compact shall they be, showing new signs,
Affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom,
Those who love each other shall be invincible,
They shall finally make America completely victorious, in my name.
It shall be customary in all directions, in the houses and streets, to see manly affection,
The departing brother or friend shall salute the remaining brother or friend with a kiss.
There shall be innovations,
There shall be countless linked hands—namely, the Northeasterner’s, and the Northwesterner’s, and the Southwesterner’s, and those of the interior, and all their brood,
These shall be masters of the world under a new power,
They shall laugh to scorn the attacks of all the remainder of the world.
The most dauntless and rude shall touch face to face lightly,
The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers,
The continuance of Equality shall be comrades.
These shall tie and band stronger than hoops of iron,
I, extatic, O partners! O lands! henceforth with the love of lovers tie you.
I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever yet shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands.
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities, with their arms about each other’s necks.
For you these, from me, O Democracy, to serve you, ma femme!
For you! for you, I am trilling these songs.