The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (a particular interest of mine back when I was a teenage sexologist) was always delighted to lay claim to a rather queer familial lineage: he’d slept with his much-adored mostly-straight friend Neal Cassady, who had slept with a man named Gavin Arthur (a grandson of the U.S. President Chester Arthur—J.N. Katz has more about him in Love Stories), who had slept—or, rather, cuddled—with the great and good Gray Poet, Walt Whitman himself. Ginsberg, who saw himself as a poetic heir to Whitman, also saw himself as connected to his idol through the exchange of bodily fluids down the generations. He did the thing that many queer people have done and do, creating a family tree for himself despite the impossibility, in his era, of having a family of his own. And he also thereby connected sexuality and literature, intertwining sexual exchange with a canon of sexual free expression (both men’s vision was comprehensive enough to transcend the narrow band of “homosexual” or “gay,” if such an identity had even existed in Whitman’s time as it did in Ginsberg’s).
I’ve been fascinated for a long time by that story. I love the idea of making sense of yourself and your life and work by crafting a longue-durée narrative into which you can be seamlessly woven. It makes up for not being able to fit yourself into the world in your own time. It’s a different way of thinking about past and present, about similarity and difference, and it’s also the work of historical processes and historical scholarship, writ small.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that in my work on Symonds I have come to focus on Symonds’ role in how middle-class Anglo-American gay male culture creates a way to talk about itself and with that discourse a canon: high-cultural and low-cultural points of reference that provide evidence for the new ways of explaining homosexual identity and that self-identified homosexual men are expected to know. Many of the turn-of-the-century figures who anchor the gay male literary canon are connected by Symonds; some trace their own ways of thinking about homosexual identity directly back to his.
For those who did so, Whitman would therefore have assumed great importance. Though Whitman objected strenuously to Symonds’ appropriation of his universal cosmology as a way to talk about a very particular group of people with a very particular set of desires, he was arguably the biggest influence in Symonds’ eventual self-identification as an Urning, invert, and homosexual. Symonds wrote a lot about Whitman, in all literary forms: from private letters to his closest confidantes, to kind of terrible poetry inspired by him circulated among the same confidantes, to pamphlets circulated to small groups of men sympathetic to dangerous discussions about theories of sexuality, to popular reviews and criticism in the mainstream Victorian press—including a short book called Walt Whitman: A Study—in which the homoerotic subtext to Symonds’ rhapsodizing went unnoticed by all but a few readers. Whitman anchored not only Symonds’ sexual identity, but his sense of himself as a writer and as a human being, and his ideas about where the world was headed. Like Ginsberg, when Symonds speaks about Whitman it’s in mystical, mythological terms: Whitman is a prophet of a new world order, the bearer of a promise that there can be a world where the “love of comrades” is possible.
Today, I spent eight hours in a cluttered, windowless reading room air-conditioned to 18 degrees Celsius in the basement of the University of Bristol Arts and Sciences Library. Towards the end of the afternoon, I submitted a call slip for DM 1254/A400e, an entry listed in the finding aid as “Notes on Leaves of Grass in Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass 1884.” When the archivist reappeared five minutes later with a richly leather-bound volume bearing Symonds’ recognizable bookplate, my stomach flip-flopped, and I could barely keep my voice steady as I cheerily told the archivist I was on the lookout for marginalia. She wasn’t optimistic: “I think there’s a few underlinings.” In the first several pages—”Overtures,” “Starting from Paumanok”—she was right. But as I made my way through “Song of Myself,” the underlining got more frequent, and more excited and involved: there were double and triple outlines, crosses in the margins, all kinds of different ways of registering emotional response to text through pencil markings. And then, well—skipping over the ten missing pages of “Children of Adam” (a frequent target of censorship in the period because of its man-and-woman sexual explicitness)—I came to Calamus. And I caught my breath. And my stomach flip-flopped again. Because there, scribbled all over the pages, covering the margins and the gaps between the stanzas, was Symonds’ so-familiar hand. Not saying anything new, or brilliant, or controversial, or anything that conceptually is absent from his copious writing on Whitman, but words that show him reading the text: summarizing, marking things he doesn’t understand, keeping track of the narrative that the sequence of poems subtly develops, and, importantly, demonstrating evidence of his rather radical reinterpretation of Calamus, and how in his hands the poems took on a life of their own, and came to mean homosexuality in a way they never did in Whitman’s. If I hadn’t been in the reading room—and if I hadn’t been holding an incredibly valuable (and to me priceless) book, I would have cried tears of joy.
I do not live the kind of life that would enable me to craft the kind of sex-partnered lineage Ginsberg did, nor do I have any desire to do so. I am not a Beat poet—I am a historian. I am not a gay man—I try, as faithfully as I can, to tell their culture’s stories. Today I held a book that Symonds not only owned, but wrote in, invested with all the emotional intensity that an incredibly emotionally intense man could muster. If I can say this without doing anything to denigrate or discard those who prefer a lineage of physical contact, I think I am quite happy to be someone who knows the people around which I have built my intellectual world through a lens of intellectual history, in which marginalia have all the cathartic power of an orgasm.
We all make our own cultural compasses. I am profoundly grateful for mine.
Full of life, now, compact, visible,
I, forty years old the Eighty-third Year of The States,
To one a century hence, or any number of centuries hence,
To you, yet unborn, these, seeking you.
When you read these, I, that was visible, am become invisible;
Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me;
Fancying how happy you were, if I could be with you, and become your comrade;
Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)