“Whitman demonstrates part of his Americanness by placing cocksucking at the center of Leaves of Grass.” Gay liberationist Charles Shively—not one to mince words—wrote this in Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman’s Working Class Camerados (1987), his revelatory, if sometimes risible, account of the poet’s queer egalitarianism. Whether cocksucking is central to Whitman’s book, or even uniquely American, is debatable; more pertinent is the implied connection between Whitman’s homosexuality and his patriotic fervor.
That connection has been a bitter pill for some readers. Whitman’s contemporaries condemned what they saw as the unwholesome carnality of his work. Reviewing the original 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, a critic at the New York Herald objected to Whitman’s “disgusting Priapism.” A review that same year in the New York Criterion rebuked the book as “a mass of stupid filth.” More colorfully, a New York Times critic accused Whitman of rooting “like a pig among a rotten garbage of licentious thoughts.” Even Emily Dickinson—herself no stranger to radical self-expression—weighed in, confiding in an 1862 letter to Thomas Higginson that she hadn’t read Leaves of Grass but had heard Whitman was “disgraceful.” Decades later, Willa Cather referred to Whitman as “that dirty old man.”
Likewise, several Whitman biographers have downplayed or censored the poet’s sexuality. Paul Zweig argued that “few poets have written as erotically as Whitman, while having so little to say about sex.” Jerome Loving suggested that Whitman was a “latent homosexual” who didn’t act on his desires. David Reynolds dismissed gay readings of Whitman and even floated the idea that the poet’s obsessively phallocentric verse reads like that of a womanizer. John Hollander omitted Whitman’s queerness—aside from a mannered reference to the poetry’s “homoerotic realm”—from his introduction to the Library of America’s 1992 edition of Leaves of Grass. Gary Schmidgall’s Walt Whitman: A Gay Life (1997), from which the aforementioned inventory is taken, stands as a lonely but monumental rebuttal to decades of neutered criticism.
For much of the twentieth century, there was a scholarly tradition of sidelining or airbrushing Whitman’s queerness, of treating it as trivia, or as a predilection secondary to his panoramic songs of democracy and the body at large. This was partly the result of scholars and biographers hesitant to label Whitman without hard evidence; when it comes to his sex life, Whitman’s poems and letters necessarily traffic in innuendo and allusion. But the reluctance was also skittishness around the idea of the country’s greatest poet—“the American bard,” as Harold Bloom calls him—being gay. And not only gay, but gay in the most physical, promiscuous, and subversive sense.
In counterpoint to the general prudishness around Whitman’s sexuality, the queer community, and gay men in particular, embraced Whitman as their poet laureate. Oscar Wilde, John Addington Symonds, Algernon Swinburne, and Edward Carpenter were early disciples. Decades later, Allen Ginsberg and other Beats looked to Whitman as a touchstone for their exuberant bohemianism. In Boston, the now-defunct gay bookstore Calamus was named in homage to Whitman’s queer magnum opus, first published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. That shop was owned by John Mitzel, a member of the queer anarchist collective that published Fag Rag, a gay liberation newspaper that ran from 1971 to 1987, and whose intersectional mix of free sex and politics was Whitmanic in spirit.
Shively, the cofounder and creative impresario of Fag Rag, was one of the most strident excavators of Whitman’s queerness. In Calamus Lovers and Drum Beats: Walt Whitman’s Civil War Boy Lovers (1989), he unearthed private letters and notebook entries that revealed a side of the poet many scholars were keen to muffle or explain away. In Shively’s account, Whitman celebrates cruising and rough trade; prostitution and polyamory; and, perhaps most risqué for modern readers, he is a connoisseur of young male beauty. In later gay parlance, Whitman is a chickenhawk—his paeans to teenage boys and young men are inextricable from his exaltation of democracy and the spiritual lure of the open road. For this version of Whitman, cruising is democratic. Queerness is utopia. Sex is good citizenship.
As compelling as Shively’s source material was, he sometimes undermined his credibility with dubious speculations, sex-crazed analyses of Whitman’s work, and quasi-pornographic flights of fancy. Barely ten pages into Calamus Lovers, he claims that Whitman had incestuous relations with his brothers, noting that “in pre-industrial Long Island and Brooklyn . . . physical contact was close and easy.” Elsewhere, he describes how Whitman and a young conquest, Fred Vaughan, swam nude in the East River: “[Vaughan] loved to throw water in the face of Walt Whitman (who had a hairy chest, big body, and pendant cock and balls) and then have the man admonish him by dunking him under the water and when he reached for the man’s cock, pulling him too under water.” There’s no factual basis for this scene; one gets the impression Shively was simply titillated by imagining a nude teen boy frolicking with a much older man. And this titillation extends into how Shively interprets Whitman’s imagery: lilacs connote “pendant cocks and balls,” while melons “suggest big, sweaty balls.”
Whatever his scholarly derelictions, Shively at least documented how essential young male companionship—and eroticism—was to Whitman. On the poet’s bicentennial, we are likely to see plenty of encomiums to Whitman’s political idealism and democratic cheerleading, and perhaps gauzy reclamations of Whitman as a queer ancestor. But identifying Whitman straightforwardly as a gay man in the way we now understand is fraught, not least of all because his sexual interests were less in adult men than in adolescents. To appreciate who Whitman was—and what his transgressive, candid, elusive, contradictory work is all about—we have to reinterpret the poet in ways that have made generations of critical gatekeepers uncomfortable.
Whitman’s “life was one long continuous string of bar, street, streetcar, back road and casual encounters with young men,” Shively wrote. Whitman himself was still a young man when he began teaching on Long Island in 1836. According to Shively, Whitman became “too fond” of a male student and was publicly reprimanded by the town’s Presbyterian minister. (More lively secondhand accounts say the poet was tarred and feathered, then run out of town.) A few years later, Whitman published a short story, “The Child’s Champion,” in which he marvels at a “fresh” thirteen-year-old boy:
O, it is passing wondrous, how in the hurried walks of life and business, we meet with young beings, strangers, who seem to touch the fountains of our love, and draw forth their swelling waters. The wish to love and to be loved, which the forms of custom, and the engrossing anxiety for gain, so generally smother, will sometimes burst forth in spite of all obstacles; and, kindled by one, who, till the hour was unknown to us, will burn with a lovely and pure brightness.
You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to make short work of the language here: fountains of our love, swelling waters, burst forth. Whatever its sexual aura, the paragraph is a kind of credo for Whitman’s intergenerational erotics. “All of [his] sexual partners, whether casual pick-ups or intimate lovers, were younger than he was and working-class,” Shively notes. The most significant were the aforementioned Vaughan, who lived with Whitman while the poet finished the “Calamus” poems; Peter Doyle, the young Irish streetcar conductor who was arguably the great love of Whitman’s life; Harry Stafford, a teenage errand boy with whom Whitman had a stormy relationship; and Bill Duckett, a teenager who lived with the sexagenarian Whitman a few years and chauffeured him around Camden, New Jersey.
Whitman’s relationship with each was marked by varying degrees of melodrama and subterfuge. The eighteen-year-old Stafford proved especially combustible for the then fifty-seven-year-old poet. The two traveled together—Whitman first referred to Stafford as his adopted son, later as his nephew—and shared the same bed. In 1876 Whitman gave Stafford a ring, which he serially revoked and returned as the couple argued and reconciled. Shively suggests the strife may have been the result of Whitman’s affair with a young farmhand named Edward Cattell.
“Young fellows seem rather bowled over by me . . . I fool ’em for a time, when they’re in their teens, but when they grow up they can no longer be deceived,” Whitman told Horace Traubel, his amanuensis and the author of a nine-volume biography of the poet’s final years. (Traubel was fifteen when he met Whitman in 1873.) Indeed, Whitman’s life was unusually crowded with young men—train conductors, sailors, day laborers, soldiers—and in his poems, young men often furnish the emotional charge of his imagined utopias. “Calamus” 26 (poems in the series were originally numbered) begins:
We two boys together clinging,One the other never leaving,Up and down the roads going—North and South excursions making,Power enjoying—elbows stretching—fingers clutching,Armed and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,No law less than ourselves owning. . . .
The image of Whitman and his boys tramping down the road, footloose and uninhibited, recurs throughout Leaves of Grass. “Calamus” 10 recalls the poet’s happiest days as wandering among fields and hills hand in hand with a male friend, “apart from other men.” In “Calamus” 1, the poet finds himself in a secluded place where he can “respond as I would not dare elsewhere,” “resolved to sing no songs to-day but those of manly attachment.”
At other times, Whitman is content to bask in a boy’s silent camaraderie. In “Calamus” 29, the poet and his young conquest commune in the corner of a raucous bar:
A long while, amid the noises of coming and going—of drinking and oath and smutty jest,There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps not a word.
The bar may be Pfaff’s, the legendary Greenwich Village dive that Schmidgall describes as a “boy bar.” In 1875 Whitman’s memory had faded somewhat, but he still recalled with pleasure “the faces & voices of the boys” at Pfaff’s. It was the kind of place where he could pick up the butch hustlers he favored, as described in “Enfans d’Adam” 8:
I take for my love some prostitute—I pick out some low person for my dearest friend,He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate—he shall be one condemned by others for deeds done;I will play a part no longer—Why should I exile myself from my companions?O you shunned persons! I at least do not shun you,I come forthwith in your midst—I will be your poet,I will be more to you than to any of the rest.
Whitman’s eye was voracious and roving—the first great queer gaze in American poetry. (The scholar Robert K. Martin went further: “Prior to Whitman there were homosexual acts but no homosexuals.”) Whitman saw beautiful boys everywhere and preserved their likenesses in his notebooks, like pressed flowers. Shively speculates that some of the entries in Whitman’s notebooks and daybooks were actually coded sex diaries. To wit:
Dec 28  — Saturday night Mike Ellis — wandering at the cor of Lexington av. & 32d st. — took him home to 150 37th street, — 4th story back room — bitter cold night
Wm Culver, boy in bath, aged 18 (gone to California ’56).
Dan’l Spencer . . . somewhat feminine — 5TH av (44) (May 29th) — told me he had never been in a fight and did not drink at all . . . slept with me Sept 3d
Wm Miller 8th st (has powder slightly in his face.)
David Wilson — night of Oct. 11, ’62, walking up from Middagh — slept with me . . . is about 19
October 9, 1863, Jerry Taylor, (NJ.) of 2d dist reg’t slept with me last night weather soft, cool enough, warm enough, heavenly.
Hugh Harrop boy 17 fresh Irish wool sorter
Wm Clayton boy 13 or 14 on the cars nights — (gets out at Stevens & 2d) April ’81
Robt Wolf, boy of 10 or 12 rough at the ferry lives cor 4th & Market
Clement — — boy Stevens st cars — night
Whitman’s poems render these young male beauties in a bombastic but no less suggestive style. “Enfans d’Adam” 3 (later reworked as “I Sing the Body Electric”) reads like a rhapsodic anatomy lesson:
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,Ribs, belly, back-bone, joints of the back-bone,Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root,Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above
The poem includes the oft-quoted line “if any thing is sacred, the human body is sacred,” which Whitman’s heterosexual partisans point to as evidence of the poet’s virtuousness, as if one can’t be preoccupied by both the genitals and the soul. In fairness, Whitman encouraged this interpretation; he once described Leaves of Grass as “essentially a woman’s book.” And in 1890, when the English poet and critic John Addington Symonds (also queer) asked Whitman about homoerotic themes, the latter concocted a ridiculous yarn about having fathered six illegitimate children. As Schmidgall notes, though, Whitman never parses female bodies in his notebooks, and in all the many dozens of photographs of Whitman, in only one does a woman appear—with her face scratched out.
In “Spontaneous Me,” Whitman confides that his poems are “of the privacy of the night, and of men like me.” As Shively insinuates, that kind of man is what today might be called a pedophile. It is a sordid term—and anachronistic given that Whitman’s life predated the invention of childhood as we understand it. The age of consent during most of Whitman’s life was ten, by which time children were typically already working, and during Whitman’s early middle age, many of the nation’s male teenagers were embroiled in the Civil War and its collateral emergencies. But whatever the label, it is almost certainly a fact that Whitman had erotic relations with boys who possessed profound emotional and aesthetic significance to him. Whitman’s world was “not even a man’s world but a boy’s . . . the ‘singularities’ of his life and of his greatest poetry were . . . evoked by boys and boy love,” Schmidgall writes.
If more than a century of scholarship has grudgingly accommodated Whitman’s queerness, the reality of his “boy love” poses a complex challenge to those who have sought to enshrine him as a beloved LGBT ancestor. It would be dishonest, though, to argue that we haven’t always known this about Whitman. He was a proto-confessional poet, an exhibitionist whose taboo desires were itemized openly in his poetry, and many over the years took note. In 1913 Guillaume Apollinaire wrote this account of Whitman’s funeral, which took place in Camden two decades earlier: “Among the attendees were ‘former mistresses and cameradoes (he used this word which he thought was Spanish to designate the young men he loved in his old age, and he did not conceal his taste for boy love).’” Apollinaire added, “Pederasts came in crowds.” As Schmidgall notes, this reminiscence was published in a French newspaper on April Fools’ Day. There was no mob of grieving boy-lovers, but the ruse indicates that in the early twentieth century, the perception of Whitman the pederast was entrenched enough to inspire farcical squibs in an overseas paper.
A generation later, in 1955, Allen Ginsberg, the most Whitmanic modern poet and the inheritor of Whitman’s mantle of public oracle and oversexed national spokesman, wrote “A Supermarket in California,” which contains the line: “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the / refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.” (A public defender of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, a midcentury pederasty defense organization that’s now nearly extinct, Ginsberg surely saw in Whitman a kindred soul.) It’s a sly and innocent enough line that cuts to the heart of how Whitman understood himself and the fate of his literary project. As Whitman lamented in his notebook: “Why is it that a sense comes always crushing on me, as of one happiness I have missed—life, and one friend & companion I have never made?”
Whitman often wrote private, self-flagellating notes to himself about his erotic pursuits, such as one urging a cooler, more dignified response to the young Peter Doyle, here encrypted as “16.4” (the alphabetic positions of Doyle’s initials):
GIVE UP ABSOLUTELY & for good, from the present hour, this FEVERISH, FLUCTUATING, useless UNDIGNIFIED PURSUIT of 16.4—too long, (much too long) persevered in,—so humiliating—It must come at last & had better come now—(It cannot possibly be a success) LET THERE FROM THIS HOUR BE NO FALTERING.
In another entry, he admonished himself:
Depress the adhesive nature
It is an excess—making life a torment
All this diseased, feverish disproportionate adhesiveness
Remember Fred Vaughan
“Adhesive,” a term borrowed from phrenology, was Whitman’s synonym for homosexuality. According to gay studies pioneer William A. Percy, “the term became part of the special vocabulary of the emerging homosexual subculture of the nineteenth century,” which Whitman and his coterie would have understood. Despite Whitman’s private vows to resist temptation, and to be more aloof, he continued to court young men until he died. One of the final photos of Whitman, taken at the Camden docks in 1890, shows the poet with his handsome male nurse Warren Fritzinger. “I like to look at him—he is health to look at: young, strong, lithe,” Whitman told Traubel.
Perhaps Whitman saw himself as a mentor in the ancient Greek tradition, but let’s not refurbish lust into rectitude. Whitman was turned on by boys and young men, and that affinity informed his life and his literary personas. As a vagabond and loafer in New York, Washington, D.C., and Camden, Whitman was an omnivorous cruiser of male beauty. In the 1900 version of “Poem of Joys” he declares: “O the young man as I pass! O I am sick after the friendship of him who, I fear, is indifferent to me. . . . / The memory of only one look—the boy lingering and waiting.” “Calamus” 18 extends this notion of the city as a constant meat market:
. . . as I pass, O Manhattan! your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love,Offering me the response of my own—these repay me,Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.
Whitman’s queer gaze reached its apotheosis during his years as a Civil War nurse. In the hospital wards, he was free to linger and study the bodies of injured soldiers, many of them teenagers. Oscar Cunningham, a soldier from Ohio, “ought to have been taken by a sculptor to model for an emblematical figure of the west, he was such a handsome young giant,” Whitman wrote. Another soldier was singled out for his “splendid neck, frame, & clean complexion.” Reminiscing with Traubel in 1889, Whitman described his wartime nursing as a “religion,” with all the sacrifices and devotion that term entails. When Traubel asked what Whitman got in return, the poet replied, “Well,—I got the boys for one thing: the boys: thousands of them: they were, they are, they will be mine. . . . I got the boys: then I got Leaves of Grass: but for this I would never have had Leaves of Grass.”
This explicit connection between “the boys” and Leaves of Grass mirrors Whitman’s own connection between his queerness and his expressions of national identity. Take away the boys, and you’ve lost Leaves of Grass; take away Whitman’s queerness, and you’ve lost his ideal of the United States as a land of possibility. In “Calamus” 2, Whitman writes:
I will say what I have to say by itself,I will escape from the sham that was proposed to me,I will sound myself and comrades only—I will never again utter a call, only their call,I will raise, with it, immortal reverberations through The States,I will give an example to lovers, to take permanent shape and will through The States
The freedom Whitman intimates is the freedom to live—and to love—however he wishes. And that freedom, he suggests, should be the birthright of every American. In “Calamus” 19, he dismisses the “timid models” of “the majority” and promises to offer his own models “to The Lands.” It is a rehearsal for the queer utopias he imaged again and again, as in “Calamus” 34, in which he dreams of a city made invincible by its “robust love.”
Whitman was prescient in this regard. Schmidgall argues that many of the poet’s passages are “as superbly-in-your-face as tactics of Queer Nation or ACT UP.” Indeed, Whitman’s insistence that love is political, and sex is political, remain as revolutionary today as they were in the 1850s and ’60s (when those ideas weren’t so much revolutionary as almost extraterrestrial). Whitman hazards an even more audacious claim, though, albeit subliminally: he invokes queerness as not only possible, or liberatory, but as a condition that is nearly holy, nearly salvational, and intrinsic to the destiny of his nation.
What we talk about when we talk about Whitman is mostly democracy. In the Age of Trump, Whitman is often pressed into service as an antidote to partisan rancor. Leaves of Grass looms in the national literature as a testament to the country’s better angels—a gospel whose universal fellowship and full-throated optimism is the elusive playbook by which Americans should govern themselves. A recent essay in the Atlantic titled “Walt Whitman’s Guide to a Thriving Democracy” makes exactly this argument: “Whitman’s message is that hate is not compatible with true democracy, spiritual democracy. We may wrangle and fight and squabble and disagree. . . . But affection—friendliness—must always define the relations between us.” (The essay doesn’t mention Whitman’s homosexuality.)
But Whitman’s brand of democracy was inextricable from his queerness, and, by extension, inextricable from his worship of young male beauty. He told Traubel that sex was the “root of roots: the life below the life,” and prophesized that his poems wouldn’t be understood until after he died. One could argue we are still waiting. Whitman’s queerness is fundamental to his vision, but so too is his boy love and his reverence for young bodies. As suspect as some of Shively’s arguments are, at least he treats Whitman as a flesh-and-blood man with fetishes and hormones. More hagiographic accounts paint the poet only as a savant who stumbled out of Brooklyn with the most visionary and oracular texts any American had then written. D. H. Lawrence came closer to understanding Whitman’s project, although even he didn’t see clearly enough the poet’s rapprochement between sex and politics. In Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), however, Lawrence senses the spiritual dimension of Whitman’s wayfaring lust:
It is the American heroic message. The soul is not to pile up defences round herself. She is not to withdraw and seek her heavens inwardly, in mystical ecstasies. She is not to cry to some God beyond, for salvation. She is to go down the open road, as the road opens, into the unknown, keeping company with those whose soul draws them near to her, accompanying nothing save the journey, and the works incident to the journey, in the long life-travel into the unknown, the soul in her subtle sympathies accomplishing herself by the way.
Whitman’s own journey into the unknown became clearer as the years went on. Fame threw a klieg light onto his life and work. After the third edition of Leaves of Grass in 1860, Whitman softened or cut much of his ecstatic gay language. With one eye on posterity, he set about renovating the book into a sober cathedral, and morphed into “an America-boosting master of ceremonies for the national pageant,” in Schmidgall’s words. It is largely that Whitman who is now immortalized as the country’s poet laureate emeritus.
But that later Whitman would not have been possible without his earlier illicit, bawdy, confessional, forthrightly queer yawp. “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” he declares in “Song of Myself,” in a precursor to Queer Nation’s rallying cry “out of the closets and into the streets!” The Whitman who remains most central to whatever has become of the “American experiment” is the poet who cruised the streets of New York, who skinny-dipped with rough trade, who caroused in pick-up bars and lowdown dives, who ministered to the bodies of young soldiers, who loafed with boys in the fields and backwoods of a perpetual frontier. The Whitman who matters most is the one who urged “be not afraid of my body,” and whose deeply queer work is a hymn to love, no matter how unconventional, how unrequited.