Walt Whitman craves intimacy. This thought has occurred to me sporadically throughout the semester, but the readings for this week, especially the letters and Ellen Calder’s piece, struck me over and over again with Whitman’s desire for intimacy with any and every one. Now I think it’s safe to say that I know Walt Whitman to a certain extent; here’s what I know for sure:
1.) He is an optimist. I discussed this in my last post and now it has been officially confirmed by Ellen Calder (*pats self on back*).
2.) He desires and is driven by intimacy.
3.) He is, without a doubt, gay. Gay as the day is long.
Of all the other unencumbered facets of the Good Grey Poet’s being, I can only offer inklings and educated guesses, but of these three things I am positive. Since Whitman’s optimism is old news, I will delve into my discovery of the latter two of these certainties.
In his letters, no matter the recipient, Whitman will often begin with some statement like, “it is a comfort to write home, even if I have nothing in particular to say” (42), or, “I have nothing of consequence to write” (107), and then launch into multiple pages of recounting his current conditions and most recent experiences. Long-winded details are to be expected in letters to his immediate family, but his letters to his sister-in-law, Martha, his friend, Hugo Fritsch, and even to his contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, express the same level of intimacy as those to his own mother. His letters, both in their content and quantity, express his eagerness for people to know him; his opening lines of, “oh I don’t have much to talk about BUT,” are a classic sign of someone who has a whole lot to say and desires the full attention and participation of the receiver (we all have a friend who does this). Whitman is not self-centered, however, he puts all this information out in hopes of receiving the same amount back. He impatiently urges his recipients to respond; even to Emerson, some one he’s not all that close with, he says, “answer me by the next mail, for I am waiting here like a ship for the welcome breath of wind” (41). Calder speaks often of the long conversations that would occur in the presence of Whitman, which further convinced me of Whitman as both a hungry contributor and consumer of information. Calder easily shares intimate details of Whitman– specific lines of poetry he would recite, certain words he liked, little sayings of his, etc.– and though we cannot know for certain, I am sure than Whitman could have just as easily shared intimate details about Ellen Calder. Intimacy is in the details, and Whitman is fueled by details. As a nurse, he picked up on preferences of certain soldiers; Morris shares how Whitman discovered that patients with a fever enjoyed the scent of lemons, and would carry around an array of “goodies” to fulfill each unique need. Whitman longs to connect with anyone who will act as recipient, be it a reader he knows personally, a reader he has never met (perhaps one in the year 2009, sitting at her laptop), a close friend, a wounded soldier, or Tom Sawyer, to whom Whitman wants to give something extra special.
No matter what Reynolds’ might claim in “Calamus’ Love,” Walt Whitman was a homosexual. Period. Reading his letters to Tom Sawyer, you would have to be utterly dense to not recognize that Whitman was infatuated, if not in love, with this soldier: “I hope we shall yet meet, as I say, if you feel as I do about it– and if [it] is destined that we shall not, you have my love none the less, whatever should keep you from me, no matter how many years” (57). As Tom continues ignoring Whitman, Whitman takes on a tone of love-sick desperation: “Do you wish to shake me off? That I cannot believe, for I have the same love for you that I exprest in my letters last spring & I am confident you have the same for me” (93). Really, Walt, you think so? Poor guy. What truly set me over the edge were Whitman’s comments about marriage to Ellen Calder. He expresses that marriage is not for him, that he does not envy a man’s wife but envies his children. In this moment, I pitied Whitman. Whitman does not desire a wife, because he cannot intimately connect with women–any woman– but he does crave a family. Of course, having two Dads was not exactly an option in 1865, so here sits Whitman fawning over Tom Sawyer and yearning for a genuine partnership and family that he knows he will never have. It’s no wonder that Whitman’s favorite lines to recite in Ellen Calder’s home were about the agony of unrequited love. Despite all his attempts at intimacy, Whitman will never know in his lifetime the fullest, greatest form of intimacy that he so desperately longs for. What results is a hopeless grasping for connection to all those around him, both inspiring and depressing.