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Rainbow Whitman!

So this week I’m abandoning the prompt altogether, I’m rebellious like that. Instead I’m going to write about something that has been bothering me for a while now and that has been particularly present due to another paper I’m writing. Specifically I’m hoping to address the question “is Whitman a gay icon?’

I’m currently writing a paper for another class on “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather. If you haven’t read it (look at me explaining things to English majors) the very brief summary is that it’s about a gay kid, like I said, brief. So in my research obviously a lot of the articles are discussing things about gay culture in the 1800’s and whether Cather was attempting to gloss over her own sexuality by writing about men.

One of the articles, in discussing the ways in which homosexuality was broached in writing, mentioned Whitman as being “sufficiently frank” about his sexuality. It then went on to say that “homosexuals saw exciting possibilities in Whitman’s pioneering effort.” The article accredited Whitman with being the father of  catamite poetry, the poetry of man on man love. The mention of it was short, and merely used to contrast Cather’s secretiveness about her own sexuality but it struck a chord with me.

Several times Whitman has been mentioned as a gay icon, a champion of the homosexual community, for example in the article I posted earlier about the statue in Russia, there was mention of Whitman representing the homosexual community. I wonder, if Whitman was alive today if he would appreciate being used as a representative for the community.

I spend a fair amount of time talking to my friends about how Whitman was gay and then reading them bits of Calamus or Children of Adam while giggling profusely, but I tend to garner amusement from it on a personal level, like Walt and I are sharing a private in-joke. I’ve never used him as an example to cite famous gay artists or to name well known gay people, it just hasn’t occurred to me to think of him in that way.

However, I had to start wondering why. There are plenty of other actors, artists, etc. who I consider gay icons even though they don’t necessarily consider themselves that way, so why is Whitman, the man who wrote some of the most homoerotic poetry of the 1800’s, not a gay icon in my mind.

Part of the reason, I think, is because Whitman never really thought of male/male love as different from male/female love. In all his thoughts about love it was always as a bonding force, it was never something which seperated people out as couples, or singled them out as those with love and those without, it was always a matter of the glue which held the nation together. He loved the nation just as much as he loved Peter Doyle. He loved the soldiers, not only because they were in need of his care, but because they were members of the brotherhood of his country.

Whitman obviously had personal feelings for men, just reading his letter to Peter Doyle and looking at their “wedding photo” was enough to cement that in my mind (not that I doubted), but his poetry seems to make it clear that love, for him, transcended anything as mundane as gender and became a concept, the concept that would unite a nation.

In this way I think Whitman could never be a gay icon, because he didn’t ever consider his relations as a matter of two men, but as a union between body and spirit. This past may be a little bit speculative fiction but that’s never stopped me talking about Walt before.

~ by bcbottle on November 1, 2009.


4 Responses to “Rainbow Whitman!”

  1. Brendon, first of all, I think this is a lovely post (and clever title!) and aligns with the way I have been considering Whitman throughout the semester. I have not viewed Whitman as a gay icon (though I completely agree with the fact that his intimate relationships with men are undeniable) mostly because I find that to be limiting for him. Many scholars get hung up on the idea of his work, particularly Calamus, as revolutionarily homoerotic. Though this may be true, Whitman critics spend too much of their days debating over how much of that he intended, what level of sexual intimacy he had with young soldiers, how many lovers he had, and so on and so forth. Despite the evidence of Whitman’s homosexuality, I agree that his intent was rather to assimilate love into all of the nation, the nation built of men and women. What you say about love for Whitman being a union of body and spirit is exactly right and speaks to the way he went about addressing America. Calling him a gay icon is limiting because it would almost make him a cause-man, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though I think that, as you said, he viewed love in so much of a different way that it is impossible to think of him as such.

  2. Good post, Mrs. Whitman. In fact, when gay British writer, theorist of “sexual inversion,” and WW biographer John Addington Symonds tried to get Whitman to talk about his sexuality in order to establish him as such an icon, he declined to be open about it. He told Symonds he had fathered six children, which sent biographers scrambling for clues for some time. I like your idea that it is the love and intimacy, regardless of sex/gender, that is essential for W.

  3. I find it interesting that he was viewed as such, when no one even knows for sure that he was or he wasn’t…so what that he had incredible, obsessive-like attachments to other men, like Lincoln…should that all of a sudden mean that he’s homosexual?! I’m not sure and there is not a person that will ever know the truth. Whitman’s orientation will forever be a question…

  4. Pieruccm, I have to disagree with you. His relationship to Lincoln, a respectful, intellectual love, is not really the issue, as much as his well-documented relationship with Peter Doyle (including their letters and their choice to have a photo taken together in the traditional marriage pose), his involvement in NYC groups that were actively discussing love between men, the obvious homoeroticism of his poems, etc. Will we ever have proof that Whitman had a consummated relationship with a man? Unlikely. But you really have to discount the evidence to overlook his love and desire for men.

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