Exactly What I Wanted: Worshipping Walt

I did not set out to read a book about the disciples of Walt Whitman. The volume was offered to me by my friend Jacob Stone who, in addition to being one of the co-directors of Quaker Center in Ben Lomond CA, is an enthusiastic Whitman scholar. “Read this!” Jacob urged me. Puzzled but polite, I agreed. Why would I want to read a book about the people who gathered at Whitman’s feet? Why not one about Whitman himself?

Because the story is a total hoot, that’s why. From the first publication of Leaves of Grass, people went nuts about Whitman’s poetry. They either railed against it — and him — as being degenerate, immoral, and of no literary consequence, or else they saw him as the prophet of the new age, the herald and forerunner of the dawning of “cosmic consciousness.” Some thought his work would supplant the Bible as the scripture of the future.

Many responded to the frank and joyous celebration of sexuality in Leaves of Grass and Calamus as if it were directed personally and individually at them. Women wrote extravagant love letters to Whitman, not only offering to bear his children but demanding that he bestow that honor upon none other. Anne Gilchrist, a respected British scholar, was so convinced that Whitman was her soul mater that she sold her house, packed up her children, and moved to America for the purpose of consummating the relationship. To her credit, for Whitman was gracious but unforthcoming with any proposal of marriage, she settled into a livelong friendship with him, continuing in her advocacy of his work.

One of the most interesting effects of Whitman’s unabashedly sexual poetry was how it helped to shape and define the fledgling homosexual community. At the time, there was no term for same-sex passion; people used words like “sexual inversion” and “Urnings.”  Men like Oscar Wilde were subject to scorn and suspicion not because they were thought to be gay (in fact, Wilde was presumed to be heterosexual, as satirized as “Bunthorne” in  the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience) but because they were effeminate.

In contrast, Whitman presented in his work and his person an image of masculinity, while directing his passionate lyrics toward men as well as women. A number of male British admirers attempted to pin Whitman down on his exact intention in these controversial verses. While Whitman never admitted to any specifically homosexual content, his work empowered and validated a generation of male lovers.

Worshipping Walt, by Michael Robertson, Princeton University Press, 2008.

Deborah J. Ross began writing professionally in 1982. Her most recent book, Hastur Lord, is now available from DAW.

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Exactly What I Wanted: Worshipping Walt — 2 Comments

  1. Very interesting. I introduce Walt Whitman to my ninth graders as a poet quite shocking for his time (as he was) but also who was wildly popular. I’ll have to look this book up.

  2. Whitman certainly generated an international following. His work was so provocative and so rich that each person could find their own inspirational message. He was widely read not only by those searching for spiritual meaning or sexual liberation, but generations of social reformers, political visionaries, and various flavors of revolutionaries.