Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Walt Whitman: Even Stranger Than You Thought

So I noticed that the author of the Mark Twain biography I read recently, Justin Kaplan, also wrote a biography of Walt Whitman. And I liked Kaplan's style well enough that I decided to read that book too.  What do Twain and Whitman have in common?  They were both banned in Boston.  That's about it.  It says something about American puritanism that sex (Whitman's stock-in-trade) and laughter (Twain was known in his own time as a "humorist") are considered to be equally reprehensible.

I already knew that, when John Addington Symonds (about whom I blogged a couple months ago) pressured Whitman to declare he was gay, Whitman not only denied it but boasted about his illegitimate children as proof of his heterosexuality.  I was, perhaps, even more astonished to discover from Kaplan's book that these children may never have existed.

Walt Whitman wrote poems about sexuality and the body that were outrageous at the time, and still shocking today.  But he also fiercely protected his privacy, burning most of his letters and papers before he died.  We know a few of the people he was close to, but very little about their actual relationships; nor do we know which relationships were sexual and which were not.  He never married and never lived very long with anyone outside of his family.

Whitman's family was a little unusual.  As Kaplan says, "Of the eight Whitman children who survived infancy one was a mental defective and three were psychic disasters; three were normal . . ." and one was Walt Whitman.  In later years his brother (one of the normal ones) said that none of them had ever known what to make of Walt.  They apparently didn't read his poems.  Nonetheless, the people Whitman was closest to were his mother and his favorite brother, Jeff.

As a young man, for reasons that are not clear to me, Whitman began to think of himself as a surrogate father to his younger siblings.  (Their father was alive and living with the family.)  In 1844, when he was twenty-five, he published an essay called "My Boys and Girls," describing six of his siblings.  (He left out his older brother, whom he seems to have disliked, and his retarded brother, but included a mention of one who died in infancy.)  The first sentence of this essay is "Though a bachelor, I have several boys and girls that I consider my own."  Kaplan notes that he echoed this sentence when he wrote to Symonds in 1890, "Tho' always unmarried I have had six children," but he doesn't explicitly make the connection between the six siblings and the six children.  As I said, we have no other information about these alleged children:  he never named them or their mothers, and no one has ever come forward claiming to be Whitman's child.

Women who had read Leaves of Grass wrote love letters to Whitman, in some cases offering to have his children.   He does not appear to have taken any of them up on their offers.  I haven't read all of Leaves of Grass myself (it's a bit overwhelming) but it seems clear to me that his affections for women were not sexual, and that he lingers on descriptions of men's bodies and "the love of comrades."

At the age of twelve, in 1831, Whitman began working for a Long Island newspaper, the Patriot.  He spent much of his life involved in journalism and politics.  At that time the two political parties in America were the Democrats and the Whigs, and the issue of slavery was dividing the country.  Whitman's attitude towards slavery seems paradoxical today.  He believed in "Free Soil" - which meant that as new states were added to the Union, they should not have slavery - but he was not an abolitionist.  Why was it okay for the Southern states to have slaves?  I don't know and this book doesn't explain it.

On more than one occasion Whitman said, "Slavery is bad but lots of things are bad.  Why should I get more upset about slavery than anything else?" and he vehemently opposed letting black men vote.  He believed that whites were superior.  (Incidentally, Kaplan doesn't mention Whitman's views on female suffrage, but it wouldn't surprise me if he supported white women's right to vote.  He was definitely a feminist ally.)  Kaplan tells us that Whitman's great-grandparents owned slaves, and that slavery was abolished in New York state when Whitman was eight, but he doesn't tell us when or how the Whitmans divested themselves of their slaves.*  He does mention, however, that some of these slaves were Native American as well as African-American, and that Whitman referred to both races as "degraded, shiftless, and intemperate."

When his brother was wounded in the Civil War and sent to a hospital in Washington DC, Whitman came down to look after him and ended up staying to take care of many more wounded soldiers. After the war ended, he got a government job and formed a close friendship with a former Confederate soldier named Peter Doyle who was twenty-eight years younger than himself.  It seems that Whitman was afraid of his own feelings for this young man, his own "adhesiveness," a term used in the nineteenth century, probably corresponding to what we today would call "desire for intimacy."  I can't believe that the man who wrote, published, and assiduously promoted the blatantly sexual poems in Leaves of Grass would have been afraid to express sexual feelings.  I believe it was love which tormented him.

He did not censor Leaves of Grass as much as he censored himself in this passage from his notebook:
To 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, no getting [word erased] at all henceforth, (not once, under any circumstances)—avoid seeing her, or meeting her, or any talk or explanations—or any meeting whatever, from this hour forth, for life.
The original manuscript shows that Whitman changed "him" to "her" on this page.  "16.4", the sixteenth and fourth letters of the alphabet, are "P.D."  Despite this feverish resolution, Doyle and Whitman remained friends until the poet's death.  However, in later years Whitman moved from DC back to Camden, New Jersey and there became attached to another young man, Henry Stafford.  They also had a tumultuous relationship.  At one point Whitman offered Stafford a ring.  He refused it but later wrote, "I wish you would put the ring on my finger again, it seems to me there is something that is wanting to compleete our friendship when I am with you.  I have tride to studdy it out but cannot find out what it is.  You know when you put it on ther was but one thing to part it from me and that was death."  (The spelling mistakes are in the original.  Stafford was largely uneducated.)  Whitman gave him the ring again but a few years later Stafford got married.

Walt Whitman died in 1892.  Three years later Oscar Wilde had his little run-in with the law.  It's interesting to compare the two.  Whitman pursued fame but also guarded his privacy.  He said that he only wanted his poetry to be famous, not himself.  Wilde, on the other hand, was all about self-promotion, and he was sadly lacking in caution.  Incidentally, Wilde came to pay homage to Whitman in 1882,while on his American lecture tour, and later boasted to a friend, "I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips."

Whitman was arguably more famous in England, especially among gentlemen of a certain persuasion, than in America.  William Michael Rossetti (brother of the poets Dante Gabriel and Christina) published an expurgated edition of Leaves of Grass in England, leaving out the obscene poems and also the "tedious" ones.  It seems a little sad that Whitman never went to England.  I believe that he never left the American continent. He wrote poems about California but never saw it in person.  He also wrote many poems about the ocean and sailing ships, but as far as I can tell he never saw the open ocean.
O to sail to sea in a ship!
To leave this steady unendurable land,
To leave the tiresome sameness of the streets, the sidewalks and the houses,
To leave you O you solid motionless land, and entering a ship,
To sail and sail and sail!

Relevant Links:

Leaves of Grass on Project Gutenberg
A Biography of Peter Doyle
Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan

* Update: some info on emancipation in 19th century New York, from What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe.
The state of New York had adopted a program of gradual emancipation decreeing that slaves born after the Fourth of July 1799 should become free at age twenty-eight (for males) or twenty-five (for females). This is would allow the owner who bore the cost of rearing the children reimbursement with several of their prime working years. . . . But in 1817, the New York legislature sped up the emancipation process and decreed that on July 4, 1827, all remaining slaves, whenever born, should become free. Masters would receive no financial compensation from the state but did have one more decade to exploit their chattels unpaid labor.

No comments:

Post a Comment