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This book links Whitman's critique of American sexual ideology and practice to the underlying anxieties of his personal life. That Whitman was highly anxious socially during his most deeply innovative years as a writer is perhaps my major contention and one that runs counter to many of his most notable self-representations across a range of genres. I show how Whitman refashioned intimate fears and fears of intimacy into a complex critique of gender and sexuality as it had been articulated up to his time. In Whitman's reading of American culture, fear of sexual intimacy and fear of male social and political aggression were virtually indistinguishable.

Making his sexually marked body public in the first (1855), second (1856), and third (1860) editions of Leaves of Grass was Whitman's way of seeing how much physical, social, and psychological closeness he and others could bear. In 1855, he began to distinguish sexualized emotion from familiar object choice; he emphasized this process of defamiliarization in 1856; and in 1860 he privileged love between men. In challenging traditional heterosexual norms, Whitman was in part seeking to undo the seemingly fatal consequences of his social isolation. This isolation was not always apparent to those around him—to readers, for example, whom he first addressed as mere “outlines” and then as cherished “brothers and sisters” in the 1855 Leaves of Grass (p. 85)—yet it was none the less generative for its lack of “understanders.” On the

contrary. Had there been better readers of his submerged sexual and (anti)social narrative, there might have been no need for his book.

Whitman's determination to write his sexed body into history emerged out of a lack of psychological intimacy with what he understood as his “real” self, and one of the issues I deal with throughout the book is Whitman's understanding of the real. There are times when he uses this term approvingly to mean a coherent and necessary subordination of the thinking self to some originary power, such as nature, or history. There are other times when greater fluidity and freedom and decentering produce the results he desires. This fundamental contradiction in Whitman's understanding of personhood also informs his understanding of democracy, which remains, at best, a slippery term in his analysis. Without minimizing the ideological inconsistencies of his project, I try to describe a historically situated response to the literary politics of his time that seems to me persuasive. I see Whitman as having internalized the fierce antagonisms of his age and as fighting himself, among others, to create a more authentically “friendly” nature.

In this inner civil war, whose terms were not always constant or apparent, Whitman looked to strangers, and to poets and readers of the future, to clarify his sexual, social, and psychological confusions. But intellectual clarity was ultimately less important to Whitman than emotional honesty, notwithstanding his extraordinary penchant for revising text and self. In examining the pattern behind these revisions, I focus on Whitman's struggle to deprivatize his experience of male-homoerotic desire. My approach to Whitman's development is not rigorously chronological, however, since I use later texts and events to illuminate earlier times. Moreover, I hope to add something to current debates about Whitman and the national war, which strengthened his understanding of the power of nonhegemonic love and of its limitations.

Once he had emerged from his literary apprenticeship and transformed himself from Walter to Walt, discarding a promising career as a fiction writer along the way, Whitman vehemently criticized the power of a domesticating culture to repress women and children, to separate the sexes from each other, and to silence his story of male-male love. These attacks on repressive social structures were linked to others: for example, attacks on political and religious leaders, on greed itself, and on racial injustice. Thus his “faith in sex” was part of a complicated negotiation with other faiths, including a feminine-identified cult of domesticity, whose exclusionary, middle-class values he purported to despise. Yet discarding exclusionary, middle-class values while appealing

to a middle-class audience was easier said than done. The Whitman I describe represented himself as a sexual iconoclast, but he also wanted to refresh the public sphere by infusing it with the compassion he associated with an archetypal and nonspecific family life. As the nation's lover and perfect equal, he thus distanced himself from an actual family history and from friendships that were significantly more complex.

Whitman's critique of culture, the “savage” freedoms of his personal life, and their dynamic interrelationship immediately commanded the attention of the first startled reviewers of Leaves of Grass. And rightly so. For the Whitman who promised to speak out where others were silent represented himself as the teacher of new forms of erotic pleasure previously unexplored (at least in literature and by him). Though he staunchly declared himself no “sentimentalist,” the emerging poet suggested in 1855 that to read Leaves of Grass was to experience hitherto undreamed-of happiness. Disciplinary structures of domination belonged to the past, he argued; he himself had once battled with vague yet powerful adversaries, whom he called “linguists and contenders.” But now, in his own words, “I witness and wait” (LG 1855, p. 28). Whatever his missionary ambitions, Whitman's sex project, social philosophy, and literary style were intended to legitimate and/or reduce the extravagant tensions of his inner life. In proposing to heal national ills, he was trying to heal inner tensions as well. Throughout the book, then, I explore a psychological project designed to produce something like “happiness#x201D; or “form” or “union” or “plan” for Whitman as well as his readers (LG 1855, p. 85). Though I hope not to reduce Whitman's rich literary achievement to the sum of his insecurities, I do hope to demonstrate that his insights into “the problems of freedom” (LG 1860, p. 349) were always conditioned by the “chaos” that he himself had encountered.

As much recent criticism has demonstrated, Whitman's writings do not fully effect the visionary affiliations he proposes as his ideological goal. His gender and sex democracy remains unachieved; public discourse and private need are not identical; he is less generous and more aggressive than he purports to be. The self-reflexive intellectual who represents himself as friend, father, brother, and lover is flawed. Nevertheless, as gender and other social roles are renegotiated in contemporary culture, the example of Whitman's prescient struggle with dominant forms of love and desire in nineteenth-century America has much to teach us.[1] That he does not always live up to his own high ideals is human; that his ideals are not always perfectly coincident with our own

is inevitable. Whitman used poetry to create a daring sexual persona, but he also used the persona's aggressions and inhibitions to justify a complex erotic life. How, then, are we to understand the consistency of his project?[2]

Whitman's poetry establishes emotional intimacies that, for multiple reasons, are quickly broken. It emerges out of a life about which a great deal is known, but which refuses to reveal its final secrets. “Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,” he wrote in “Song of Myself” (LG 1855, p. 51), and the warning should not be overlooked. When Whitman promises to provide constant companionship, this promise is not sustained. How could it be? What common bond would justify the kind of unswerving loyalty he seems to offer? Ideological consistency, perhaps, but Whitman associates such consistency with emotional repression. Thus, at the end of the “Preface” to the 1855 Leaves of Grass, he remarks, “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” This statement revises the fear of habitual association expressed in the “encompass[ing]” image of the earlier, more obviously wary warning.[3] However much the new crowd of friends and lovers Whitman dreamed up absorbs the strangeness of his dis affections, the imagined audience for Leaves of Grass is based on the fallible and at times desperate people he knew. This limited personal audience included women as well as men. For example, it included his childless sister Hannah, whose disastrous marriage informed Whitman's understanding of romantic obsession and of gendered physical and psychological abuse. And from beginning to end, it included his mother.

Most consistently, Whitman set out to challenge misogynist and homophobic literary codes that violated his experience of a more sexually fluid self. He also observed that the sexed body signifies in relation to other culturally marked identities: that no social identity is purely “natural.” Since American authorship has traditionally been equated with the phallus—with the power to initiate change in the public sphere and to privilege the problems of masculinity—Whitman was understandably reluctant to divest himself of its imperial trappings. In fact, he described himself in an early notebook entry, without apparent irony, as “the phallic choice of America,” who “leaves the finesse of cities” and all the “achievements of literature and art” to “enjoy the breeding of full-sized men, or one full-sized man or woman, unconquerable and simple” (NUPM 4:1303–4). Nevertheless, he associated “the artist race” with his own feminization, an association that was to some extent neutralized

by his “rough,” hypermasculine persona. I discuss this compensatory virilization throughout the book.

During the late 1840s and early 1850s, as Whitman the fiction writer and journalist became increasingly absorbed by his search for new forms of less gendered self-representation, he identified certain currents of affection as crucial to a regenerated national life. These included but were not restricted to currents of affection between men. How was Whitman able to convert his fear of erotic intimacy—for such it appears to have been—into a poetics of national closeness? Was Whitman's fear of intimacy a defense against an overcrowded erotic history? What are the sources of this crowding? By 1842, his semiautobiographical hero Franklin Evans was characterizing himself as fickle. Was this true of Whitman? If so, what connections can be established between Whitman's experience of social arrangements in flux and his understanding of a nation without a soul? If we assume that Whitman's left-leaning politics were conditioned by his membership in an erotic minority of same-sex-lovers, how can we reconcile the lyric poet's need to tell a limited story with the social reformer's need to locate a more comprehensive and impersonal point of view? Until quite recently, as Kerry C. Larson reminds us, Whitman's democratic idealism “has been commonly thought to be at best a subsidiary concern marginal to his true achievement as a poet and at worst a product of megalomaniacal fantasies hopelessly out of touch with the social and political complexities of his day.”[4] That is, his sexual idealism has too often been treated as a purely personal matter. But in the past decade or so, culturally oriented critics such as Larson, George B. Hutchinson, Betsy Erkkila, M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Michael Moon, Robert K. Martin, Tenney Nathanson, Bryne R. S. Fone, Karen Sánchez-Eppler, and David S. Reynolds have begun to connect Whitman's sexual idealism to other elements of his democratic project. The time is therefore right, I hope, for a more probing consideration of what Larson further describes as a poetry combining “impossible demands for intimacy with equally impossible demands for absolute equality.”[5]

Whitman's ideal of sexual democracy theoretically equalizes all varieties of desire and resists none. This goal remains imperfect in his textual practice, which liberates some forbidden voices and silences others. Some emancipations demonstrably matter more to Whitman than others, as do some persons. Sexism, racism, classism, homophobia: these pernicious attitudes crop up not only in Whitman's journalism and published

essays but also in Leaves of Grass—early, middle, and late. Consequently, I locate the erotic Whitman within rather than above the literary history whose political legacy contemporary poets continue to challenge, a legacy of cultural elitism which has perpetuated various forms of material, emotional, and intellectual impoverishment in our time. Still, I hope not to lose sight of the broadly inclusive Whitman who suggested, with some measure of sincerity, that to the fatherless he would be a father, to the motherless a mother, to the lovelorn a lover, to the friendless a friend, to the voiceless a voice, to anyone what he or she was seeking. Capitalizing on personal and national loneliness, this poet who believed that moral curiosity begins at home, with the self, willed himself to see beyond contemptible dreams. The Whitman who matters most to me never claimed perfect knowledge of his own emotional and intellectual needs. Rather, he honored the erotic tensions which had first shaped his quest for new forms of intimate affiliation. How Whitman developed the vision that propelled him into our future forms no small part of my theme.

In trying to recuperate the Whitman who lived powerfully in his imagination, though not always as fully in the social, political, and literary worlds as he wished to do, I draw on the recent Anglo-American tradition of historically based feminist criticism which, in treating women writers, has successfully deconstructed the universalized male subject. This interdisciplinary tradition challenges the concept of an essential, unchanging, and fundamentally unchangeable (hetero)sexual self. Consequently, I locate the erotic Whitman by tracing the development of his subjectivity as it emerged, fraught with contradiction, from and within a very particular social context, the Whitman family, which, like other families, united individuals whose precise material and emotional needs did not always coincide. In chapter 1 and throughout the book, I seek to recover the intimate, intersubjective context that shaped the gender politics of Whitman's literary imagination. I show that Whitman's critique of the American moral imagination, and of the sexual binaries on which it has traditionally depended, was grounded in desires that were themselves dynamic and diverse, both attainable ambitions and phantasmal dreams.

Examining Whitman's attitudes toward women as a crucial element of his poetic identity, I read back through the mother, as historical person and as psychologically powerful trope. Eventually a fierce proponent of sexual egotism as well as a touchingly dutiful son and brother, the poet idealized his “perfect” mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman,

and suggested that from her strength and wisdom, he derived his own. This fundamental life-relation, part love affair, part unacknowledged burden—he identified her with a “law of nature”—was central to his sexual politics, which in turn are central to Leaves of Grass. Yet as I show in my concluding chapter, Whitman's understanding of the emotional, educational, political, and legal needs of nineteenth-century American women was self-interested and incomplete. He admired women in their maternal social roles and sought to affirm the potential of nurturance to dissolve social differences. But in so doing Whitman mythologized the cultural isolation of the American woman, exaggerated the degree to which most nineteenth-century American women had come to hate their own bodies, and, when psychologically pressed, tended to fall back on the white, middle-class doctrine of separate spheres which restricted women's authority to the home, exaggerated the distinction between the home and the marketplace, and denied women access to the public sphere. The gender bending in which Whitman engaged did not go as far as it could have, in both directions: he claimed the authority to voice female desire and to appropriate the intimate stories of women's lives without suggesting that women (or, more crucially, women writers) possessed comparable representational power over his. Thus he contributed to the dominant culture that publicly silenced Emily Dickinson, while also indirectly facilitating her reception as an experimental poet in the 1890s. I discuss this matter more fully in chapter 7.

Whitman, however, wrote Leaves of Grass not only to guide and gain power over others but also to affirm and reintegrate himself. In so doing, he held out the promise of a transformed present for men and women who had been alienated from conventional models of community as workers in the public sphere and as lovers in the house of friends. The sources of Whitman's early and enduring dis affection are overdetermined. In chapter 1, I describe Whitman's alienation from conventional models of manliness, including the model offered by his all-but-silenced father, Walter Senior. This discussion of “The Erotics of Youth” draws on “proof[s]” of affection and disaffection (LG 1855, p. 24) such as Whitman's variously dated notebooks and prose, together with letters written by his mother during the 1860s and 1870s. I pay close attention to those turning points in the family narrative where communication breaks down, and I offer a reading of “The Sleepers” that leans on a line beginning, “Now I tell what my mother told me” (LG 1855, p. 110). This chapter approaches the relationship between Whitman's family

identifications and disidentifications without drawing on an oedipal model of sexual development. Instead, I concentrate on a less universalizing approach, one designed to recreate the particular social anxieties to which Whitman responded courageously and carefully in his time.[6]

In subsequent chapters, I examine the relationship between Whitman's imaginings of collective others and his desire to animate the “morbid” and “unmanly” discourses of what seemed to him an unreal (in the bad sense) erotic tradition. Never marrying and by more than one account never “bothered up by a woman,”[7] Whitman was powerfully attracted to barely literate young men whose various powers of encouragement and resistance are difficult to assess. Sometimes there was parental interference, as when Whitman the teenage country school-master was reproved by a vigilant farmer-father for making a “pet” of his son.[8] More often, the young men whom the more mature Whitman saw and admired in public places in Brooklyn and New York City during the 1840s, 1850s, and early 1860s were eager for some version of his attention. One such eager person was Fred Vaughan, a Broadway stage driver whose relationship to Whitman has been the subject of much speculation. “Remember Fred Vaughan,” Whitman cautioned himself in 1870, when his relationship with Peter Doyle was most unhappily unsettled, and in chapter 4, I look closely at what Whitman might have been remembering.

Nevertheless, we are unlikely ever to know definitively what happened in Whitman's bedroom or in any of the other places where his rendezvous were appointed, and I do not claim to have fully resolved what Louis Crompton describes as “the central issue confronting gay studies,” which he calls “‘the friendship problem.’” Crompton asks,

If a novel, poem, or essay describes or expresses ardent feelings for a member of the same sex, when are we to interpret these as homosexual and when are we to regard them merely as reflections of what is usually called romantic friendship? We may be genuinely perplexed by Shakespeare's sonnets, by Montaigne's account of his love for Etienne de La Boëtie, or by Mary Wollstonecraft's novels, Melville's stories, and Emily Dickinson's poems. In Byron's day there was a popular cult of romantic friendship to which Byron as a boy had wholeheartedly responded. Many of his early poems were certainly inspired by it. But he also went beyond this by falling in love with boys and (at least during part of his early life) by becoming a homosexual lover in the physical sense.[9]

We do not know for certain that Whitman became a homosexual lover in the physical sense, though this seems highly likely. We do know

that Whitman wrote most compellingly out of his search for a lover who was not a mere outline, and out of his inability to find such a person—except, perhaps, in his mother. The poet's insights into love and aggression and their interrelationship made him wary of sustained erotic intimacy. “There is something fierce and terrible in me, eligible to burst forth,” he wrote in one of the Calamus poems (LG 1860, p. 374). And he meant it. “The embrace of love and resistance” described in the 1855 poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” “The upperhold and underhold—the hair rumpled over and blinding the eyes” (LG 1855, p. 117), was played out in his relationships with younger men; there was love, but there was also resistance, and the excess of love could prove blinding. He understood heterosexual partnerships as no less aggressive, if anything more so. “Thruster holding me tight and that I hold tight!” he wrote in the long 1855 poem later titled “Song of Myself,” “We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other” (LG 1855, p. 45). Such lines, which construct any form of sexual initiation as punitive, are scattered throughout his most vital books.

Certainly we would like to know what male-homoerotic actions Whitman considered excessive. When he encouraged himself to “depress the adhesive nature,” writing in a famous notebook entry in July 1870, “It is in excess—making life a torment” (NUPM 2:889), what was his norm? Something or nothing? A lot or a little? We may never know how much male-male sexual passion Whitman considered “diseased, feverish, disproportionate” (NUPM 2:890), although Section 26 of “Song of Myself” provides a clue. At first sexual passion inspires him, but when passion deprives him of agency, a loss of power he likens to dying, Whitman disengages. Turning lovers into “objects”—that is, symbols—he is then able to lead them “harmlessly” through himself, rather than being led by them to the brink of destruction. As a student of the grand opera, he knows romantic thralldom when he sees it and when he feels it. For, as he emphasizes, his is no callous shell. In 1855, 1856, and 1860, Whitman's paradoxical critique of American sexual ideology and practice reflected his fear of passion, as well as his more self-evident “faith in sex.” Thus I refute or qualify the extravagant narratives constructed by some recent sexual historians, who mythologize the homosexual Whitman as a boundlessly energetic performer.[10] I also refute the lurid, panicked tradition which suggests that Whitman was tarred and feathered for sodomy during his schoolteaching days on Long Island.[11] Instead, I emphasize that Whitman lived at home in Brooklyn during his most productive years as a poet; that during part of that time, he shared a small

bedroom with his retarded and crippled brother, Ed; and that his complex, interlineated devotions to family, to nation, to permeable and impermeable psyches, prepared him for his subsequent role as “wound-dresser” during the Civil War, as well as for his (re)production of that role in poetry. Whitman had begun to visit young men in hospitals before the war, but in Washington the prolonged strain of caring for wounded and dying soldiers—caring for them physically and emotionally—overwhelmed him. This is the more understandable since he fell in love with several soldiers who recovered and moved on. When successful, his nursing undid those intimate, indestructible and yet liberating relationships he was trying to develop. In going home to recuperate from “spells of deathly faintness” and other attendant disorders in late June 1864 (Corr 1:231), Whitman was following the advice of his physicians. He stayed in Brooklyn for the next seven months and, despite some evidence to the contrary, a domesticated cautiousness was one of his leading traits.[12]

To recapitulate. Until a fortuitous move to Washington, D.C., in December 1862, when Whitman was forty-three, a move precipitated by the search for his brother George, who had been wounded in battle, Whitman appears to have enjoyed transitory sexual relationships with men—especially men who were poorer, less well educated, and significantly younger than himself. We do not know whether these relationships included anal penetration, an activity Whitman probably considered constitutive of homosexual identity, as did the British homosexual rights advocates, whom he was beginning to influence as early as the mid-1860s.[13] Though these “fluid” relationships did not last, they shaped his understanding of desire and of a potentially democratic politics of love. (Whitman was also part of an unofficial drinking club, the “Fred Gray Association,” which gratified his need for more recognizably elite male companions.) Important recent discussions of male-male friendship and of homosexual desire in Whitman's project have tended to describe their collective political value.[14] I have tried to enrich this conversation and to make it more real (in the good sense) by appealing to the biography, to the prose, and to the poems. The three overlap, though in some instances they are clearly distinguishable.

In the winter of 1865–66, however, when he met the ex–Confederate soldier Peter Doyle on a Washington streetcar, the poet began to live out the domesticated “Calamus” fantasy of a continuous, cooperative erotic life that he had anticipated before the war in the 1860 Leaves of Grass. Whitman and Doyle did not actually make a home together—Doyle

lived with his mother—but Whitman did not rule out this possibility in the summer of 1869, when Pete was depressed and needed extra help. “I have had this in my mind before,” Whitman wrote to his “dearest boy,” who thought he had contracted syphilis and was threatening to kill himself, “but never broached it to you” (Corr 2:84). After the crisis passed, these loving comrades continued to see each other almost daily.[15] Yet the emotional security Whitman derived from this (open) relationship should not be exaggerated. There were times when he was tormented by jealousy, especially since Doyle made no secret of his (hetero)sexual conquests.[16] As a defense against this torment, Whitman attempted to expand his erotic circle. Thus shortly after writing to Pete, “I don't know what I should do if I hadn't you to think of & look forward to” (Corr 2:47), and shortly after signing himself “Yours for life, dear Pete, (& death the same)” (Corr 2:58), the anxious lover stepped up his correspondence with another “loving boy,” John (Broadway Jack) Flood, Jr., a New York streetcar conductor whom he had seen during his recent vacation in Brooklyn. “Whether we are indeed to have the chance in future to be much together & enjoy each other's love & friendship,” he wrote, “—or whether worldly affairs are to separate us—I don't know. But somehow I feel (if I'm not dreaming) that the good square love is in our hearts, for each other, while life lasts” (Corr 2:74).[17] Where is Pete? For Whitman, one streetcar conductor, even if that conductor was “Pete the Great,” was not enough.[18]

Following Whitman's move to Camden for reasons of health in 1873, when he retreated to the home of his brother George and sister-in-law Lou, Whitman and Doyle wrote to each other regularly for several years. They were rarely able to meet in person.[19] By 1876, the recuperating poet had entered into a new relationship with Harry Stafford, a farm boy, though that love affair was even stormier.[20] Thus Whitman's subsequent narrative of his emotional life, which emphasizes the transforming power of the war itself, is also, in many respects, the one I adopt, but I shift the focus from overt national politics to a covert politics of love. Whitman found that a clearly focused historical crisis enabled him to respond less anxiously to other men. Some recent discussions of war and gender have suggested that military conflict provides an occasion for society to remasculinize itself.[21] Happily, for Whitman, this was not the case.

Creating such new connections as were possible in the remarkably resilient language of his time and life, Whitman engaged in powerful repressions of his personal past and mythologized an untroubled self that

never was. But he also insisted on the psychological necessity of his project. Thus, in “A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads,” he described Leaves of Grass as an “attempt, from first to last, to put a Person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, in America,) freely, fully and truly on record” (LG, pp. 573–74). Despite the radical simplicity of this statement, I have tried to take the poet at his word. To the extent that he put himself “freely, fully and truly on record,” Walt Whitman recorded his hesitations as well as his daring, his sadness as well as his verve. In so doing, he clarified and remystified the experience of living. His was a deeply personal poetry: nothing if not a literary performance, and nothing if nothing more.

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