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The Politics of Love in the 1860 Leaves of Grass
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There have been suggestions that “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” was drawn directly from Whitman's experience in New Orleans, and it seems likely that this poem was based in part on the love affair Whitman had in that Southern city with a vulnerable youth whom he seduced and abandoned. This youth reminds him of himself. The poem's landscape is pastoral and dreamlike; the isolation of the setting mimics the frightening, unbounded solitude Whitman tends to associate with urban rather than with rural life. The tree signifies primarily as a solitary singer, and Whitman feels some understandable resentment about his tree-rival's capacity for self-reliant utterance out of a seeming void. Despite the poet's identification with his symbol, this tree can't really be humanized, for to be human is not merely to take up space, to talk, and to feel happy, but to need a society of like-minded friends. Resenting and coveting the tree's self-sufficiency, Whitman maims and appropriates what he can, and, carrying it back to his room, drapes the now-broken twig with moss. As a curious token of manly love, Whitman's incomplete art work reminds him of his absent “friends,” while underscoring the rivalry that troubles male-male affection.[21]

In this brilliantly lit yet shadowy poem about what it means to be human, to be a poet, and to be a public figure, Whitman distinguishes himself from his leafy precursor through his need for intelligent affection. For this is a poem in which Whitman, with his self-divisions, despairs of ever finding the beloved, intuitive, and knowledgeable life companion for whom his heart aches. Rudeness and lustiness are not all. Moreover, to the extent that Whitman romanticizes the tree's freedom from the conventional rivalries of male gendering, he introduces a covertly racialized other, tropically dark and glistening, whose power he wishes to appropriate.[22] Whitman's fashionable melancholy functions to conceal his imperial designs. Although he “naturally” suffers from the sentimental heartsoreness that seems neverending, he returns to his room with his spoils. Taming the public rival, Whitman replicates the symbolic logic of the humiliation-driven male economy from which he seeks to escape and against which he needs his dream-friends to defend him.

As we might expect, the rivalry that emerges as a key component of male bonding for the Whitmanian subject remains an obstacle to love in other poems of the Calamus sequence. Sentimental revery provides a buffer against such rivalry but ultimately proves insufficient. Throughout

the sequence, Whitman engages in a number of experiments which seek to carry over the episodic good feeling generated by his private associations into the public sphere. To the extent that he can reconfigure these episodes as culturally significant, he hopes to heal the division between the me and the not-me, produced in part by the dissociation of young men from the work, the vision, and the affections of their fathers. And mothers too, for the ideals Whitman associated with societal perfection were often figured through the republican mother.[23] “When fathers firm, unconstrained, open-eyed—When breeds of the most perfect mothers de-note America, / Then to me ripeness and conclusion,” Whitman writes in “So Long,” the concluding text of the 1860 Leaves of Grass (p. 452). But until that time, other solutions would have to do.

In Enfans d'Adam, for example, the poet had proposed “sex”—actual and figurative—as a solution to the problem of defining a significant, culturally mature literary vocation in America. Sex functions more obliquely in Calamus, but as I suggested a moment ago, there is plenty of revery designed to reconfigure the anxiety-producing, competitive, or even punitive structures of desire that impede or preclude male intimacy. For example, in Calamus 19, which immediately precedes “Live-Oak,” the speaker redefines bravery to include heart-courage, and begins by asking the implied listener or reader, “Mind you the timid models of the rest, the majority? / Long I minded them, but hence I will not—for I have adopted models for myself, and now offer them to The Lands.” As America's new male model, Whitman emphasizes his unglamorous white working-class affiliations when he directs our attention to his “swarthy and unrefined face,” unkempt beard, “brown hands, and … silent manner … without charm.” However unprepossessing these attributes—I take it that his tired “gray eyes” are not particularly alluring—this speaker poses no threat to the superior class status of the fantasized listener.[24] His beard is unclipped on his neck, but woolly and benign. Far from exemplifying the lawless energies described and mocked in “We Two Boys” (Calamus 26), this less commanding speaker is intent on pleasing and being pleased. “Yet comes one, a Manhattanese,” he writes, “and ever at parting, kisses me lightly on the lips with robust love, / And I, in the public room, or on the crossing of the street, or on the ship's deck, kiss him in return; / We observe that salute of American comrades, land and sea, / We are those two natural and nonchalant persons” (LG 1860, p. 364).

Whitman's erotic reveries are not confined to the United States alone.

At a number of immensely pressured points in the Calamus sequence, he transgresses national boundaries to achieve a desired sentimental end. Following shortly after the live-oak meditation, for example, in Calamus 23, he explains,

This moment as I sit alone, yearning and thoughtful, it seems to me there are other men in other lands, yearning and thoughtful; It seems to me I can look over and behold them, in Germany, Italy, France,

Spain—Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or India—talking other dialects; And it seems to me if I could know those men better, I should become attached to them, as I do to men in my own lands, It seems to me they are as wise, beautiful, benevolent, as any in my own lands;

O I know we should be brethren and lovers, I know I should be happy with them.

(LG 1860, p. 367)

Similarly, in “Long I thought that knowledge alone would suffice me” (Calamus 8, which Whitman never reprinted), the speaker overflows national boundaries (“Take notice, you Kanuck woods”), but the effect is very different. Renouncing his mission as America's imperialist bard to romp with the “One who loves me [and] is jealous of me, and withdraws me from all but love” (LG 1860, p. 354), he explores a more privatized, dependent, and feminized mode. In this subsequently suppressed poem, the speaker begins by recounting the history of his career, which he distorts in order to emphasize the drama of his self-transformation. The claim is that he had previously been uninterested in erotic relationships and motivated solely by a patriotic creed. (That the democratic poet had been frustrated by an unresponsive national and international audience remains implied rather than directly stated, like so much else in this superbly elliptical and tonally ambiguous self-portrait.) As he searches impatiently for a new kind of knowledge, the emerging homoerotic poet is frankly flattered by his lover's jealous need to withdraw him from, as he puts it, “all but love.” Lover X is “jealous of” Whitman in several senses. Most obviously, he wants Whitman for himself and demands all of his sexual energy, attention, and affection. Less obviously, as a representative of the homoerotic private sphere, he feminizes Whitman, and this influx of femininity at first proves authenticating for the speaker, who is now out from behind a mask.[25]

That Whitman could not drop this mask for any length of time is part of a larger and by now well-known story. The British man of letters John

Addington Symonds, for example, first encountered Whitman through this poem in 1865, when his close friend F. W. H. Myers read it to him at Cambridge.[26] (Myers was a founder of the Society for Psychical Research.) Yet when Symonds persisted in his decades-long campaign to enlist Whitman as a homosexual rights advocate, the poet responded by condemning “morbid inferences” and boasting of six illegitimate children. In an infamous letter of August 1890, Whitman explained, “Tho’ always unmarried I have had six children, two are dead—One living southern grandchild, fine boy, who writes to me occasionally. Circumstances connected with their benefit and fortune have separated me from intimate relations” (Corr 5:73). Biographers agree that these are the children of fancy.[27]

Perhaps late in 1871, Symonds initiated the correspondence by sending Whitman a copy of his Love and Death, inscribed on the title page, “To the Prophet Poet / Of Democracy Religion Love / This Verse / A Feeble Echo of His Song / Is Dedicated” (Corr 2:158). A cover letter noted that the poem “is of course implicit already in your Calamus, especially in ‘Scented herbage of my breast.’” Whitman responded warmly in late January 1872, calling the poem “beautiful & elevated,” saying he had “read & reread” it, that he considered it “of the loftiest, strongest & tenderest,” and that “I should like to know you better.” The letter concluded, “Pray dont think hard of me for not writing more promptly. I have thought of you more than once, & am deeply touched with your poem.” Despite this auspicious beginning, the correspondence culminated, as I have suggested, in one of the sorriest episodes in Whitman's life. In August 1890, Symonds wrote,

In your conception of Comradeship, do you contemplate the possible intrusion of those semi-sexual emotions & actions which no doubt do occur between men? I do not ask, whether you approve of them, or regard them as a necessary part of the relation? But I should much like to know whether you are prepared to leave them to the inclinations & the conscience of the individuals concerned?

A mild enough question, but Whitman responded emphatically,

Ab't the questions on Calamus pieces &c: they quite daze me. … that the calamus part has even allow'd the possibility of such construction as mention'd is terrible—I am fain to hope the pages themselves are not to be even mention'd for such gratuitous and quite at the same time entirely undream'd & unreck'd possibility of morbid inferences—wh’ are disavow'd by me & seem damnable. (Corr 5:72–73)


Though a number of critics have amplified Whitman's response to suggest that he had his reasons (as undoubtedly he did), the fact remains that Whitman's fears got the better of him. In his letter of August 3, Symonds specifically asked Whitman to endorse the decriminalization of consenting homosexuality between adults in England and the United States, which he refused to do.

That Whitman could not publicly abandon his heterosexual persona for any length of time is very much part of the history of “Long I Thought” (Calamus 8), which in setting forth the antagonism of public and private spheres seems to choose the latter as having definitely the better claim. Yet the speaker who turns from the politics of poetry to the politics of male-male marriage will find that more intimate politics equally demanding. As Symonds noted in his 1890 essay “Democratic Art,” “No individual man can be wholly original,” and the bard who celebrates male homoeroticism as the bonding emotion of nations cannot wholly exclude women from his project.[28] Nor does he unambiguously want to. In representing the intimate and physical love of male comrades and lovers, Whitman eases the tension between public performance and private perversity by a legitimating refeminization of male-male love. This tension is further eased by tropes of marital fidelity, comradeship, and brotherhood which mystify the politicized gender anxieties aroused by homoerotic relationships and which further defend Whitman against the unresponsive audience he leaves behind.[29] We may be forgiven for suspecting that the quasi-marriage into which Whitman enters in “Long I Thought” will quickly reproduce the undemocratic gendered anxieties of the public sphere. But this is knowledge from which the poem seeks to defend us.

Surely the speaker's world elsewhere cannot last long. Nor do we steadfastly want it to. The community he forms with his lover is founded on jealousy; we are right to suspect that jealousy will undo it.[30] For the moment, however, the poet who had turned to literature for his knowledge of male heroism—“the examples of old and new heroes … of warriors, sailors, and all dauntless persons” and who was further inspired by the idea that “it seemed to me that I too had it in me to be as dauntless as any—and would be so”—happily finds himself put to the test of a real attachment (LG 1860, p. 354). There is a sense, then, in which his lover's jealousy is reassuring, as it was to Symonds, who described the poem as a trumpet call and was puzzled to discover in 1867 and subsequently that the poem which first “thrilled” him had disappeared from

view. Why, he inquired of the aging poet in 1889, “have you so consistently omitted this in the canon of your works?”[31]

Whitman never answered, but critics have often suggested that because the Calamus poems seek to lend public significance to homoerotic and homosexual attachments, Whitman excluded from Leaves of Grass the “all but love” poem we have been considering, along with several others that subvert the patriotic mystifications of his homoerotic project.[32] These mystifications include a brilliantly heterogeneous vocabulary whose daring confrontations are already pronounced in “Starting from Paumanok,” the “Proto-Leaf” or long new opening poem of the 1860 volume, on which, his notebooks show, he had been working for many years. Phrenology, religion, the Anglo-American male friendship tradition, fancy French imports, garden variety romanticism—the off-shoots of such radically disparate material cultures wind and twist around one another in “Paumanok,” recreating identities, part historical, part fanciful, that might authentically populate those curiously empty lands seized by the white man and poet from his displaced Indian brothers. Whereas the Indian father who sits dumbly smoking with his friends in “Song of Myself” seems narcotized by the illusion of male power, the poet trapped by love but conscious of his own entrapment reclaims the center from his literary rivals. “Not he, adhesive, kissing me so long with his daily kiss,” Whitman writes,

Has winded and twisted around me that which holds me to him,
Any more than I am held to the heavens, to the spiritual world,
And to the identities of the Gods, my unknown lovers,
After what they have done to me, suggesting such themes.

(LG 1860, p. 13)

“After what they have done to me, suggesting such themes.” Here the note of outrage is unmistakable, yet the greedily neologizing 1860 poet continues to hope that “Affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom,” that “Those who love each other shall be invincible,” and that “They shall finally make America completely victorious, in my name” (LG 1860, p. 349). The fear already announced in this opening poem is that manly affection might rob him of his manhood and that the experience of loving another man might confine him to the margins of American life. Yet just as Whitman looks beyond Manhattan and the already aging cities of the Eastern seaboard to a romanticized “inland America” dreamily inhabited by the “tan-faced prairie-boy” whose youthful docility he fancies, so Whitman looks beyond the historical

jealousies of the world he has known to pronounce, at the extreme verge of utterance,

Americanos! Masters!
Marches humanitarian! Foremost!
Century marches! Libertad! Masses!
For you a programme of chants.

(LG 1860, p. 7)

Let us return to the multiple ambivalences of the Calamus sequence. The lyricist who renounces the public sphere is not sure that he can trust the muse who ties him to a more spiritual, politically marginalized, and homoerotic world. Thus whereas “Long I Thought” counterpoints the loss of political agency and the access of erotic power, the next poem takes a closer look at the unofficial marriage into which the speaker has entered, while emboldened by the touching belief that “It is to be enough for us that we are together—We never separate again” (LG 1860, p. 355). “Hours continuing long, sore and heavy-hearted” (Calamus 9, later excluded from Leaves of Grass) explodes this privatized trope of eternal fidelity and suggests that Whitman was right to be wary of the lover who demanded the sacrifice of his ambition. Now it is Whitman's turn to be jealous, sleepless, physically agitated, and all the rest of it. “Pacing miles and miles, stifling plaintive cries,” he finds that his erotic value has diminished in giving up “all for love.” During these “sullen and suffering hours” while he contends with shame, he asks poignantly,

I wonder if other men ever have the like, out of the like feelings?

Is there even one other like me—distracted—his friend, his lover, lost to him?

Is he too as I am now? Does he still rise in the morning, dejected, thinking who is lost to him? and at night, awaking, think who is lost?

Does he too harbor his friendship silent and endless? harbor his anguish and passion?

Does some stray reminder, or the casual mention of a name, bring the fit back upon him, taciturn and deprest?

Does he see himself reflected in me? In these hours, does he see the face of his hours reflected?

(LG 1860, pp. 355–56)

I can testify to the fact that not everyone sees himself or herself reflected in this poem, which evoked a laugh and the response “poor guy” from an unsympathetic seminar I once taught. Yet for the humiliated Whitman, this question—has any other man ever felt the same not only out of like feelings but out of a like occasion—holds the key to others.

Such as: can an illicit love affair that ends unhappily be publicly acknowledged? Such as: what will be the effect of his loneliness on his writing? Such as: might his loss of face, sorrow, or degradation—he's not sure what to call it—make him more accessible to ordinary readers who have previously been offended by his bluff? Though his lover is lost to him (and the implication is clear that the lover who forgets him has found someone else), he can't imagine falling in love again; the emotional resilience on which he formerly prided himself is a thing of the past. Then, too, just when he thinks he is getting to be his more or less tolerable self again, “some stray reminder, or the casual mention of a name, bring the fit back upon him, taciturn and deprest.”

During these unnaturally prolonged hours of his torment, he sees no way out of his romantic obsession except, as Elizabeth Bishop later suggested with some irony, to “Write it!”[33] Thus the next poem in the sequence (Calamus 10), which is addressed to “You bards of ages hence!” seeks to discriminate more finely between various types of poems and poetic identities.[34] But he no longer feels like a leader of his nation's moral imagination, and his prophetic “American” poems seem to bear no relationship to those motivated by erotic possessiveness. Nor does he care to be remembered by them. Unfortunately, the “tenderest lover” is also the sorest and most vulnerable. This erotic victim (unlike the poetic strong man) is filled with “the sick, sick dread lest the one he loved might secretly be indifferent to him” (LG 1860, p. 356). Indifferent to place, his happiest hours are spent in privatized rural settings, “through fields, in woods, on hills, he and another, wandering hand in hand, they twain, apart from other men.” Or sauntering the city streets, with his arm over his friend's shoulder, his friend's arm over his.

In his identity as private lyric poet, Whitman offers to take us down “underneath this impassive exterior,” but since he doesn't really trust succeeding generations to draw their own conclusions about his turbulent inner life, he composes an epitaph for himself. And it is a flattering one, if somewhat dictatorial.

I will tell you what to say of me:

Publish my name and hang up my picture as that of the tenderest lover,

The friend, the lover's portrait, of whom his friend, his lover, was fondest,

Who was not proud of his songs, but of the measureless ocean of love within him—and freely poured it forth,

Who often walked lonesome walks, thinking of his dear friends, his lovers,

Who pensive, away from one he loved, often lay sleepless and dissatisfied at night,


Who knew too well the sick, sick dread lest the one he loved might secretly be indifferent to him,

Whose happiest days were far away, through fields, in woods, on hills, he and another, wandering hand in hand, they twain, apart from other men,

Who oft as he sauntered the streets, curved with his arm the shoulder of his friend—while the arm of his friend rested upon him also.

(LG 1860, pp. 356–57)

Despite his representation of himself as a blameless victim, the problem of social trust persists. What if the future bard (or “recorder,” in the more neutral language that prevailed) sees something other than tenderness beneath the speaker's impassive exterior? What if in addition to seeing prohibited male-male desire he or she sees an emotional volatility that may not be wholly ascribed to a homophobic culture? Previously Whitman has described himself as arrogant and deceitful. Will the unknown recorder remember these weaknesses and suspect that Whitman's sexual attentions are short-lived? If so, how will he or she respond? Who is the empowered reader/recorder to whom Whitman makes his incomplete confessions?

The third of the problematic poems subsequently excluded from Leaves of Grass raises precisely this question.

Who is now reading this?
Maybe one is now reading this who knows some wrong-doing of my past life,
Or maybe a stranger is reading this who has secretly loved me,
Or maybe one who meets all my grand assumptions and egotisms with derision,
Or maybe one who is puzzled at me.
As if I were not puzzled at myself!
Or as if I never deride myself! (O conscience-struck! O self-convicted!)
Or as if I do not secretly love strangers! (O tenderly, a long time, and never avow it;)
Or as if I did not see, perfectly well, interior in myself, the stuff of wrong-doing,
Or as if it could cease transpiring from me until it must cease.

(LG 1860, pp. 361–62)

At first glance, the act of loving strangers seems to be a highly forgivable crime of which to accuse himself, if all he does is love them from afar. Yet sudden sexual temptations had interested Whitman at least as early as Franklin Evans, and in the first edition of Leaves of Grass the poet had asked, “If you meet some stranger in the street and love him or her, do I not often meet strangers in the street and love them?” (LG 1855,

p. 88). Sudden sexual temptations, and the strange meetings with which they are associated, can emblematize both the problems and the promise of democracy.[35] They generate, for example, the unexpected and class-less intersections of the 1856 masterwork “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in which Whitman projects himself ecstatically into an unlimited future. His curious attachment to other people, to “Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes,” to “the sailors at work in the rigging, or out astride the spars,” and to “the pilots in their pilot-houses,” ties him to the strangely observant reader of the future: to you and me. “Closer yet I approach you,” he writes, “What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance, / I considered long and seriously of you before you were born” (LG 1860, p. 384).

We may read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” as suggesting that a broadly humanist mission precludes particular male-male homoerotic attachments. The poem both affirms and denies the value of individual sexual experience. The masculine poet-persona who places his faith in the masculine or feminine reader of the future is troubled by his own erotic cowardice in the present. He is a “solitary committer,” a masturbator (NUPM 1:231; LG 1856, p. 217). Despite this fault, which was vividly demonized by antebellum medical and moral discourse, the great renunciation of homosexual love Whitman makes in secret is empowering. Because of his self-discipline and his suffering, he is able to imagine himself fusing men, genders, nations, and races together. Within the less heroic compass of “Who is now reading this?” a secret love is a deforming love.

In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the temptation renounced by the Whitman persona is brilliantly rendered. When he hears the young men who call him clearly and loudly by his nighest name as they see him “approaching or passing,” and when he feels their arms on his neck as he stands, “or the negligent leaning of their flesh” against him as he sits, or sees “many I loved in the street, or ferryboat, or public assembly, yet never [tells] them a word,” he emerges to testify that, whatever his particular fleshly temptations, he “lived the same life with the rest,” and that every social being performs a part, “The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like, / Or as small as we like, or both great and small” (LG 1860, p. 384). Moreover, at this potentially alienated moment, when the poet looks back on “the actor or actress,” he suggests that something escapes from the web of socially constructed or performative identity, that there is a real me capable of resisting its painfully compromised moment. In most poems of the Calamus sequence,

however, this real me no longer exists as a separate and mocking entity because the speaker's social self is more substantial. That is, once the social self is experienced as real, the real me has no autonomous psychological function.

Calamus 40 makes this point by contrasting “That shadow, my likeness, that goes to and fro, seeking a livelihood, chattering, chaffering,” with the writing self never doubting “whether that is really me.” The writing self continues to thrive “among my lovers” at the end of the Calamus project, whereas in “As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life,” both the “real me” and an equally hostile eternal self block Whitman's access to substantiating types of “athletic love” (LG 1860, p. 341). Consequently, his confidence in the coincidence of writing self and erotic self collapses; antagonists multiply, and the real me is “real me.” This excessive typography underscores Whitman's conviction that there will never be any permanent community in which he can recognize himself as a familiar and acceptable (loving) person. He knows nothing and believes that “no man ever can” (LG 1860, p. 197). There are no young men to whom he may speak, no young men on whom he may lean. In the absence of this youthful community of men, Whitman experiences himself as a posthumous writer, his dead lips oozing forth words that may have a certain superficial charm—they glisten and roll—but that lead nowhere. Whereas progress usually depends not only on distance from the past but on movement toward a goal, in “As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life” the speaker is trapped in an unreal crossing. Isolated from the young men who call him “Walt,” he is haunted by the “sobbing dirge of Nature” (LG 1860, p. 199). This female-identified voice of lamentation cannot feed his soul. As Michael Moon has suggested, Whitman's Leaves of Grass project was designed to merge social and erotic experience.[36] While this merger is not fully achieved in the Calamus sequence, the events recounted, even when bitter and painful, are rarely described as unreal. Whitman recognizes the self that has been thwarted in love because he remembers the self that has succeeded. Memorably, in Calamus 11,

And that night, while all was still, I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores,

I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands, as directed to me, whispering, to congratulate me,

For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,

In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams, his face was inclined toward me,

And his arm lay lightly around my breast—And that night I was happy.

(LG 1860, p. 358)


These memories fortify him for the future. And so the cycle ends:

When you read these, I, that was visible, am become invisible;

Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me,

Fancying how happy you were, if I could be with you, and become your lover;

Be it as if I were with you. Be not too certain but I am now with you.

(LG 1860, p. 378)

The project of realizing a self is ongoing, and it is possible. Even death does not thwart it, because the language of real (that is, commonly agreed upon) hope is conceived as more powerful.

Nevertheless, the Calamus poems reinscribe differences the visionary Whitman was determined to deny. As previously noted, Whitman distrusted that “individualism, which isolates,” unless it could be made to speak to “adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing all” (DV 949). His theory of democracy rejected the claims of “destructive iconoclasms,” and he insisted in Democratic Vistas, his postwar sexual manifesto, that “democracy alone can bind all nations, all men, of however various and distant lands, into a brotherhood, a family” (DV 948). Whitman's class-binding democracy always depended on his faith in the People, whereas many of the most interesting Calamus poems reflect his distrust of ordinary readers, not just of “the literary classes.” This distrust is especially marked in poems that explore the paradoxical social fate of two together. These autobiographical-sounding poems critique the negative consequences of male-male romantic obsession, as well as the intolerance of a homophobic culture. Such intense relationships reinscribe the isolating individualism Whitman's Leaves of Grass project was intent on revising.

We would therefore do well not to exaggerate the strategic differences among the first three editions of Leaves of Grass. I have been describing Whitman's progress toward speaking the love that dare not speak its name, but in making heterosexuality public in 1855, 1856, and 1860, he was not simply leading us toward the promised land of male-male love. As Richard Rorty contends, Whitman was deeply critical of the negative consequences of sexual repression, but Rorty fails to remark that Whit-man was also intent on telling a life story that was full of contradiction.[37] Consequently, Whitman never lets us linger for long in a pure sexual utopia, especially since he sees sexuality as partly constituted by sadism. Even after the physically attractive butcher-boy of “Song of Myself” puts off his killing-clothes, he “sharpens his knife at the stall in the market.” The narrator enjoys his “repartee and his shuffle and breakdown”—the

breakdown of what?—but the subordination of animal to human merely underscores the visual subordination of younger to older man and of worker to writer (LG 1855, p. 34). Whitman does his best to minimize these differences of class and occupation and language, but they persist. His career depends on them; had “these States” already “achieved our [true] country,” there would have been no call for Leaves of Grass. In short, Whitman has no way of telling the story of a continuously unrepressed sexual life; he lives in the world as we still know it in this regard, a world whose successes are partly constituted by acceptable social sadism. The people Whitman knew and the character he inhabited were powerfully resistant to anything like the paradigm-shift he claimed to be, and in part was, seeking. Consequently, when Rorty suggests that “Whit-man would have been delighted by rock and roll, drugs, and the kind of casual, friendly copulation which is insouciant about the homosexual-heterosexual distinction,” he oversimplifies.[38] The loving and thirsting-eyed poet of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” was both seduced and threat-ened by the beauty of the male body. He was disintegrated, yet part of the scheme, sustained in the present by his faith in a community of the future. Had that perfect community already been achieved, there would be no projected intersection of time and timelessness in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” A draft notebook entry for the poem records that “Where the great renunciation is made in secret, that will allure me” (NUPM 1:232), and Whitman's refusal to concentrate on one particular lover (“English Johny,” for example, who is mentioned on the recto of one of his loose compositional fragments [NUPM 1:228]), could, under some circumstances, reinforce his sense of connection to the whole human race. But if sexual secrecy was necessary to his project, it was also his project's undoing. Sexual secrecy as experienced by Whitman was profoundly self-isolating and one night with one sleeping lover was not enough.

As I have been suggesting, in the second (1856) edition of Leaves of Grass Whitman tends to emphasize the relationship between sexual love and social cohesion rather than the “destructive iconoclasms” of individual romantic obsession. This is true even of “Song of the Open Road,” a companion piece to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and more idiosyncratically expressed. In “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman suddenly explains,

Here is adhesiveness—it is not previously fashioned, it is apropos;
Do you know what it is as you pass to be loved by strangers?
Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls?

(LG 1856, p. 229)


“Here is the efflux of the soul,” he continues,

The efflux of the soul comes through beautiful gates of laws, provoking questions,

These yearnings, why are they? these thoughts in the darkness, why are they?

And then this passage, adapted from a notebook draft,

Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me the sunlight expands my blood?

Why when they leave me do my pennants of joy sink flat and lank?

Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?

(I think they hang there winter and summer on those trees, and always drop fruit as I pass;)

What is it I interchange so suddenly with strangers?

What with some driver as I ride on the seat by his side?

What with some fisherman, drawing his seine by the shore, as I walk by and pause?

What gives me to be free to a woman's or man's goodwill? What gives them to be free to mine?

(LG 1856, pp. 229–230)

As we might expect, the notebook passage is concerned with men alone. (The brackets indicate Whitman's deletions.)

Why [are] be there men I meet, and [many] others I know, that [when] while they are with me, the sunlight of Paradise [warms] expands my blood—that [if] when I walk with an arm of theirs around my neck, my soul [leaps and laughs like a new waked child] scoots and courses like [a caressed] an unleashed dog [caressed]—that when they leave me the pennants of my joy sink flat [from the] and lank in the deadest calm?

After an interval, and noting that he is writing at home while his brother Jeff is practicing the piano, Whitman alludes to “Some fisherman,” “some carpenter,” “some driver,” “men rough, [rough], not handsome, not accomplished.” Then he asks,

Why do I know that the subtle chloroform of our spirits is affecting each other, and though we may [never meet] encounter not again, [we know feel that we two] have [pass] exchanged the right [mysterious] [unspoken] password [of the night], and [have] are thence free [entrance] comers to [each] the guarded tents of each others' [love] most interior love?

(What is the [cause] meaning, any how, of my [love attachment] adhesiveness [for] toward others?—What is the cause of theirs [love for] toward [for] me?)—(Am I loved by them boundlessly because my love for them is more boundless?—) (DBN 3:764–65)

Like “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and “Song of the Open Road,” this early notebook entry reworks the problems and promise of malehomoerotic

desire, as experienced by Whitman, who was nothing if not inventive in devising passwords of the night. We have already noted his enthusiasm for stage drivers in previous chapters, and there is a very interesting essay to be written on Whitman and fishermen, whose cooperative virile actions extravagantly enthralled him. Between fishermen, fish rather than women function as mediums of exchange, and there are passages in which Whitman's desire to be a (phallic) fish is palpable, for example at the start of the 1860 “Starting from Paumanok,” the birth island he characterizes unexpectedly as “fish-shape.” But the pennants of joy that vivify the remarkable notebook entry quoted above have flagged in the 1860 poem “Who is now reading this?” where strangers have nei-ther voice nor heft nor occupation, love is a word, and the speaker finds himself unhappily estranged not only from conventional (hetero)sexual norms but also from himself as a purposefully occupied and socially familiar human being. That sense of playing the same part with the rest is gone, as is his desire to play the part well, as is his ability to realize the cooperative feeling, at first feigned, with which he would like to “im-bue [his] soul” (EPF 210). There now appears to be a self-destructive element in his “love” which he cannot sublimate; without effective voice and without transcendent vision, he has nothing left but his self-recriminations. Unlike the idealized readers of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and “Song of the Open Road,” the shape-shifting addressee of “Who is now reading this?” finally represents an unsympathetic moral perspective which has nothing to teach him. He has heard the voice be-fore, condemning him for “it” and urging him to depress the adhesive nature—all too many times.[39]

In part because of the excessively moralistic language, Whitman de-leted “Who is now reading this?” from subsequent editions of his book. Thus one critic contends that “this [poem] is the clearest expression of homosexual guilt ever to appear in Leaves of Grass,” while another sug-gests that Whitman internalized the homophobia of his culture.[40] These are good observations, but Whitman talks about loving strangers in other poems (for example Calamus 18, “City of my walks and joys!”), about not understanding himself, and about harboring evil impulses. He had already warned readers away in Calamus 3 (“Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand”), and to the extent that he was defending himself against official persecution such as he encountered in Washing-ton, D.C., in 1865 and in Boston in 1881, Calamus 3 was equally dangerous.[41] Similarly, Calamus 12 warns readers in no uncertain terms against idealizing him, and in the rather gruesome Calamus 15, he urges

his “confession drops” to “Stain every page—stain every song I sing, every word I say, bloody drops, / Let them know your scarlet heat—let them glisten, / Saturate them with yourself, all ashamed and wet, / Glow upon all I have written or shall write, bleeding drops, / Let it all be seen in your light, blushing drops” (LG 1860, p. 361). If we are looking for sexual guilt, here it is. And what of Calamus 36, in which the phallic speaker likens himself to a volcano, just waiting to explode?

Earth! my likeness!
Though you look so impassive, ample and spheric there,
I now suspect that is not all;
I now suspect there is something fierce in you, eligible to burst forth;
For an athlete is enamoured of me—and I of him,
But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me, eligible to burst forth,
I dare not tell it in words—not even in these songs.

(LG 1860, p. 374)

M. Jimmie Killingsworth points out that after the war Whitman con-sidered eliminating other poems from the sequence, as evidenced by the markings in his so-called Blue Book.[42] We can never know for sure why Whitman decided to eliminate Calamus 16. But in other poems that link sexual repression and social aggression, Whitman is less critical of him-self, and in that sense the split between the public and private Whitmans is less extreme. There are other Calamus poems which describe hopelessness, for example Calamus 28, “When I peruse the conquered fame of heroes,” in which the speaker is filled with the “bitterest envy” when he reads “of the brotherhood of lovers, how it was with them, / How through life, through dangers, odium, unchanging, long and long, / Through youth, and through middle and old age, how unfaltering, how affectionate and faithful they were” (370).[43] But here Whitman is a sym-pathetic reader of his own troubles. Finally, the spoiling-for-a-fight tone of Calamus 16 sets it apart from later statements such as Calamus 39, which eventually concluded with the touching parenthesis, “(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return'd / Yet out of that I have written these songs)” (LG, p. 134). The parenthesis makes all the difference. Whitman could not always believe in himself and he could not always trust his audience. Through writing, he nevertheless hoped to create an enduring erotic community which might justify the psycho-logical and perhaps physical risks he was taking. In the 1860 Leaves of Grass, there is always more than one faithful reader, even if there is only one lover. Even in Calamus 16, the speaker continues to imagine that “a

stranger is reading this who has secretly loved me” (emphasis added). But in Calamus 16, his faith in his ability to control himself, other people, and his medium has been too deeply threatened. Quite simply, we know this because, following the Civil War, Whitman excised the poem from Leaves of Grass and never reprinted it, an action that underscores its significance in his career, in his life, and in the provocatively troubled history of their interrelationship.

We are now in a better position to understand what Whitman meant by “the problems of freedom” in the 1860 Leaves of Grass, problems he proposed to solve through male-homoerotic love rather than by “lawyers … an agreement on a paper … [o]r by arms” (LG 1860, p. 349). Whitman, I think, was referring to the freedom of one “modern” person to harm another and to the freedom of any “modern” individual to harm himself. His homosocial, homoerotic, and homosexual “democracy” was a psychological and political construct. It neutralized his character-istic suspicion of male-male intimacy and affirmed the social value of non-coercive, sympathetic affection between men. The boundaries between homosocial, homoerotic, and homosexual relations were constantly re-defined by his literary project; he transgressed these historically familiar limits joyfully and at his peril. In his attempt to “plant [sexualized] com-panionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,” Whitman fan-tasized that he and his comrades would master the world, “under a new power.” He also feared that these new masters would master him. Thus he resisted not only the heterosexual “tie[s]” that “band stronger than hoops of iron,” but the homoerotic ties that band men together as well. We will never know how Whitman would have desired to “impress” others had homophobia not been part of his world. The poet who “saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing” and who ironized style as performance was himself mocked by a “real me” that denigrated his achievements in literature and in love. Despite the power of this depressing specter, which he could not fully overcome, in the 1860 Leaves of Grass Whit-man's democratic “faith in sex” was emphatically extended to include male-homoerotic love. The first two editions of Leaves of Grass had shown the way, and this extraordinary third book revealed a powerfully autobiographical writer who, as he struggled to find happiness for him-self, encouraged others to embrace the “real reality” of their own contradictions (LG 1860, p. 344).

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The Politics of Love in the 1860 Leaves of Grass
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