Preferred Citation: Pollak, Vivian R. The Erotic Whitman. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2000 2000.



1. See “Bamboozle and Benjamin,” reprinted in Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora: Editor at Twenty-Two, ed. Joseph Jay Rubin and Charles H. Brown (State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle Press, 1950), pp. 110–11. The essay begins, “We have in America many literary quacks.” “Bamboozle and Benjamin” also attacks the contemporary feminist Frances Wright, whom Whitman subsequently claimed to have revered.

2. On the Democratic Review, see Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines 1741–1850 (New York: D. Appleton, 1930), pp. 677–84. The 20,000-copy figure for Franklin Evans was first advanced by Henry Bryan Binns, in A Life of Walt Whitman (London: Methuen, 1905), p. 35, and is thoroughly in keeping with the sales of comparable works described by Mott. Whitman described his payment to Horace Traubel and Thomas Harned in 1888. The gist of the conversation is reprinted in EPF 125.

3. Lowell's remark is quoted in Esther Shephard, “Walt Whitman's Whereabouts in the Winter of 1842–1843,”American Literature 29, no. 3 (November 1957): 291.

4. Sophia Hawthorne is quoted in Mott, A History, p. 680.

5. Whitman's letter to Nathan Hale, Jr., editor of the Miscellany, is included in Corr 1:25.

6. In A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (New York: Macmillan, 1984), Eric Partridge lists 1920 as the earliest date for the use of “queer” to mean homosexual. But the history of this word is still being written. See, for example, George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), pp. 13–22, 24–25, 101, 125.

7. Stephen A. Black combines these lines of thinking. See Whitman's Journeys into Chaos: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Poetic Process (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), in which Black explains, “The fiction fails because when Whitman employed stock situations and devices of characterization his own unconscious attitudes and assumptions intruded upon the material. Unconscious forces conflicted with the intent to be conventional; Whitman's narcissism confused the fictional world he was trying to create” (p. 17).

8. For a fuller discussion of Whitman's attitudes toward Indians and for the view that “like many Americans who lived through this period, Whitman never stopped struggling with the insoluble ‘Indian problem,’” see Ed Folsom, Walt Whitman's Native Representations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), chapter 3. For the view that Whitman did not struggle enough, see Steven B. Shively, “Prejudice and Praise: Walt Whitman's Portrayal of the American Indian,” Nebraska English Journal 38, no. 2 (1993): 28–39, and Maurice Kenny, “Whitman's Indifference to Indians,” in The Continuing Presence of Walt

Whitman, ed. Robert K. Martin (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992), pp. 28–38.

9. For Whitman's relation to this debate, see Florence Bernstein Freedman, Walt Whitman Looks at the Schools (New York: King's Crown, 1950), especially pp. 70–71, 73–79, 83–85, 89–90, 92–93, 107–8, 114–19, 133–34, 137–39, 171, 190–93, 196–200. Freedman reprints articles Whitman wrote for the Brooklyn Evening Star and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle between 1845 and 1848 that show him as an educational reformer, campaigning vigorously for the abolition of corporal punishment.

For speculation that Whitman was publicly accused of sodomy while teaching school on Long Island, that he was denounced from the pulpit and tarred and feathered and run out of the town of Southold by a mob of enraged parents, see David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), chapter 3. On the whole, I find Reynolds's provocative discussion unpersuasive, though I agree that such an accusation, coupled with public disgrace, would clarify some of the murkier passages in Whitman's biography.

For a superb article on the broader cultural significance of flogging scenes, see Richard H. Brodhead, “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America,” Representations 21 (winter 1988): 67–96. Brodhead argues that “in the 1830s, then even more prominently in the 1840s and early 1850s, the picturing of scenes of physical correction emerges as a major form of imaginative activity in America, and arguing the merits of such discipline becomes a major item on the American public agenda” (p. 67).

10. See David Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 5.

11. For a reading of “The Child's Champion” that treats the end of the story as a “pure expression of a homoerotic utopian dream,” see Byrne R. S. Fone, “The Fountains of Love: Poetry and Fiction, 1838–1850,” in Masculine Landscapes: Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), p. 61. Fone's reading of this story and of the early fiction as “muted testimony to a life beneath the life” (p. 38) has many points of similarity to my own analysis, though he goes too far when he writes, “Langton and Charles, at least the implied fantasy hopes, will spend the rest of their days in a very nearly mystical and certainly spiritually uplifting union” (p. 61), since Whitman's fantasy of meaningful male bonding seeks to accommodate heterosexual marriage as well. To this end, Whitman seems to be working more with a “stages of development” model of sexuality, in which homoerotic desire among men eventually forms the basis of a manlier, that is heterosexual, identity. Charles and Langton are presented as emotionally immature; when Langton grows up he marries. What remains underdeveloped in the story's ending is the life beneath the life of their subsequent friendship, especially from Charles's narratively-collapsed perspective. We are led to believe that Langton gets it all (the friend and the wife and the family) but that Charles, second first and second always, remains excluded from the full range of power relations that Langton organizes. As I read it, their relationship is far from egalitarian, which is one of its more believable features.

Charles remains dependent on Langton, whereas Langton, the good father/ brother/lover, continues to have access to a wider range of erotic empowerments.

12. In a now classic analysis of this story, “Rendering the Text and the Body Fluid: The Cases of ‘The Child's Champion’ and the 1855 Leaves of Grass,” in Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in “Leaves of Grass” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), Michael Moon considers “the clear traces of self-censorship, a highly specialized form of writerly substitution, to be found in the successive editions of [t]his very early story” (p. 26). As I do, Moon sees Whitman as “both practicing and evading self-censorship” and further suggests that Whitman's strategies of “simultaneous extreme literality and extreme indeterminacy have a formative effect on the representation of the fluidity of selves, bodies, and texts which are central to the 1855 Leaves of Grass” (p. 26). Moon further explains,

The most persuasive evidence that Whitman was aware of the strong homoerotic quality of “The Child's Champion” is that when he came to revise it for republication in 1844 …, hedidsoby censoring it of a number of the pronounced and recurrent homoerotic references which the first version of the story foregrounded. … Censorship and self-censorship were crucial elements—were in a sense formative—of Whitman's literary practice from very early on. (pp. 29–30)

13. Franklin Evans has been mistakenly praised as the first or one of the first temperance novels, but as Jean Romig Kirkpatrick points out in “The Temperance Movement and Temperance Fiction 1820–1860” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1970), “At least 70 temperance novels were published before Whitman's Franklin Evans and certainly 8 were published in New York City during the ten year period prior to 1840” (p. 21 n. 1). There is an extensive literature on the history of temperance, but temperance fiction awaits the full scale treatment it deserves. See, however, “Ten Thousand and One Nights in a Barroom,” in Herbert Ross Brown, The Sentimental Novel in America 1789–1860 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1940), pp. 201–41. Valuable specialized studies of Franklin Evans in its historical context include Barton L. St. Armand, “Franklin Evans: A Sportive Temperance Novel,” in Books at Brown 24 (1971): 134–47, and Anne Dalke, “Whitman's Literary Intemperance: Franklin Evans, or The Power of Love,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 2, no. 3 (winter 1984): 17–22. For the larger context of reform literature and for a brief but stimulating look at temperance fiction, see David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988). For Reynolds's discussion of Franklin Evans in the context of the Washingtonian temperance movement, see his Walt Whitman's America,chapter 4. And for more on the “Literary Uses of Temperance and Alcohol,” see Reynolds, “Black Cats and Delirium Tremens: Temperance and the American Renaissance,” in The Serpent in the Cup: Temperance in American Literature, ed. David S. Reynolds and Debra J. Rosenthal (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), pp. 22–59. This volume also contains valuable material on the sociological and medical debates to which Whitman was responding.

14. For an insightful discussion of this novel as an example of the literature

of addiction, see Michael Warner, “Whitman Drunk,” in Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies, ed. Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 30–43.

15. The word gay was not used to signify homosexual identity until the twentieth century, but Whitman seems to be on the verge of developing this new range of linguistic and affective associations.

16. On Walter Whitman Senior's financial failures, see Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), pp. 64–65, as well as the discussion in my chapter 1. See too Whitman's remarks about his father's swindling in NUPM 1:10, 10 n. 30, 98, and 98 n. 12.

17. Walt Whitman, “New York Boarding Houses,” in Rubin and Brown, Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora, pp. 22–24.

18. In The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman (1955; reprint, New York: New York University Press, 1967), Gay Wilson Allen explains that “M—could hardly have been any one except his mother” (p. 216). Yet why code his mother's name? Emory Holloway (UPP 2:91) suggests “a lover, or perhaps Whitman's mother or sister Mary.” Roger Asselineau suggests a male lover, in The Evolution of Walt Whitman, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 1:106 ff. Given Whitman's close identification with his brother Jeff, another possibility is his sister-in-law Mattie, whom he adored. His sister Mary seems implausible.

19. See NUPM 1:401–3, 2:876, 3:1269–70. On “Song of Myself” as a spiritual novel, see DBN 3:774–75.

20. As Marjorie Perloff has argued, “Genre, far from being a normative category, is always culture-specific and, to a high degree, historically determined.” In this chapter I have been suggesting that genre is also biographically determined. See Postmodern Genres, ed. Marjorie Perloff (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), p. 7.

21. Large and passionate, she was originally “Ruth Anderson, a Quaker's daughter,” and there was to be “An old Quaker lady—good—sensible.” Whitman wondered “how to intertwine [her] with Antoinette's affairs,” and we too may wonder how he would have done it. For more historical context, see Timothy J. Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790–1920 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992).

22. Whitman attended Emerson's lecture on “Poetry and the Times” on March 5, 1842, as a reporter for the New York Aurora. A version of the lecture was published in Essays: Second Series (1844) as “The Poet.”

23. For the view that metaphors are pernicious in that they obliterate particularity and can make distinct exploitations appear identical, see Karen Sánchez-Eppler, “Bodily Bonds,” in Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 20. See also her discussion of the Virginia section of Franklin Evans in the context of Whitman's depictions of slavery, pp. 57–63 and following, in chapter 2, “To Stand Between: Whitman's Poetics of Merger and Embodiment.” Sánchez-Eppler argues that “the same politically grounded conception of miscegenation informs both Franklin Evans and the 1855 Leaves of Grass” (p. 63).


Preferred Citation: Pollak, Vivian R. The Erotic Whitman. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2000 2000.