17 December 2009

Walt Whitman

[from David S. Reynolds's Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography,Alfred A. Knopf, 1995]

That the middle-class Victorian parlor could accept naturally Whitman's "Calamus" poems is suggested by Ernest Rhys's Leaves of Grass: The Poems of Walt Whitman (1886) and Arthur Stedman's 1892 collection of Whitman's Selected Poems. Like [Elizabeth Porter] Gould, these other two editors carefully excluded the "amative" poems and passages they thought might offend middle-class readers. To avoid sex, Rhys omitted "Song of Myself" and all the "Children of Adam" poems. ("I am willing," wrote Whitman of the Rhys volume, despite his distaste for expurgation.) Stedman, likewise, omitted "Children of Adam" and heavily edited "Song of Myself." Both volumes emphasized the Whitman poems that were safely religious and patriotic. Significantly, many of the "Calamus" poems were deemed conventional enough to remain in these scrubbed, polite volumes. In fact, Rhys included nearly the whole "Calamus" sequence, and Stedman selected several, including the loving "When I Heard at the Close of Day" and "Whoever You Are Holding My Hand." That is, comradely love was still considered close to mainstream conventions. . . .

The term "homosexual," introduced in English in the 1890s and not used in the New York Times until 1926, did not gain widespread cultural use until the 1930s. In the meantime, the idea of sexual identity was embattled. Some who discussed Whitman in this context did not connect him with homosexuality. His close friend Edward Carpenter, who regarded the term "homosexual" as a monstrous combination of Greek and Latin (he preferred "homogenic"), believed, like [John Addington] Symonds, that Whitman was attempting to restore pure, chivalric Greek love as a social institution. To clear Whitman of what he called "morbidity," he cited a comment by Dr. Beverly Drinkard that Whitman had "the most natural habits, bases, and organization he had ever seen."

The British sexologist Havelock Ellis, who corresponded with Whitman and knew his work well, saw in Whitman, a "latent and unconscious" homosexual instinct that was so handled that it could provide a model for sexual inverts. In his book Sexual Inversion Ellis argued that reading Whitman could help make an invert "healthy, self-restrained, and self-respecting," teaching "dignity, temperance, even chastity" like the Greeks. Ellis wrote: "The 'manly love' celebrated by Walt Whitman furnishes a wholesome and robust ideal to the invert who is insensitive to normal ideals." With Whitman's help, Ellis, the invert can learn "self-restraint and self-culture," particularly important because, in Ellis's eyes, "it is the ideal of chastity, rather than of normal sexuality, which the congenital invert should hold before his eyes."

When funneled back into medical circles, then, Whitman's treatment of same-sex love was seen mainly as a means of "controlling" or "elevating" homosexual desires instead of giving them unbridled expression.

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