Whitman Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In his classic book-length poem Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman established a masculine gay identity, portraying “manly love” as an expression of God’s love.

Summary of Event

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in July of 1855, is a collection of sprawling poems that offers a fully masculine gay voice, a sexual celebration transcending any single orientation, interrupted narratives that engage the reader in an affectionate conversation, and reassurance that “manly love” is God’s love. In October of 1855, The New York Times exposed the Progressive Union, a secret “free love” society. Its officers included Whitman’s close friend and ally Henry Clapp. The Progressive Union taught that sexual impulses could be entrusted to the guidance of “God within”—a cornerstone of Quaker theology also known as “the inner light.” [kw]Whitman Publishes Leaves of Grass (July 4, 1855) [kw]Leaves of Grass, Whitman Publishes (July 4, 1855) [kw]Publishes Leaves of Grass, Whitman (July 4, 1855) Leaves of Grass (Whitman) Literature;gay Masculinity;and gay literature[gay literature] [c]Literature;July 4, 1855: Whitman Publishes Leaves of Grass[0020] [c]Publications;July 4, 1855: Whitman Publishes Leaves of Grass[0020] Whitman, Walt Hicks, Elias Griswold, Rufus W. Fourier, Charles Carpenter, Edward Traubel, Horace L.

One month later, Rufus W. Griswold published an important review of Leaves of Grass. He compared the book to the spectacle of sex radicals emerging “out from behind the screen” (as Whitman later put it). “Unless we admit this exhibition to be beautiful,” fumed Griswold, “we are at once set down for non-progressive conservatives, destitute of the ’inner light.’” [c]Publications;July 4, 1855: Whitman Publishes Leaves of Grass[0020] Whitman, Walt Hicks, Elias Griswold, Rufus W. Fourier, Charles Carpenter, Edward Traubel, Horace L.

Walt Whitman.

(Library of Congress)

It is possible that Whitman had been inspired to write Leaves of Grass after reading the work of French socialist Charles Fourier, who wrote, “the Law of Attraction rules the universe, from the blade of grass, from the insect, to the stars revolving in their appointed orbits.” Whitman’s epic “Song of Myself,” in Leaves of Grass, had translated Fourier’s notion of attraction into maritime language. Whitman wrote, “A kelson [or keel] of the creation is love.” Leaves of Grass is replete with references to ships and sailors, and, according to American historian Jonathan Ned Katz, the long voyages of sailing ships normalized male sexual encounters. Like Fourier, Whitman constantly extolled the power of personal attraction. In “States!” he suggested that male-male “adhesiveness” could bind the nation like “hoops of iron.”

Whitman employed the word “grass” in a third way, equally important to “Song of Myself,” and offered it as a symbol of the immortal soul. He wrote, “[I]t seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves…the smallest sprout shows there is really no death.” This poem was tailored to appeal to spiritualist reformers; in fact, Whitman tried to become a medium himself but failed to contact the spirits of the dead. Shortly after the appearance of Leaves of Grass, a satire called Lucy Boston harshly ridiculed spiritualism’s attraction for gay males.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a letter to Whitman dated July 21, 1855, writes, upon reading Leaves of Grass, “Dear Sir, I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit + wisdom that America has yet contributed.

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(Library of Congress)

Ultimately, Whitman symbolized “grass” in a fourth way. After gathering the opinions of his readers, he revised and expanded Leaves of Grass. Comparing himself to Jesus in the garden, sweating drops of blood (“Trickle Drops”), he decided to “unbare” his “broad breast” (“Scented Herbage of My Breast”) and include even more dangerous poems. Originally, in “Song of Myself” he likened the phallus to a “sweet flag.” With the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860), he expanded this metaphor into the “Calamus” poems “of comrades and of love.” Calamus is an aromatic grass that bears a phallic cone.

Whitman skillfully used a literary sort of sleight of hand. He crosscut sexual situations with one or more literary metaphors (fire, leaves, electricity, and so on). He identified his loving bedfellow as his own “soul” or even as God. This erotic impressionism proved equally suggestive to the English gay rights leader Edward Carpenter and even to former U.S. president William Jefferson Clinton, who both were inspired by the work. Such a reach among sexualities has enabled Whitman’s book and his reputation to survive periodic skirmishes with censorship for more than 150 years.

Significance

Until his death in 1892, Whitman frequently expanded and expurgated his poems. By this time, he had established a liberating masculine alternative for gay men. “No dainty dolce affettuoso I,” yawped Whitman, in “Starting from Paumanok,” “Bearded, sun-burnt, gray-neck’d, forbidding, I have arrived, to be wrestled with as I pass. . . .” This muscular, working-man construct lay at the heart of Whitman’s success. Oscar Wilde, however, resurrected the jaded playboy stereotype during the 1890’s, nearly canceling the “revolution” by playing into the hands of evangelical opportunists.

Edward Carpenter, who twice visited Whitman’s home in Camden, New Jersey, seems to have received Whitman’s spiritual torch. Resorting to anthropological and sexological arguments, Carpenter tried to propagate Whitman’s message against a swelling tide of “homosexualist” cures by Freudian opportunists. However, the great refuge for comrades and love—isolated sailing ships—had been swept away by the use of steam. Prior to World War I, Whitman and Carpenter were both regarded as religious leaders by some parts of the gay community.

In the United States, Whitman’s legacy passed largely to socialist Horace Traubel, but Traubel’s anarchist politics threatened the legacy’s credibility. One respected author, however, may have been more successful than either Carpenter or Traubel in legitimizing Leaves of Grass among intellectuals: William James. In his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), James praised Whitman’s “religion of healthy-mindedness.”

During the 1960’s Stonewall era, the individual who best harnessed Whitman’s legacy to the cause of gay rights was Jack Nichols of the Washington Mattachine Society. As a leading activist and journalist, he brought Whitman’s ideas to life for an entire generation coming “out from the dark confinement.” Before Whitman, it may have seemed that the whole world agreed that “manly love” could lead only to Hell. Leaves of Grass asserted that it leads to God. Leaves of Grass (Whitman) Literature;gay Masculinity;and gay literature[gay literature]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brock, William Hall. “The ’Insanity’ of American Fourierism.” Chapter 2 of Brock’s Phalanx on a Hill: Responses to Fourierism in the Transcendentalist Circle. http://www.billbrock.net/fch00.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Tony, ed. Edward Carpenter and Late Victorian Radicalism. London: Frank Cass, 1990.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Erkkila, Betsy, and Jay Grossman, eds. Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katz, Jonathan Ned, ed. Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maslan, Mark. Whitman Possessed: Poetry, Sexuality, and Popular Authority. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pollak, Vivian R. The Erotic Whitman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schmidgall, Gary. Walt Whitman: A Gay Life. New York: Dutton, 1997.

May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency

1924: Gide Publishes the Signed Edition of Corydon

1939: Isherwood Publishes Goodbye to Berlin

1947-1948: Golden Age of American Gay Literature

1956: Baldwin Publishes Giovanni’s Room

1963: Rechy Publishes City of Night

June, 1971: The Gay Book Award Debuts

1974: The Front Runner Makes The New York Times Best-Seller List

1975: First Novel About Coming Out to Parents Is Published

1980-1981: Gay Writers Form the Violet Quill

May, 1987: Lambda Rising Book Report Begins Publication

June 2, 1989: Lambda Literary Award Is Created

1993: Monette Wins the National Book Award for Becoming a Man

Categories: History Content