When I write about individuals from history that were homosexual, I avoid using the term- GAY, because for me, there was no GAY before the 20th century, until I consider Walt Whitman on this, the day of his birth. Whitman was GAY, using the 20th/21st century definition.
Whitman is this country’s greatest embarrassment, if what he says about democracy is true, the American ideal of universal equality must embrace homosexuals, & same sex love. Whitman is a subversive & radical poet & American school children for the past 50 years have been carefully protected from exposure to America's greatest poet. I have always been an avid reader, & I did not read Whitman until I was finished with college, when my mother, of all people, gave me a volume of Leaves Of Grass as a gift.
A leaf for hand in hand;
You natural persons old and young!You on the Mississippi and on all the branches & bayous of the Mississippi!
You friendly boatmen and mechanics! You roughs!You twain! & all processions moving along the streets!
I wish to infuse myself among you till I see it common for you to walk hand in hand.
Walt Whitman was a true bohemian. He never gave into having a regular job occupation, & he was a singularly solitary man, probably not by choice. In 1819, Whitman was born in Long Island, NY. He did the usual things until he was 11, when he quit school. He ran errands for a lawyer & doctor, & then became an apprentice typesetter for a Brooklyn paper.
He taught school in several small villages in NY, & contributed articles to newspapers. In 1841 he left country life for the big city. In NYC he worked for newspapers as typesetter, reporter, feature writer & editor. Whitman took a life of theatre, cafes & nightclubs.
He went to art exhibitions, museums, the opera, watch the ships, & walked among the masses in the great city. His favorite activity was to sit near the hot, young, rugged carriage drivers, & cross back & forth on the Brooklyn ferry to mingle with the rough deck hands. Because he was repressing his sexuality, he was a loner in a crowd, a spectator rather than a participant.
Sometime after 1855, when Leaves of Grass was first published, he experienced some sort of emotional crisis that transformed him from journalist to poet. In the manner so many gay men in NYC & San Francisco of late 1970s, he gave up being a dandy & became a hyper masculine clone.
Crowds of men & women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me.On the ferry-boats the hundreds & hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose
& you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, & more in my meditations, than you might suppose . . .
I was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,Was call'd by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word.
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
Once I pass'd through a populous city imprinting my brain for future use with its shows, architecture, customs, tradition,Yet now of all that city I remember only a man I casually met there who detained me for love of me,
Day by day & night by night we were together — all else has long been forgotten by me,
I remember I saw only that man who passionately clung to me,Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again he holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see him close beside me with silent lips sad & tremulous.
Once I Pass'd Through A Populous City
Once I Pass'd Through A Populous City
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men & women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me,& whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
Through me the afflatus surging & surging, through me the current & index.
I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the song of democracy,By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
Song Of Myself
When Whitman is taught in school as part of the canon of American literature, there is still much resistance to identifying him as gay, despite some fairly well documented evidence.
I share the midnight orgies of young men . . .I pick out some low person for my dearest friend,
He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate, he shall be condemned by others for deeds done,
I will play a part no longer, why should I exile myself from my companions?
Whitman's notebooks of this period are filled with descriptions of bus drivers, boat men, & other "rude, illiterate" men that he picked up is really in the streets of Manhattan, & "slept with," often keeping notes of their home addresses. Excerpts from his Notebooks have been collected in Charley Shively's Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Camerados:
Peter — large, strong-boned young fellow, driver. . . . I liked his refreshing wickedness, as it would be called by the orthodox.
George Fitch — Yankee boy — Driver . . . Good looking, tall, curly haired, black-eyed fellow
Saturday night Mike Ellis — wandering at the corner of Lexington av. & 32d st. — took him home to 150 37th street, — 4th story back room — bitter cold night
Wm Culver, boy in bath, aged 18
Dan'l Spencer . . . somewhat feminine . . . slept with me Sept 3d
Theodore M Carr — came to the house with me
James Sloan (night of Sept 18 '62) 23rd year of age — plain homely, American
John McNelly night Oct 7 young man, drunk, walk'd up Fulton & High st. home
David Wilson — night of Oct. 11 '62, walking up from Middagh — slept with me
Horace Ostrander Oct. 22 '62 — about 28 yr's of age — slept with him Dec 4th '62
October 9, 1863, Jerry Taylor, (NJ.) of 2d dist reg't slept with me last night weather soft, cool enough, warm enough, heavenly.This is the 19th century version of John Rechy’s Numbers!
As I have been noting the protests of the right wing & religious fundamentalists to the recent legislation adding references to gay people in history to the curriculum in public schools of California, I consider how liberating it will be for young gay people to acknowledge that the most American of poets was not just a homosexual, he was gay.
I recommend the excellent & very readable- Walt Whitman: A Gay Life by Gary Schmidgall.