Thursday, October 8, 2009

Who's That Queer

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Walt Whitman is widely considered to be the father of modern American literature, but during his lifetime he remained more highly regarded in Europe than in the United States. In 1882 Oscar Wilde, who was on a lecture tour of America, visited Whitman's at the poet's home in Camden, NJ. Afterward he said of Whitman, "He is the grandest man I have ever seen, the simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life."

Walt Whitman is best known for Leaves of Grass, his groundbreaking volume of twelve untitled poems first published in 1855, which heralded a new, uniquely American style of poetry. Whitman continued to revise and expand Leaves of Grass for the rest of his life. The first few editions were poorly received. Leaves of Grass was censured by some prominent American intellectuals because of its innovative, unstructured verse and its celebration of sexuality, which they found obscene.

Whitman was born in Long Island, New York, into a Quaker family. Largely self-educated, Whitman supported himself as a printer, teacher, and journalist while he pursued his vision of a new form of literature that would express America's destiny as liberator of the human spirit. Leaves of Grass reflects Whitman's belief that poetry should be simple, with the natural rhythm of spoken language and without orthodox meter or rhyme.

During the Civil War, the poet served as an unofficial nurse in an army hospital, caring for his brother and other wounded Union soldiers at his own expense. When the war ended, Whitman, who was already internationally famous, remained in Washington, DC, working as a clerk in the Department of the Interior. However, when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, Harlan fired the poet.

Whitman's sexuality is sometimes disputed, although often assumed to be bisexual based on his poetry. The concept of heterosexual and homosexual personalities was not identified distinctly until 1868, and it was not widely promoted until Whitman was an old man. Whitman's poetry depicts love and sexuality in a more earthy, individualistic way common in American culture before the medicalization of sexuality in the late 1800s. As Whitman biographer Jerome Loving wrote, "the discussion of Whitman's sexual orientation will probably continue in spite of whatever evidence emerges." Though Leaves of Grass was often labeled pornographic or obscene, only one critic remarked on its author's presumed sexual activity: in a November 1855 review, Rufus Wilmot Griswold suggested Whitman was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians".

Whitman had intense friendships with many men throughout his life. Some biographers have claimed that he may not have actually engaged in sexual relationships with men, while others cite letters, journal entries and other sources which they claim as proof of the sexual nature of some of his relationships. Peter Doyle may be the most likely candidate for the love of Whitman's life, according to biographer David S. Reynolds. Doyle was a bus conductor whom Whitman met around 1866 and the two were inseparable for several years. Interviewed in 1895, Doyle said: "We were familiar at once — I put my hand on his knee — we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip — in fact went all the way back with me."

In his notebooks, Whitman disguised Doyle's initials using the code "16.4". A more direct second-hand account comes from Oscar Wilde. Wilde met Whitman in America in 1882, and wrote to the homosexual rights activist George Cecil Ives that there was "no doubt" about the great American poet's sexual orientation — "I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips," he boasted. The only explicit description of Whitman's sexual activities is second hand. In 1924 Edward Carpenter, then an old man, described an erotic encounter he had had in his youth with Whitman to Gavin Arthur, who recorded it in detail in his journal. Late in his life, when Whitman was asked outright if his series of "Calamus" poems were homosexual, he chose not to respond.

Sources: Wikipedia,

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