Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 24 November 1997


By Gary Schmidgall

Book Review by Jack Nichols

Walt Whitman: A Gay Life by Gary Schmidgall, New York: Dutton, 1997, 428 pages, hard cover, $32.95

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass is our nation's most significant life-enhancing primer, one waiting to be used by Americans of all varieties to promote both inner integrity and societal harmony. Whitman, I knew early on, needed an army of learned literary champions at his side. In Gay, America's first gay weekly newspaper, Lige Clarke and I wrote regularly in the late 60s and early 70s about the importance of this world-class poet, calling him the ideological fountainhead-father of the gay movement.

In those years, reputable Whitman scholarship was next to nil. Few researchers, timid academics all, dared to state the obvious, that Democracy's Muse was, in fact, a poof. When high schools and bridges were named after the beloved Whitman there were minor bureaucratic skirmishes when, on occasion, homophobes would attempt to sully the poet's good name with rumors about his sexual "perversions."

But because Whitman (1819-1892) affirmatively and brilliantly projected a spirited, robust, and loving persona, and because homosexuality was—before 1973-- usually considered a vile disease, scholars who should have known better avoided mention of what the religious right has, as yet, failed to note, namely that America's Muse—quoted today in every high school text-- proselytizes unashamedly on behalf of same-sex affection.

Though the poet had purposefully left unmistakable figurative bottles filled with homosexual evidences for future researchers to uncork, his heterosexual admirers—loving him for his undisputed visionary powers—preferred not to enter this rich wine cellar. Thus, Whitman passed social muster, cleverly moving without undue fanfare, as he'd originally planned, into the nation's cultural arena, being placed prominently in public schools and libraries without expected squeaks of alarm from such as Beverly LaHaye, Pat Robertson or James Dobson.

Recent Whitman scholarship has improved somewhat, though admiring heterosexual academics—such as the City University of New York's, David Reynolds--are still loathe to admit that a poet of such stature as Whitman's could have actually lived as an uninhibited, proud, homosexually-inclined genius.

Now, with the publication of Gary Schmidgall's Walt Whitman: A Gay Life, homophobic crusaders such as LaHaye, Robertson and Dobson will have ample reasons, from their standpoints, to crusade in public libraries and schoolrooms attempting to turn America's poet into a non-person. Schmidgall's amazing scholarship, the best yet, proves without a shadow of a doubt that same-sex-proselytizer Walt Whitman lived and loved homosexually with an enthusiasm worthy of the gods.

This obvious fact shines without shame in Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and accounts for the fact that well-known 19th century scholars and literary lights, including Oscar Wilde and Edward Carpenter, approached the poet and were, in turn, celebrated by him. But because the publication of the Leaves predated the construction of the word "homosexual" other scholars preferred to assume that Whitman's word for same-sex love, "adhesiveness," had only a non-sexual connotation, one akin to universal fellowship.

In fact, though Whitman practiced the sexuality he preached, he also practiced a kind of same-sex affection which did not necessarily require any specific sexual acts. He believed that the "germ" (i.e. the seed) for same-sex love lies within every breast, buried under conventional social conditioning. Thus he saw his own feelings as having universal potentials that would, indeed, promote world brotherhood. The gay taboo, he saw, interferes with humanity's need for healthy, hearty comradeship, and thus contributes to planetary disruptions.

Gary Schmidgall, who is also the author of the highly acclaimed study, The Stranger Wilde: Interpreting Oscar, now destroys academic myths surrounding Whitman, namely those that present him as "a fusty, gray-bearded creator of high-flown patriotic verse."

Using sources such as the Leaves, Whitman's private journals, and nine volumes by the youthful Horace Traubel, Whitman's trusted companion in his waning years, Schmidgall has provided future generations with indisputable evidences of how the poet's robust homosexual passions were, in fact, central to his message.

Academia's resistance to such evidences has been such that only a first-rate scholar like Schmidgall, armed with both an easy-going charm and an indefatigable inquisitiveness, proves capable of rescuing Leaves of Grass from puritanical pundits. Walt Whitman: A Gay Life, while not the first volume to affirm Whitman's homosexuality, is, nevertheless, the first to do so with a required mastery and breadth of view.

One gay-inspired work, The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry, suffered because its author gave Whitman's sexual acts as recorded in the Leaves-- unduly narrow interpretations—based, no doubt, on his own specific tastes. Schmidgall, a sophisticate, does not make this kind of mistake, and, in fact, seems to appreciate a much wider focus in Whitman's approach to sexuality.

Before reading Schmidgall's new book, I flipped through its pages, mesmerized by what I considered his grasp of Whitman's meanings. He includes an "afterword" titled "Walt and Me" in which he tells how he discovered and then applied Whitman's Leaves, helping to complete and fathom his own life experiences. Though some might find fault with such an inclusion, I doubt that Whitman himself would have. In fact, Whitman wanted most that his readers should make such personal applications. The great poet wrote:

"I am personal…In my poems, all revolves around, concentrates in, radiates from myself. I have but one central figure, the general human personality typified in myself. But my book compels, absolutely necessitates, every reader to transpose himself or herself into the central position, and to become the living fountain, actor, experiencer himself or herself, of every page, every aspiration, every line."

In my own experience I posit two explanations for my behavioral perspectives. One explanation, passive, accepts the axiom, human see, human do. In other words, I have been influenced by the best and most entrancing of what I see around me. The other axiom, decidedly active, says I am what I consciously absorb, having become what I consciously absorb. This latter statement is a rewrite of Buddhist wisdom: we are what we think, having become what we thought. Or this famous line: As a man thinketh, so is he.

I made a deliberate decision about Whitman in my more youthful days, namely that his poetry would be my most treasured source from which I'd consciously absorb life-fulfilling and life-sustaining attitudes.

I hoped by so doing, as the poet had promised readers who put his words to memory, to dismiss whatever had insulted my own soul, so that my "very flesh" might become—as he prophecied-- "a great poem and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines" of its lips and face and between the lashes of the eyes and in every motion and joint of the body.

In Schmidgall, therefore, I saw—almost immediately—the only Whitman biographer of whom I knew who has been able, thus far, to treat the poet with necessary empathetic understanding. This, I decided, was because Schmidgall sees far enough into his own psyche to allow him to grasp Whitman's essences. Few authors enjoy this kind of self-recognizing advantage. Whitman was suspicious of biographers, mostly, I'd say, because he knew most would miss the great secret of his existence, his homosexuality.

Schmidgall, by reaching into the depths of his own feelings, illustrates them in a subjective vein through his subject matter. While "objectivists" might see this as a "subjective danger" to scholarship, such an approach is exactly what Whitman hoped for: to have his poetic visions reproduced in the future's personalities, men and women still living centuries hence.

In as much as I'd chosen Walt Whitman for my guru, so to speak, and I—like Edward Carpenter— became a moon reflecting light from his sun station, I'd left unstudied—while Schmidgall has not—stages in the poet's life that explain seeming differences in his reflections about love.

There were times, Schmidgall notes, mostly prior to the third edition of the Leaves, when Whitman's celebrations of love and sexuality were unprecedented for their exuberance. Schmidgall believes that these celebratory poems resulted from a great personal attachment the Muse had experienced, one which somewhat dissipated later, though his enthusiasm for such personal attachments remained in full tilt.

Having had less interest in Whitman's somewhat secretive personal life and far more in his poetry and the effects it had had on me, I discovered in Schmidgall's new biography a Whitman much more humanized than I'd previously known.

This humanizing of the revelator, I worried at first, could have possibly lessened my admiration for him. But after reading Schmidgall's tome I saw how, in fact, Whitman's life had vaguely paralleled my own, a comforting realization.

The poet knew, as he'd revealed in the poem, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, that he would not be unlike his lovers—centuries from now—lovers who would take his love-thoughts on the road with them, lovers thickly populating promising eras in the future:

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation or ever
so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look upon the river and sky, so I felt,

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the
bright flow, I was refresh'd,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with
the swift current, I stood yet was hurried…

Why does Schmidgall celebrate Walt Whitman as a boon to humanity's needs? Whitman's own words, as Schmidgall notes, best describe what—among other gifts-- the poet brought us: "With an iron will he substituted action and cheerfulness for despondency and a fretful tongue."

There are other gifts, no doubt. Schmidgall writes of Whitman: "He is the supreme celebrator of close physical proximity and the thrill of sexual arousal that may attend it…"

Schmidgall understands better than most that Whitman's sexuality was not sequestered by the common man's curse, namely the making in sex of strict, unswerving anatomical demands. Sexuality, Whitman knew, was wider than specific, singular tastes. In Song of Myself, he notes, "Whitman made thrilling and momentous the simple extension of the hand and fingers to touch the body of another, as Michelangelo did with God's hand extended to Adam's in the Sistine Chapel."

At the same time, says Schmidgall, Whitman bravely rescued human genitals from the sad, despised state into which the puritans have relegated them. Schmidgall tells how Thomas Mann had written: "You don't need to despise your lower regions so entirely…the lower regions contain a huge amount of poetry—one has only to develop it beautifully into feelings and moods." Mann's view, Schmidgall insists, gives "in a few words…the fundamental view of the author of the first editions of Leaves of Grass."

"He is, after all," says Schmidgall of Whitman, "probably the most gaily, muscularly, and relentlessly phallic writer in the annals of literature."

If Whitman scholarship has suffered because of what Schmidgall calls "ameliorative instincts of high-minded, asexual critics unaware or unwilling to acknowledge its (the Leaves) erotic transactions—or from the Argus-eyed Griswolds who recognize the potently subversive sexual agenda and react with understandable, and not entirely inappropriate hysterics," such critics must now, in the wake of Schmidgall's new book, set aside ostrich-like poses and sex hysterics and, head-on, must face the erotic implications advanced by the great poet.

Manhattanites, among whom Whitman considered himself one, will particularly appreciate Schmidgall's reflections on the city. New York's vibrant sexual life, allowing for understandings and growths little appreciated in less populous locales, affected Whitman profoundly, just as it continues to affect émigrés such as I was, arriving in the midst of the counterculture revolution of the 60s.

As time passes in Manhattan, Schmidgall notes, "the city can, after some years, begin to wear one down. "Hot wishes," whether one dares not speak them or chooses to act upon them, are enormously time-consuming. One can't stay up late, drink as much, disco until other people's brunch time, or achieve orgasm more than once a night. One begins to think of strategies or extrication from the sexual busyness, the most drastic being simply to emigrate to calmer environs."

Whitman accomplished this change-over, Schmidgall suggests, by moving to Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. There he became a nurse, his lips close to those of dying youths, reminding us today of the battle scars we carry, as the biographer points out, in our struggle against AIDS.

Still, as the records researched show, Whitman continued to regard himself as somewhat boyish. "Undying childhood," he said, "is an illimitably important aspect of character."

There are only a few moments in Walt Whitman: A Gay Life wherein a true believer like myself takes issue with Schmidgall. He says that Whitman's work shows a poet with "enormous, almost ineluctable desire to control, suggest, initiate: to act rather than be acted upon, to move rather than be moved."

While this may have been so upon occasion in practice, Whitman knew better than to carry too much male-role conditioned action-only into his poetry. In Song of Myself he sings to the earth, in one lengthy verse actively—like a typical macho male. "Smile," he demands, "for your lover comes."

But then, in a passage unlike any other in world literature, Whitman, previously the active male, transforms himself through so-called female passivity and is, without doubt, acted upon. The poet, shameless, celebrates the triad of nature, sexuality, and spirituality like a receptive woman:

You sea! I resign myself to you also—I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me,
We must have a turn together, I undress, hurry me out of
sight of the land,
Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.

Sea of stretched ground-swells,
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths,
Sea of the brine of life and of unshovell'd yet always-ready

Howler and scooper of storms, capricious and dainty sea,
I am integral with you, I too am of one phase and of all
Partaker of influx and efflux I…

Even so, Gary Schmidgall has provided much more about Whitman's seemingly contradictory character than I've seen in any other work. He has done this not only with style and elan, but with an ongoing sense of humor and graciousness that makes every page of Walt Whitman: A Gay Life, pure delight.

There is little in this book that reflects on other significant aspects of Whitman's message, aspects such as were unearthed in V.K. Chari's Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism (University of Nebraska Press, 1964). But Schmidgall's's intention was not to focus on the great poet's spiritual or political views so much as to rescue him from nay-gay-sayers and to affirm that he did, in fact, live homosexually, not only in his extraordinary poetry but in his life.

In this, Gary Schmidgall has succeeded beyond old academia's wildest dreams, leaving a spirited record in an engaging book, one from which future scholars must inevitably learn as they attempt to properly understand Democracy's Muse.

© 1998 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
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