Badpuppy Gay Today

Tuesday, 30 September 1997


Scholar Births a Brilliant Literary Feat: Whitman's 'Gay' Life
America's Poet of Democracy—Sexual Liberation's Muse—is Unveiled

By Jack Nichols


Introducing a personality as rich and complex as Walt Whitman's is nigh impossible, though many biographers have tried. Few, however, have come equipped with either the insight, the ability to write and enchant or the dogged taste for intense scholarship that have resulted in Gary Schmidgall's new biography of the world-acclaimed poetic titan: Walt Whitman: A Gay Life.

The biographer shows that Walt Whitman was, in fact, a man with a deeply sexual nature, ardently pursuing the objects of his desire in erotic encounters and experiencing love affairs that fueled his creative energy and inspired his seminal literary achievements.

While others books and articles have paved the way for such a volume as Schmidgall's—one that gives clear focus to Whitman's homosexuality-- none have addressed it with comparable breadth or understanding.

The appearance of such a book as this, says one modern-day scholar and lover of the great poet, is a cultural event of major proportions. Others have indicated they see the publication of Schmidgall's new book as a tool with which to challenge the downsides of current-day commercial culture.

Schmidgall's previous works—such as his highly acclaimed biography of Oscar Wilde—have earned him those accolades that accrue to a major talent. The Boston Globe calls his critical senses "astute," while Booklist says its "brilliant, brilliantly executed, trenchant…urgently recommended."

Walt Whitman, as Schmidgall shows, was a man of stunning contradictions. The publication in 1855 of Leaves of Grass—and particularly of its longest poem--Song of Myself—transformed Whitman from an obscure poet into the voice of a nation.

Oscar Wilde himself said, seven years after visiting Walt Whitman, "The chief value of his work is in its prophecy, not in its performance. He has begun a prelude to larger themes. He is the herald of a new era. As a man he is the precursor of a fresh type."

Gary Schmidgall draws from Whitman's poems, journals, and intimate letters, and explores him not only as an artist, but also as a friend and a lover. Schmidgall replies with an arsenal of proof countering continuing tendencies in Whitman's heterosexual biographers to neuter the great gay poet.

Walt Whitman: A Gay Life brings Whitman to life as a vibrant youth, mesmerized by the magic of the theatre; a journalist caught up in the intoxicating pleasures of New York nightlife; a poet whose early work would play an important part in the history of modernism; and a partner in passionate relationships that filled him with ecstasy, joy and pain.

For who but I should know all of the joys and sorrows of lovers? Who but I should be the poet of comrades?

Whitman's sexuality, as well as his approaches to it, echo powerfully in his art— that is, his poems—says the biographer.

Whitman's meeting with the young Oscar Wilde is recounted, and Schmidgall believes that it was the meeting of two of the most intriguing minds in literary history. The new biography also gives "unadorned details" about Whitman's relationship with his longtime companion, Peter Doyle.

The wordings of sexually explicit poems Whitman later expunged from the Leaves are resurrected also.

Whitman, writes New York resident Schmidgall, "believed in the celebration of the self above all else, at the expense of a traditional life."

Walt Whitman: A Gay Life shatters the myth of a fusty, gray-bearded creator of high-flown patriotic verse. Candid and unapologetic, this book is an unmatched tribute to the man who many call "the father of American poetry." It is also an effective tool for seeing Whitman as he truly was and to appreciate his extraordinary vision of the self and its relationship to the cosmos.

The book has just been published as a William Abrahams Book by Dutton.

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