Commentary

Selected Criticism

Debating Manliness: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, William Sloane Kennedy, and the Question of Whitman

Robert K. Nelson and Kenneth M. Price


In 1908 William Sloane Kennedy, one of Walt Whitman’s close allies in his final years, wrote a barbed essay entitled "Euphrasy and Rue for T. W. Higginson," heretofore unpublished.1  Intriguingly, Kennedy noted at the top of the first manuscript leaf: "N.B. not written for publication during the present generation . . . or the next—.’’ This restriction on publication allowed for outspoken criticism of Whitman’s antagonist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a longtime acquaintance of Kennedy himself.2  Surprisingly, the restriction also emboldened Kennedy to attack Whitman’s "dearest friends"—William Douglas O’Connor and Horace Traubel—as actually the poet’s "greatest enemies."3  "Euphrasy and Rue" (Kennedy’s title quotes Paradise Lost to suggest a failure of vision) would deserve publication if it were only a lively and insightful document shedding light on Whitman’s reputation.4  But this essay has further value because it illuminates in stark fashion the politics of late-nineteenth-century literary criticism: in this case, how literary judgments intervened in and were influenced by contested discursive constructions of gender identity, sexual predilections, and class status.

Kennedy, a minister’s son from Oxford, Ohio (1850–1929), graduated from Yale University in 1875 and attended Harvard Divinity School, leaving without taking a degree. In 1879 he joined the staff of the Philadelphia American and began a career as a journalist and literary figure; in the 1880s he worked for the Boston Evening Transcript. During his Boston years, he developed a friendship with Whitman that led to many visits and an extended correspondence. He became a prolific writer, publishing biographies of Longfellow and Whittier, studies of Ruskin and John Burroughs, a small anthology of his own poetry entitled Breezes from the Field (1886), and a collection of nature essays, In Portia’s Gardens (1897). His most important contributions, however, were his studies of Whitman, including Reminiscences of Walt Whitman (1896), an edition of Walt Whitman’s Diary in Canada (1904), and The Fight of a Book for the World (1926).

A devotee of Whitman, Kennedy observed in The Real John Burroughs (1924): "Burroughs loved Walt like a woman; but so did I."5  This richly ambiguous remark (did they love Whitman because he was like a woman, or did they love Whitman as a woman might love him?) hints at a little-studied erotics of discipleship and invites further analysis of the rivalries and jealousies among Whitman’s friends.6  Attacks on Whitman provoked divisions within the group of "hot little prophets," who differed—sometimes viciously—on how best to defend the poet.


Higginson's Critiques of Whitman

Higginson wrote a series of pieces from 1881 to 1898 belittling Whitman, all of which lie behind Kennedy’s "Euphrasy and Rue." Higginson disliked Leaves of Grass and loathed Whitman himself. He summarized his objections in a letter to Kennedy of 7 March 1895, offering five reasons why Whitman "never seemed to me a thoroughly wholesome or manly man":

(1)[Whitman’s] "priapism" (2) the entire absence in his poetry of any personal love for any individual woman, its place being filled by the mere craving of sex for sex (3) his want of personal honesty in business matters—as shown in the anecdote told of him by J. H. Ward in his paper on Parton in the N.E. [New England] Magazine—a fact told me by Parton himself, one of the most truthful men I ever knew (4) his not going into the army when we all looked to him as precisely the man to organize a regiment on Broadway but selecting the minor & safe function of a nurse (5) his intense personal egotism, as shown by his building a costly tomb at a time when he was supposed to be a poor man & people were being asked to aid & support him.7 
Higginson’s only personal encounter with Whitman occurred in 1860 in the lobby of the Boston publishers Thayer and Eldridge. Almost four decades later, he described the encounter—and his slightly later war-time ruminations on Whitman—in Cheerful Yesterdays (1898). The passage is worth quoting at some length:
I saw before me, sitting on the counter, a handsome, burly man, heavily built, and not looking, to my gymnasium-trained eye, in really good condition for athletic work. I perhaps felt a little prejudiced against him from having read ‘‘Leaves of Grass’’ on a voyage, in the early stages of seasickness,—a fact which doubtless increased for me the intrinsic unsavoriness of certain passages. But the personal impression made on me by the poet was not so much of manliness as of Boweriness, if I may coin the phrase. . . . This passing impression did not hinder me from thinking of Whitman with hope and satisfaction at a later day when regiments were to be raised for the war, when the Bowery seemed the very place to enlist them. . . . When, however, after waiting a year or more, Whitman decided that the proper post for him was hospital service, I confess to feeling a reaction, which was rather increased than diminished by his profuse celebration of his own labors in that direction. Hospital attendance is a fine thing, no doubt, yet if all men, South and North, had taken the same view of their duty that Whitman held, there would have been no occasion for hospitals on either side.8 

In the antebellum years, Higginson and Whitman held some political goals in common, so it is fitting that these men should have met in the lobby of the publishers who brought out the third edition of Leaves of Grass, James Redpath’s biography of John Brown, and various other reform and antislavery works. (Thayer and Eldridge also set type for Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, although they went out of business before publishing the book.) Higginson was a radical abolitionist who stormed the Boston Court House in 1854 in an attempt to liberate captured fugitive slave Anthony Burns. Whitman’s less dramatic reaction to the return of Burns was nonetheless vehement: for the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), he wrote a bitter and sarcastic poem eventually known as "A Boston Ballad." But even if the Higginson-Whitman meeting attests to these once-shared political affinities, Higginson’s 1898 account underscores the social distinctions upon which he later insisted. Whitman, he claimed, did not possess the qualities of true ‘‘manliness.’’ Instead, Higginson detected "Boweriness."

The Bowery, a boulevard cutting diagonally across Manhattan’s Lower East Side, had been from the 1830s the site of an active working-class cultural life. Dotted with theaters, saloons, dance halls, dime museums—plus a vibrant and sexualized street life—the Bowery became a byword for a commercial and largely masculine working class culture, a public culture Whitman participated in and often celebrated in his poetry.9  Given that Whitman donned the attire of the working man for the frontispiece of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, it is not surprising that Higginson associated the poet with the Bowery. Yet by the time of Higginson’s 1898 remark, the Bowery, as George Chauncey notes, was also a site notable for its "flamboyantly effeminate ‘fairies’ (or ‘male degenerates’)." The "fairies," though not the only gay subculture in the city, had nonetheless ‘‘established the dominant public images of male sexual abnormality."10  By linking Whitman and the Bowery, Higginson in one stroke lashed out at the poet’s working-class associations and called into question his vaunted manliness.

Distinguishing between "manliness" and "Boweriness," Higginson suggested that, as a social group, working-class men did not and could not possess the qualities of true manliness. In fact, Higginson’s catalog of the five reasons Whitman was not "a thoroughly wholesome or manly man" reads almost as a catalog of the qualities that distinguished the working from the middle class in bourgeois ideology: a lack of sexual self-restraint, sound business ethics, patriotism, and thrift.11  By the 1880s, when Higginson was writing regularly about Whitman, he had abandoned the radicalism of his antebellum years and adopted social attitudes of the genteel circle. Bolting from the Republican party, he joined the mugwumps seeking civil service reform; he served two one-year terms in the Massachusetts legislature in the early 1880s. Although he supported the causes of women’s suffrage and religious toleration, he was far from the firebrand of thirty years earlier. Like many of his contemporaries, he was willing to defend the disenfranchisement of Southern African Americans if that might speed sectional reconciliation.12  Significantly, he also became hostile to the cause of labor. During an 1888 strike by Boston and Cambridge horsecar conductors, Higginson risked injury by boarding one of the scab-driven horsecars during a union solidarity parade to demonstrate his support of business.13  Higginson’s critical responses to Whitman were the cultural equivalents of that act, affirmations of the power and morality of the middle class made through attacks on Whitman’s "rough" masculinity and his nongenteel poetry.

In his published criticism of Whitman during the 1880s and 1890s, Higginson repeatedly objected to the erotic content of Whitman’s poetry, criticized his poetic form, and characterized him as unmanly. Reviewing the 1881–82 edition of Leaves of Grass in the Nation in December 1881, Higginson suggested that there was hardly a poem that would outlive its author. Besides the "nauseating quality" of Whitman’s indecent poetry, Higginson disapproved of his unconventional form, which he regarded as a fatal flaw. Only if Whitman employed conventional meter and rhyme schemes and recognized "form as an element in poetic power" would he produce poetry of lasting merit. Higginson wondered why the book had not been suppressed: he saw "no good in [this] publication, except to abate the outcries of the Liberal League against Mr. Anthony Comstock and his laws respecting obscene publications. So long as ‘Leaves of Grass’ may be sent through the mails, the country is safe from over-prudery, at least."14  Since it was precisely the mailing of Leaves of Grass that was later banned, at least one of Whitman’s friends, William Douglas O’Connor, suspected that the politically influential Higginson was behind the decision by the Attorney General of Boston in 1882 to suppress Leaves of Grass.15 

Less than a month before Leaves of Grass was banned in Boston, Higginson published "Unmanly Manhood" in the Woman’s Journal. Here again he raised concerns about "public morals." And repeating a charge he made in his Nation review, he asserted that Whitman’s Drum-Taps rang "hollow," since the poet, despite his supposedly superb health, had not served as a soldier. "There was a time," Higginson wrote, "when the recruiting officers wanted men; their test was final, or at least so far final that he who did not meet it, no matter for what good reasons, had best cease boasting about his eminent manhood."16  Higginson contrasted Whitman’s unmanly devotion to nursing with Sir Philip Sidney’s manly exploits as a soldier. (William Douglas O’Connor later turned the use of Sidney against Higginson by pointing out that Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella celebrates an illicit love.)17  In 1887, when Kennedy and Sylvester Baxter, a Boston journalist, attempted to secure a war pension for Whitman, Higginson vigorously opposed the idea in the pages of Harper’s Bazar, once again ridiculing Whitman’s manhood:

There is, it is true, a class of men whose claims are intermediate between those of the soldiers and those of the women. There were many men who, being rejected from enlistment for physical defects, sought honorably to serve their country as hospital nurses or agents of the Sanitary Commission. A beginning has been made in the way of pensioning these men in the case of the proposed pension for Mr. Whitman, the poet; although he . . . deliberately preferred service in the hospital rather than in the field.18 
If Whitman’s work warranted a pension, Higginson argued, so did that of the thousands of women whose labors during the war were instrumental in supporting the armies in the field.

Perhaps nowhere were the social politics behind these attacks on Whitman’s manhood and poetry articulated more clearly than in Higginson’s favorable 1887 review of Sidney Lanier’s The English Novel and Its Development.19  Lanier was characteristic of many commentators of the late nineteenth century in seeing literature and social order as deeply interconnected issues.20  In his view, Whitman’s unconventional verse form bode nothing less than the threat of social anarchy in which a savage and passionate working-class mob would overwhelm the civilization that the middle class had built:

This poetry [of Whitman and his followers] is free, it is asserted, because it is independent of form. . . . We all know what that freedom means in politics which is independent of form, of law. It means myriad-fold slavery to a mob. As in politics, so in art. . . . Is a ship free because, without rudder or sail, it is turned loose to the winds, and has no master but nature? Nature is the tyrant of tyrants. Now, just as that freedom of the ship on the sea means shipwreck, so independence of form in art means death. (emphasis added)21 

Lanier juxtaposed Whitman’s male figures, whom he characterized as men of "brawn and rude muscle," to a physically weak counting-room clerk who labors day-in-and-day-out over his books to support his mother and send his younger brother to school.22  Lanier, in a passage that Higginson quoted in his article (though, interestingly, he excised Whitman’s name), found this self-sacrificing white-collar bookkeeper more manly than the strongest of Whitman’s roughs. This self-controlled and orderly man who aspires to middle-class status was Lanier’s exemplar of manhood:

[H]is chest is not huge, his legs are inclined to be pipe-stems, and his dress is like that of any other book-keeper. Yet the weak-eyed pipe-stem-legged young man impresses me as more of a man, more of a democratic man, than the tallest of Whitman’s roughs; to the eye of my spirit there is more strength in this man’s daily endurance of petty care and small weariness for love; more of the sort of stuff which makes a real democracy and a sound republic, than in an army of Whitman’s unshaven loafers.23 
Whitman, Lanier claimed, was as effete and unmanly as the aristocratic, affected dandy. "The simpering beau who is the product of the tailor’s art is certainly absurd enough; but what difference," asked Lanier, "is there between that and the other dandy-upside-down who from equal motive of affectation throws away coat and vest, dons a slouch hat, opens his shirt so as to expose his breast, and industriously circulates his portrait, thus taken, in his own books?" Higginson wholeheartedly agreed with Lanier’s claim that Whitman’s "rough" manhood was not manhood at all but, instead, an example of "the dandyism of the roustabout."24 

To Whitman supporters, the most galling of Higginson’s attacks on the poet was his obituary notice of 28 March 1892 in the New York Evening Post, where Higginson had little positive to say about Whitman’s character. He denied that Whitman’s health problems were related to exposure to diseases in Civil War hospitals, arguing instead that his poor health and premature aging resulted from sexual excesses. These excesses had their counterpart in his "sensual" verses, which corrupt the young. More than in previous articles, Higginson focused here on Whitman’s poetic technique. "True poetry," he contended, "is not merely the putting of thoughts into words, but the putting of the best thoughts into the best words." By this measure, Whitman’s poetry, with its catalogs, repetitions, and long, unrhymed lines was a poetic failure: it "has phrase, but not form, and without form there is no immortality."25 

Throughout Higginson’s writings on Whitman, he disapproved of the poet’s emphasis on male-male love. Never using the term homosexuality in discussing Whitman, Higginson found other language to convey his meanings.26  In "Unmanly Manhood," he yoked Whitman and Oscar Wilde for purposes of mutual incrimination. Higginson’s overt claim is that both writers emphasize nakedness and thus are an offense to women. Higginson hinted at aberrant sexuality by associating Wilde with false "talk of Greece" and the ‘‘forcible unveiling of some insulting innocence." When Higginson referred to Whitman as being of "intermediate" sex in discussing the possibility of a nursing pension, he employed a term then used for same-sex love, as in Edward Carpenter’s Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk: A Study in Social Evolution (1914). Throughout his commentary on Whitman, Higginson criticized what he called "the mere craving of sex for sex," or the "sheer animal longing of sex for sex," or "the blunt, undisguised attraction of sex to sex."27  This habitual phrasing was probably Higginson’s way of deploring Whitman’s emphasis on same-sex love. In the Nation in July 1892, he underscored what he considered Whitman’s perverse romantic interest in men by claiming that "whenever we come upon anything that suggests a glimpse of [personal love], the object always turns out to be a man and not a woman. . . . [O]f any elevated emotion toward an individual woman of his own age or generation, his pages are bare."28  These veiled defamations of Whitman’s sexuality are all the more interesting given that Higginson himself was a man of somewhat fluid gender identifications. His famous "Letter to a Young Contributor" (the Atlantic Monthly essay to which Emily Dickinson responded) alluded to Cecil Dreeme, a cross-dressing character in Theodore Winthrop’s Cecil Dreeme (1861), whose transvestism provoked a homosexual response. Dreeme’s character was based on William Hurlbut, a close friend of Higginson in his young manhood about whom he once remarked: "I never loved but one male friend with passion—and for him my love had no bounds—all that my natural fastidiousness and cautious reserve kept from others I poured on him; to say that I would have died for him was nothing."29  And Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870) exhibits an erotic fascination with black skin and bodies: "I always like to observe [black soldiers] when bathing,—such splendid muscular development, set off by that smooth coating of adipose tissue which makes them, like the South-Sea Islanders, appear even more muscular than they are. Their skins are also of finer grain than those of whites, the surgeons say, and certainly are smoother and far more free from hair."30  Higginson’s attacks on the homoerotic aspects of Whitman’s verse and life may have stemmed directly from potentialities and inclinations he felt in himself. They also may indicate another facet of Higginson’s emergent political and social conservatism in the final decades of the nineteenth century.


Kennedy's Critique of Higginson

In "Euphrasy and Rue for T. W. Higginson," Kennedy responded to Higginson’s ridicule of Whitman’s manhood. He all but ignored Higginson’s formal criticisms of Whitman’s poetry, perhaps because of his confidence that poetic experimentation would prevail. The Harvard poets and other protomodernists had already recognized Whitman as an avant-garde artist who helped reinvigorate poetic form. By the early twentieth century, Kennedy did not need to defend Whitman against charges of formlessness because his formal innovations were increasingly seen as a central contribution to American poetry, not a failure.31  Kennedy also did not respond to this aspect of Higginson’s attack because Higginson himself acknowledged in his 1895 letter that "I find myself liking . . . his poetry better and better." Kennedy answered Higginson’s criticism of Whitman’s failure to serve in the military by asserting that such a role was unbecoming, almost antithetical to, the nature of the poet. Soldiering is "a sad & solemn duty," one which "can never be intrinsically noble." The nobility required for the creation of great art was instead found in abundance in the role of the wound-dresser. While Kennedy did not directly respond to Higginson’s charge of egotism, he leveled the same complaint toward Higginson himself, labeling him "an intensely egotistic individual" and, in a sentence that was struck through, he attributed Higginson’s malice toward Whitman to an "inherited overplus of vanity & egotism."32 

Kennedy held that Higginson mischaracterized Whitman’s poetry in his oft-repeated claim that romantic love is absent from Whitman’s verse, its place being filled by "the mere craving of sex for sex." Higginson, Kennedy argued, read Whitman’s poetry too literally and failed to recognize what was as "clear as light to a person with half a wit": that Whitman was "the spokesman of the universe in any and all its manifestations, decent or indecent." Whitman’s persona turned the bridegroom out of bed and stayed with the bride himself; he shared in the midnight orgies of young men. Such lines were not evidence of the poet’s prurience but of the wondrous inclusiveness of his democratic and spiritual vision. No one would be left out—the prostitute, the libertine, the slave. In Kennedy’s telling, Whitman’s inclusion of "many long dumb" and "forbidden voices" marked him as a prophet who, unlike Higginson, "was not so childish in his philosophy as the milk-and-water Boston Unitarians who print their Sunday-school God with a big ‘G’ and devil with a little ‘d.’"33 

Kennedy’s response to Higginson’s characterization of Whitman’s "priapism" is especially intriguing. One strategy was simple denial. Whitman was in perfect health when the war broke out, Kennedy claimed. His health problems in later life were in no way related to some fictitious sexual excesses but derived from "blood poisoning through assisting at amputations" in Washington hospitals. Whitman exemplified an "absolute purity of life," as evidenced by the testimony of numerous individuals in Brooklyn and Washington; by his autopsy, which "showed freedom from all desire of sex;"34  and by the theme of "magnetic chastity of the body [which is] taught and retaught again & again" in his works. This contrasted with Higginson’s own "excessive virility," which Kennedy had "heard women remark upon."

But Kennedy’s denial was coupled with another response. If one strategy was to deny Higginson’s claims that Whitman’s life and poetry were sexually excessive, the other was to redefine the sexual aspect of his work as a source of a spiritualized virile power. In a cultural climate that had felt the impact of Charles Darwin’s and Herbert Spencer’s ideas and in which Theodore Roosevelt and others offered jeremiads about the dangers of "race suicide" amongst a native-born white population whose birthrate was dropping, the sexual component in Whitman’s work could be portrayed as a positive good.35  Whitman performed a service, Kennedy claimed, in "celebrating the imperious necessity & elemental urge of the sex passion," since "a certain amount of sensuality [was] necessary for the perpetuation of the race."

Yet Kennedy went further, arguing that sexuality in Whitman is a spiritual boon, a prophetic vision of a better, stronger manhood. Gail Bederman’s analysis of the thought of turn-of-the-century psychologist G. Stanley Hall, a person who figures at the end of Kennedy’s essay, is instructive here. During his upbringing, Hall had learned to fear his own sexuality as an immoral temptation and a physical danger and to equate manhood with self-control, especially sexual self-control. Yet for a variety of socioeconomic reasons, Hall, like Higginson and other middle-class men of the late nineteenth century, increasingly felt the power of that manhood to be eroding. His response was quite different than Higginson’s had been. Instead of defending that middle-class sense of manhood as had Higginson by belittling working-class masculinities, Hall appropriated perceived aspects of working-class and immigrant manliness into his vision of white, native-born, middle-class manhood. He eventually concluded that sexuality in middle-class adolescent men was not something to be restrained or repressed but tapped as a source of energy and power, something that could reinvigorate the middle-class and ensure its continuing success in the struggle for life and evolutionary advancement. As Bederman suggests, this reconceived sexuality was spiritualized in Hall’s thought: "Sex was not dirty; it was holy. It was God’s means of creating healthier human specimens and more advanced races."36  If sexuality in Leaves of Grass was obscene to Higginson and demonstrated Whitman’s failure to achieve the self-control required for a true and wholesome manhood, that same poetry appeared eminently spiritual and manly when reevaluated with this new understanding of the relationship between sexuality and masculinity in mind. Kennedy ends "Euphrasy" with an excerpt from psychologist Colin A. Scott’s article in the American Journal of Psychology (edited by Hall), which "exactly express[es] the doctrines of Walt Whitman as embodied in his work": "What we need at present is a modern phallicism, a religious and artistic spirit that goes out to meet the sexual instinct & is able to find in it the centre of evolution, the heart & soul of the world, the holy of holies to all right feeling men."37  What Higginson decried and condemned as Whitman’s "priapism" could be redefined by Kennedy as an essential and laudable "phallicism" that made Whitman the prophet of a new and better manhood.

Kennedy drew on a notion of phallicism in a heterosexual context to explain the power of Whitman’s eroticism. Implicitly, Kennedy seemed to be denying even the possibility of a homosexual Whitman. In Reminiscences of Walt Whitman, Kennedy had responded passionately to John Addington Symonds’s implications about Whitman’s sexual orientation in Walt Whitman: A Study (1893), remarking in his preface: "We here in America were astounded that it seemed to [Symonds] necessary in his work on Walt Whitman to relieve the Calamus poems of the vilest of all possible interpretations. It was a sad revelation to us of the state of European morals, that even the ethical perfume of these noblest utterances on friendship could not save them from such a fate."38  Although in "Euphrasy" Kennedy refused to raise the issue of homosexuality, in one of the concluding paragraphs he apparently did have homosexuality in mind. He approvingly quoted Robert Ingersoll: "celibacy is only obscenity." He then commented, only to strike through the clause: "(see the case of the male homo)." Kennedy’s remark is cryptic, but the context does not suggest that he was thinking of Whitman. The strikethrough, however, may suggest that on second thought, Kennedy decided he had better not broach the question of homosexuality at all, even as a general topic without specific connection to Whitman. He then preemptively responded to the claim that Whitman’s lifelong bachelorhood might be taken as evidence of the poet’s homosexuality by explaining, again in cryptic fashion, that "if it be asked why Walt Whitman did not marry I answer that after thirty a noble desire not to injure others made it absolutely out of the question with him." Kennedy apparently was referring to Whitman’s trip to New Orleans (he was twenty-nine at the time), a trip that many believed resulted in a significant heterosexual love affair and possibly a child out of wedlock.39  Presuming a heterosexual Whitman, Kennedy could celebrate the sexual component of Whitman’s poetry as the embodiment of a "modern phallicism" free from what he regarded as the taint of homosexual deviance.


Kennedy's Attacks on Traubel and O'Connor

Kennedy’s claim that Traubel and O’Connor were actually the poet’s greatest enemies is one of the most surprising features of "Euphrasy and Rue" and one of the least effective and least appealing aspects of his essay. With regard to O’Connor—long since dead when "Euphrasy and Rue" was drafted—Kennedy’s differences appear mainly to have been strategic. He regarded O’Connor as "crazy-brilliant" in his onslaughts against Whitman’s opponents. Clearly Kennedy felt that by pillorying Higginson for "Unmanly Manhood," O’Connor turned an occasional antagonist into a determined enemy with grievances to settle.40 

Kennedy’s differences with Traubel were more intense. Kennedy’s argument was inconsistent: after asserting that the poet’s gentleness made it unsuitable for him to bear arms in war, he then said that if Whitman had foreseen that Traubel would publish their conversations in With Walt Whitman in Camden, he would have wanted Traubel "privately shot." Even more troubling is the anti-Semitism that surfaced when Kennedy referred to Traubel as that "monster of a German Jew."41 

Kennedy was perhaps jealous of the central role that Traubel held in Whitman’s life and, after his death, in the maintenance of his reputation, and he differed from Traubel in his thinking about how certain questions ought to be handled. A key here is the James Parton debt controversy.42  We have seen that in 1895, in his letter to Kennedy, Higginson listed this debt as one of Whitman’s failings in manliness, citing a New England Magazine article from 1893 in which Julius H. Ward referred to a loan made by Parton to an unnamed "impecunious poet."43  In 1897 in the American Co-Operative News, Higginson publicly revealed that the poet to whom Ward was referring was Whitman, charging him with "leaving his debts unpaid and constructing for himself a stately tomb at the cemetery."44  Most of Whitman’s disciples—O’Connor, Traubel, Thomas Harned, and Richard Maurice Bucke among them—vigorously denied that Whitman was guilty of any wrongdoing. Initially Kennedy agreed with them. Yet after corresponding with Parton’s niece Ethel Parton, he had come to believe that Whitman had not discharged this debt, though he was willing to see the failing in a larger context of a life in which flaws were far outweighed by virtues. In the unpublished essay "Did Walt Whitman Leave a Debt Unpaid? Parton vs. Whitman," he wrote:

Let the mistake never be made of attempting to whitewash or canonize this remarkable man; for his chief value lies in the fact that he shared all the faults & virtues of the average man. . . . A man is great in proportion as he subdues the bad & fosters the good in his nature. . . . Whitman’s life must be pronounced victorious, on the whole. His works speak for that.45 

Kennedy’s view of this controversy changed once again shortly thereafter when he helped unearth receipts that indicated that Parton’s lawyer, Oliver Dyer, received books and art from Whitman with a value close but not fully equal to the size of the loan. It seems likely Dyer never informed his client Parton that Whitman had paid back a substantial part of the loan, thus making Parton’s lingering anger at Whitman quite understandable. While this evidence reassured Kennedy that Whitman had been free of gross wrongdoing in the Parton debt controversy, he continued to believe that Whitman’s conduct was not totally above reproach in this affair. He had taken a loan, promised prompt and full repayment, defaulted, and offered property below the value of the debt as repayment only after Parton had secured a lawyer to collect.

In the years just before "Euphrasy and Rue," the debt issue was reopened in Bliss Perry’s biography of Whitman, provoking a new storm of controversy:

[Whitman] met new acquaintances genially, and borrowed money from them if he happened to need it, with the forgetful freedom of old comradeship. He persuaded one man of letters, then recently married, to intrust to him the whole of a slender fortune, which was straight-way lost in speculation. His friend brought suit to recover, but it was like trying to coin a vacuum. In such transactions poets are rarely at their best.46 

Traubel responded indignantly in the Conservator, questioning this account and challenging Perry to "tell us who is your authority for this bit of history."47  When Perry declined to publicly document his evidence in the pages of the Conservator, Traubel penned an article attacking Perry. "Perry arraigns Whitman for not paying his money debts. I arraign Perry for not paying more serious debts," Traubel charged. "The debts of the historian to his student. The debts of the biographer to the truth."48 

Kennedy believed that Traubel’s efforts to deny that Whitman engaged in any wrongdoing were indefensible given the available evidence and that his vehement attacks upon Perry’s account would in the end only damage Whitman’s reputation when the truth was revealed. He wrote Traubel a brutal letter in which he condemned Traubel’s actions and urged him to see the truth: Dear T

I can’t express how infinitely disgusting (excuse me) y[ou]r attitude on the debt is. . . . Man! man! you are W.W.’s worst enemy. He is strong enough to stand the truth. He calls himself a liar, thief &c. in Cross[ing] Brook[lyn] Ferry. You tho’t he didn’t mean it: he did. He lied to me 2 or 3 times. I believe he borrowed that money, & think probable he lied about it. . . . Wake up. You are in deadly peril of y[ou]r soul. You don’t understand your W.W. . . . Don’t whitewash the Good-Bad Gray Poet. Let him stand in all his murky splendor, the good predominating in him.49 
Kennedy’s attacks upon Traubel in "Euphrasy and Rue" were no doubt remnants of his anger with Traubel’s position and actions in this debt controversy.

Kennedy’s "Euphrasy and Rue" is an important document that has the virtue of its excesses. Designed for delayed release, this long-secret document reveals more about Kennedy himself than he supposed, like a speaker in crisis in one of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues. The sheer passion of Kennedy’s essay provides a glimpse into the extraordinary nature of Whitmanian discipleship and makes clear how high the stakes seemed—even sixteen years after Whitman’s death—over the interarticulated political, aesthetic, and sexual questions surrounding Whitman the man and the ongoing reconstructions of "Whitman." For critic Higginson and disciple Kennedy alike, "Whitman" had become a touchstone, a metonym, connoting for each a particular gender, sexual, and class identity. The passion that both men evidenced in their criticism is less surprising when we recognize that by defining "Whitman" they were also struggling to define themselves.




Appendix

N.B. not written for publication during the present generation.—W.S.K. or the next—



Euphrasy and Rue for T. W. Higginson50 

It was in the year 1882 that Thomas Wentworth Higginson first appeared in print as an antagonist of Walt Whitman. In an article in the Woman’s Journal (Feb. 4) of that year, the colonel clanked his sword loudly (so to speak) as he drum-majored it on the platform before his audience of ladies and in bouncing Benvenuto Cellini style assured them (by implication) of his own lion-heartedness by expressing scorn of Walt Whitman for not entering the ranks as a volunteer. His obscure & silly utterance shd have been left unnoticed. But it was written in the book of fate that Whitman’s two greatest enemies (Horace Traubel & Wm D. O’Connor) have been taken from the ranks of his dearest friends. O’Connor made a powerful life-enemy of Higginson (an intensely egotistic individual) by pillorying him in one of his crazy-brilliant onslaughts, reminding ‘‘the reverend militaire’’ (as he dubs Higginson) that Whitman had placed his name on the enlisting rolls, but had been rejected on account of his white hair,51  and reminding Higginson of the "agonized curses" of his (H’s) superior officer over his bungling work as a soldier at Port Royal with his regiment of blacks.

I learn that the colonel duly read this attack (told a friend of mine that he had: it appeared in Dr. Bucke’s Whitman volume), and it has been the inspiring cause of all his subsequent furtive attacks.52  He shd have paid no attention to it.

O’Connor’s assault was insulting, ill-bred, it is true, since no one ever questioned Colonel Higginson’s bravery; his wounds in defence of the slave & in defence of the country are sufficient evidence of that. As for blunders in war, was there ever a leader in war who did not occasionally make a false move? It was also unjust to apply the epithet "Reverend" to one who got over the clerical measles early in life, & identified himself with every noble religious & radical reform of the age, & whose books show one of the most cultivated & well read minds of the world, & whose influence in the age has been almost wholly noble. So much for Dr. Jekyll Higginson. With the Hyde Higginson we have another account to settle. For he did not overlook O’Connor’s attack.

As I said, this latter has been the source-cause of all the malignant and usually anonymous insinuations & raids on Whitman by Higginson in Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar [sic], The N.Y. Eve. Post.53 

In the Bazar for March 5, 1887 he sneers at the petition which my friend Sylvester Baxter had presented to Congress asking for a pension for Whitman for war services. Continuing the subject on March 26, he, or his editors, dares not print Whitman’s name, but puts dashes instead. Well was their need; the paper might have been sued for slander, for Higginson made the mean atrocious insinuation that the war-crippled poet was a lazy loafer feigning sickness for the purpose of securing a pension! Col Higginson wanted to know why the noble women nurses of the war shd not receive pensions as well. He is hereby informed that several have so received them. In writing to Mr. Baxter, Whitman said "I do not deserve a pension."54  He did so deserve it however, & shd have received it for just as much reason as thousands of soldiers are receiving it;—for more reason, in fact. Imagine the baseness of a nation allowing, as it did, a man whose health broke down nursing a hundred thousand soldiers to go unpensioned, yet supporting for life, as it does, thousands of cowardly shamming braggarts from the rank & file of the army!

Taint a poet for not being a soldier! Taint Longfellow or Whittier, or Tennyson or Bryant or Wordsworth for not enlisting in the army, and with faces distorted by rage, rushing, sword in hand (in America say) upon their brother poets Lanier & Cable and Paul Hayne in the attempt to cleave open their brains!55  As for Whitman (who was of Quaker stock) he says in volume two of "With Walt Whitman in Camden" that he could not conceive of himself as wielding a sword in battle.56  Dante & Aeschylus are the only soldier poets of any note. (Sir Philip Sidney’s verses are only verses & mediocre at that, the caterwauling that every young man indulges in when in love.) Horace tried to fight but threw away his shield & fled—like a sensible man. The soldier’s work can never be intrinsically noble though often it has been a sad & solemn duty, or has seemed so to men. But the work of the binder up of wounds & soother of anguished spirits is always noble.

But Mr. Hyde Higginson reserved his most studied malice, his actionable slander until the great bard lay dead in his coffin in the little room in Camden. Then appeared in the New York Post (March 28 ’92) an article, of the most careful and minute finish, that had cost its writer weeks of thought, a long article that takes rank as permanent literature & will I suppose be published in the future in book form.57  This careful literary study which had lain long in its author’s desk awaiting the death of its victim contains one elaborate passage for which Whitman’s brother Colonel George Whitman shd have "called out" Higginson or sued him in the courts. But George Whitman knows nothing of the spites & jealousies of the idealist class. The lovely authorial cat & dog frays that so recommend writers—the world & he probably never heard of the article or knew its author & the Post. (One of the towering merits of Walt Whitman is that he never condescended to these squabbles & in the latter half of his life cd not be dragged into any bitter saying in the public prints about a human being. The action of the ill-mannered little monster of a German Jew who served him as secretary in betraying this private & confidential conversation of his closet to the world with a blare of trumpets in his vols "With Walt Whitman in Camden" cannot be laid in any way at Whitman’s door. He wd probably have desired to have him privately shot if he had known what he was going to do after his death.) Higginson quotes Whitman’s "Native Moments" in which the poet, as in his previous work, identifies himself for a moment with man in the moment of sexual intoxication just as he had done with other men & women in their wide range of action & life in his "Song of Myself." To one who had read the poet with one eye open it shd have been apparent that Whitman was not describing himself, but describing the sensual man (& we are all sensual at moments in our life,—even Col Higginson), & he is allowing that sensual man to speak thro his voice. Just as in such lines as the following—

I turn the bridegroom out of bed & stay with the bride myself
My voice is the wife’s voice, the screech by the rail of the stairs,
They fetch my man’s body up dripping & drown’d—
I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs—
I say just as in such lines as these he is not to be taken literally, neither when, in "Native Moments," he says
I am for those who believe in loose delights
I share the midnight orgies of young men,
I dance with the dancers & drink with the drinkers etc
is he to be taken literally: he is speaking vicariously, typically (see "By Blue Ontario’s Shore" § 14) celebrating the imperious necessity & elemental urge of the sex passion, a certain amount of sensuality being necessary for the perpetuation of the race. Good Saint Higginson’s wrong-headedness in persistently misunderstanding about everything in Whitman’s works is amazing. He shd take lessons in poetry from the brilliant Stedman.58  Whitman might say to him "’od’s my life, Saint Thomas, I am Snug the joiner & no lion, in this poem, believe me.59  Don’t be frightened; you must not take things too realistically. We are writing mystically, you know."

In the superb opening lines of the Children of Adam poems or in "Ages & Ages Returning at Intervals" Mr. Higginson cd have found a key to his "Native Moments." The being who there by metempsychosis ascends anew to "The garden the world" is of course the absolute soul or a fragment of it, indicating the elemental Adamitic treatment that is to follow. The poet being the spokesman of the Universe in any and all its manifestations, decent or indecent. He was not so childish in his philosophy as the milk-and-water Boston Unitarians who print their Sunday-school God with a big "G" and devil with a little "d." To Whitman the Universe was one, and included not only Gods and Devils, Brahmas and Allahs; cannibals, tigers & Higginsons; angels & Emersons; kittens & roses; and much more besides. His purpose in the Children of Adam poems appears clear as light to a person with half a wit in such passages as these:

Through me many long dumb voices
Through me forbidden voices
Voices of sexes & lusts . . .
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.
But all is lost on the Boston critic. Read his comment on "Native Moments":—in which he looks at his character, as he does his books through a pseudoscope or distorting mirror (He told me he first read Leaves of Grass when he was sea-sick: he seems to have remained seasick ever since):

Those who claim to be Nature’s darlings end as Nature’s warnings; and paralysis, insanity, premature old age are the retribution for "the drench of the passions" in youth. Was there ever a sadder personal commentary on all this than when we find this same poet, who at thirty-seven exulted in his manly strength, addressing schoolchildren at fifty-five from the point of view of extreme age ("An Old Man’s Thoughts of School"); and having constant appeals made for him, when hardly past the prime of life, as for one broken down by years and infirmities. Compare this premature senility of the poet of "life coarse and rank," with the old age of the chaster poets—with Bryant’s eighty-four clean and wholesome years, with Whittier’s, almost a life-long invalid and yet busy and useful when eighty-four years are told.

It is a very unedifying & painful spectacle (reminds one of Voltaire’s bitter assaults on Shakespeare)60  to see a man of Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s abilities & standing in society giving way for so many years as he has done to the worser passion of vindictiveness in his nature, in slandering while living, & hounding beyond the limits of the tomb, the character & memory of America’s greatest poet.61 

The peculiar malignity of Colonel Higginson’s charge just attended to lies in its insinuation (based on not a particle of evidence) that Whitman’s (alleged) sexual excesses broke him down. The whole world knows that he was in absolutely perfect health when the war broke out [how?] 43 years old of magnificent, magnetic, health-breathing purity of life. The noble women of Brooklyn knew him well (Helen Price, e.g.) & women never mistake a roue or libertine for a good man. Whitman’s life in Washington—as a war nurse was lived under the light of close inspection of Burroughs, O’Connor (Mr. & Mrs.) & hundreds yes thousands of the best people of the capitol. All testify to his absolute purity of life. (An autopsy of his body showed freedom from all desire of sex.)62  His superb physique yielded to the drain on his sympathies through the dreadful scenes in the hospitals for long years & to blood-poisoning through assisting at amputations63  (what of the war do our dress-parade Captain Tuecas know of all this terrible work, compared to which their work was a holiday outing?)

But then Whitman forestalls all criticism of his life by heroically admitting, in poems where he is speaking in his own person & not mystically, the worst things that can be said about him. In "You Felons on Trial in Courts", "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry", §§6, and "Ah, Poverties, Wincings & Sulky Retreats" (pp 298, 132 & 364 L. of G. last ed.) He admits that he "knitted the old knot of contrariety," lied, stole, had meannesses, was sly, cowardly, hoggish, sensual, with "hell’s tides continually running" beneath his face. What more do you want?

If there is one thing a man detests in another it is a hypocritical assumption of sexual purity for himself. As Ingersoll has finely said, "celibacy is only obscenity."n64  Let Col. Higginson (whose excessive virility I have heard women remark upon) ponder this, ponder a little on the hygiene of celibacy & its results on the health. If it be asked why Walt Whitman did not marry I answer that after thirty a noble desire not to injure others made it absolutely out of the question with him. Several of his friends know the story in part (from his own lips).

As for the alleged evil influence of a few misunderstood lines of Whitman upon young men—I know this, that no young man already pure will ever get one impure or injurious thought from Walt Whitman’s works. He will find sexuality divinized & glorified & its legitimateness maintained; but he will also find everywhere magnetic chastity of the body taught and retaught again & again.

Says Burroughs in his noble book Whitman: A Study: "Leaves of Grass will work evil on evil minds, only on narrow, unbalanced minds. It is not a guide but an inspiration. In imputing to himself vicariously all the sins men are guilty of he runs the risk of course, of being read in a spirit less generous & redemptive than his own." His charity toward all men may stimulate the license of the libertine, . . . but we are to take the same chances with him that we do with nature. We are to sow wheat & not tares for his rains to water (p. 171.)65 

Finally, I will commend to the notice of whom it may concern the following words by Colin A. Scott, fellow in psychology in Clark University, in Worcester, Mass. They are taken from the American Journal of Psychology for January 1896 (Dr. G. Stanley Hall editor), and exactly express the doctrines of Walt Whitman as embodied in his work—

What we need at present is a modern phallicism, a religious and artistic spirit that goes out to meet the sexual instinct & is able to find in it the centre of evolution, the heart & soul of the world, the holy of holies to all right feeling men.66 

William Sloane Kennedy

Belmont Mass 1908



Notes

1.  "Euphrasy and Rue for T. W. Higginson" is printed in its entirety in the Appendix to this essay, with the permission of Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries, New Brunswick, New Jersey. For previous studies of the Higginson-Whitman relationship, see Scott Giantvalley, "'Strict, Straight Notions of Literary Propriety': Thomas Wentworth Higginson's Gradual Unbending to Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 4 (spring 1987): 17–27; and John M. Picker, "The Union of Music and Text in Whitman's Drum-Taps and Higginson's Army Life in a Black Regiment," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 12 (spring 1995): 230–45.   (Back)

2.  In a typescript copy of a letter to Ethel Parton dated 23 March 1897, Higginson wrote: "Mr. Kennedy I have known and met occasionally since his college days; he is a man of gifts & attainments, employed editorially on the Boston Transcript but always somewhat ‘hysterical’, as you say, this being doubtless enhanced by the Whitman influence. It seems difficult for any man to be strongly under that influence without disturbing the balance of his mind" (Walt Whitman Papers, the American Literature Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University).   (Back)

3.  Horace Traubel is famed as Whitman’s devoted companion who recorded the poet’s daily conversations in the final years of his life. The second volume of his With Walt Whitman in Camden, a work ultimately appearing in nine volumes, had just recently been published when Kennedy wrote "Euphrasy and Rue." William Douglas O’Connor was a famous champion of Whitman, noteworthy for his The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication (New York: Bunce & Huntington, 1866).   (Back)

4.  See John Milton, Paradise Lost, 11.414. The word euphrasy can mean cheerfulness and gladness; however, as the Oxford English Dictionary indicates, it can also refer to a plant "formerly held in high repute for its medicinal virtues in the treatment of diseases of the eye."   (Back)

5.  Kennedy, The Real John Burroughs: Personal Recollection and Friendly Estimate (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1924), 84.   (Back)

6.  In this regard, the epigraph to Kennedy’s Reminiscences of Walt Whitman seems significant: "Who loves a Man may see his image here" (London: Alexander Gardner, 1896). The epigraph itself is a quotation from James Russell Lowell.   (Back)

7.  Higginson’s letter of 7 March 1895 to Kennedy, quoted by permission, is in the Walt Whitman Collection; Special Collections and University Archives; Rutgers University Libraries; New Brunswick, New Jersey. Julius H. Ward’s essay "James Parton" appeared in New England Magazine, January 1893, 629–39.   (Back)

8.  Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898), 230–31.   (Back)

9.  On the Bowery, see Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986), 89–100; George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 33–45. M. Wynn Thomas notes: "Whitman, who loved to boast of the ease with which he passed from Broadway to the Bowery and back, acted in some respects like a broker between the two cultures, the popular and the modestly cultivated" ("Whitman’s Tale of Two Cities," American Literary History 6 [winter 1994]: 648).   (Back)

10.  Chauncey, Gay New York, 34. By 1899, a year after Higginson’s comments appeared in Cheerful Yesterdays, one individual complained that there were "male degenerates upon the Bowery in sufficient number to be noticeable." Another 1890s visitor was appalled by what she regarded as ugly displays and by the appearance of many male "inverts" as she traveled from "one horrid but famous resort to another in and about the Bowery" (Gay New York, 35, 36).   (Back)

11.  See Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995); Daniel Horowitz, The Morality of Spending: Attitudes toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875–1940 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1985).   (Back)

12.  Higginson’s about-face in racial politics may very well have been rooted in his class attitudes and anxieties. Historian Nina Silber analyzes how the Old South, with its rigid class system, came to appeal to many white middle-class Northerners as they themselves faced increasing labor unrest (see The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865–1900 [Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1993], 93–123).   (Back)

13.  On Higginson’s politics during the 1880s, see Tilden G. Edelstein, Strange Enthusiasm: A Life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968), 368–400; and Howard N. Meyer, Colonel of the Black Regiment: The Life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (New York: Norton, 1967), 290–308.   (Back)

14.  [T. W. Higginson], "Recent Poetry," Nation, 15 December 1881, 476.   (Back)

15.  Oliver Stevens, the Boston district attorney, wrote to James R. Osgood on 1 March 1882: "We are of the opinion that this book is such a book as brings it within the provisions of the Public Statutes respecting obscene literature and suggest the propriety of withdrawing the same from circulation and suppressing the editions thereof" (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller [New York: New York Univ. Press, 1964], 3:267 n). Regarding O’Connor’s assumptions about Higginson’s involvement in the suppression of Leaves of Grass, see Walt Whitman, Daybooks and Notebooks, ed. William White (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1978), 2, 289 n. 1515; and Correspondence, ed. Miller, 3:283 n. 74.   (Back)

16.  T. W. H[igginson], "Unmanly Manhood," Woman’s Journal, 4 February 1882, 1.   (Back)

17.  In a letter of 22 February 1883 to Richard Maurice Bucke, O’Connor wrote: "On the strength of these poetic audacities of Mr. Wilde, the Rev. Mr. Higginson lumps him in with Walt Whitman for reprobation, holding them both up in contrast with Sir Philip Sidney, whom he appears to consider the proper model of a poet, and calls . . . ‘a brave example of virtue and religion.’ I read this effusion with infinite amusement. Is it credible that the Rev. Mr. Higginson has never seen the ‘Astrophel and Stella’ of that very Sir Philip Sidney he vaunts so roundly? . . . Does he think that the ‘Astrophel and Stella’ of Sir Philip Sidney is the sort of poem that ought preferably to ‘lie in ladies’ boudoirs’? This work, a galaxy of songs and sonnets, some of them exquisite, was inspired, be it remembered, by a married woman, Lady Rich, who figures in it as Stella, and is addressed by Sidney as Astrophel. The husband, Lord Rich, is repeatedly mentioned in terms of the utmost contumely and insult" (quoted in Richard Maurice Bucke, Walt Whitman [Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883], 80–81).   (Back)

18.  Higginson, "Women and Men: War Pensions for Women," Harper’s Bazar, 5 March 1887, 162.   (Back)

19.  See Higginson, "Women and Men: The Victory of the Weak," Harper’s Bazar, 26 March 1887, 214.   (Back)

20.  On the relationship between "culture" (in the late-nineteenth-century sense, as art, literature, and the like) and social politics, see Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988); and Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982).   (Back)

21.  Sidney Lanier, The English Novel and the Principle of Its Development (1883; reprint, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), 58.   (Back)

22.  The irony here is that, probably unbeknownst to Lanier, Walt Whitman was the key financial supporter of his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (although his brothers George and Thomas Jefferson Whitman were more financially secure).   (Back)

23.  Lanier, The English Novel, 54.   (Back)

24.  Ibid., 61.   (Back)

25.  [T. W. Higginson], "Walt Whitman: His Death on Saturday Evening—His Life and His Literary Place," New York Evening Post, 28 March 1892, 11: 1–3.   (Back)

26.  The term homosexuality had not long been current and was rarely applied to Whitman in the United States, although British critics were beginning to use the term in their more outspoken treatments of the poet.   (Back)

27.  See Higginson’s letter to Kennedy of 7 March 1895, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries; [Higginson], "Walt Whitman: His Death"; and [Higginson], "Recent Poetry," Nation, 15 December 1881, 476–77.   (Back)

28.  Higginson, "Recent Poetry," Nation, 7 July 1892, 10–12.   (Back)

29.  Higginson, quoted in Mary Thacher Higginson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson: The Story of His Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), 126. Higginson further remarked that Hurlbut was "so handsome in his dark beauty that he seemed like a picturesque Oriental" (Cheerful Yesterdays, 107). These passages about Hurlbut and other aspects of Higginson’s somewhat complex erotic life are further discussed in Christopher Looby, "‘As Thoroughly Black as the Most Faithful Philanthropist Could Desire’: Erotics of Race in Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment," in Race and the Subject of Masculinities, ed. Harry Stecopoulos and Michael Uebel (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1997), 71–115. See also Vivian Pollak, Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984), 225.   (Back)

30.  Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870; reprint, Williamstown, Mass.: Corner House, 1971), 55.   (Back)

31.  See Kenneth M. Price, Whitman and Tradition: The Poet in His Century (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990), 122–47; Henry F. May, The End of American Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Own Time, 1912–1917 (1959; reprint, New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1992), especially 305–6, 324–25.   (Back)

32.  Kennedy was not alone in thinking Higginson egotistical. Sarah Weld Hamilton, the daughter of abolitionists Theodore Dwight Weld and Angelina Grimké Weld, observed of Higginson: "[W]hen I met him in the Woman’s Journal office he was a tall, athletic man of 46. He had a fine forehead and regular features. He prided himself not a little on his good looks, and would almost always look in the glass" (notebook, "Distinguished People I have met," Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld, and Sarah Grimké Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan; quoted by permission).   (Back)

33.  Kennedy’s statement and perspective exemplify one of the central characteristics of modern, as opposed to Victorian, culture—what Daniel Joseph Singal calls the "integrative mode" of modern culture. "Put simply," Singal argues, "the quintessential aim of Modernists has been to reconnect all that the Victorian moral dichotomy tore asunder—to integrate once more the human and the animal, the civilized and savage, and to heal the sharp divisions that the nineteenth century had established in areas such as class, race, and gender" ("Towards a Definition of American Modernism," American Quarterly 39 [spring 1987]: 12).   (Back)

34.  Kennedy was probably thinking of Daniel Longaker’s statement: "I wish to silence forever the slanderous accusations that debauchery and excesses of various kinds caused or contributed to his break-down. There was found no trace or reason to suspect, either during life or after death, either alcoholism or syphilis" ("The Last Sickness and the Death of Walt Whitman," in In Re Walt Whitman, ed. Horace L. Traubel, Richard Maurice Bucke, and Thomas B. Harned [Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893], 410).   (Back)

35.  On the transformation from Victorian to modern middle-class attitudes toward male sexuality in the early twentieth century, see Bederman, Manliness & Civilization; Kevin J. Mumford, "‘Lost Manhood’ Found: Male Sexual Impotence and Victorian Culture in the United States," in American Sexual Politics: Sex, Gender, and Race since the Civil War, ed. John C. Fout and Maura Shaw Tantillo (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993), 75–99; and Christina Simmons, "Modern Sexuality and the Myth of Victorian Repression," in Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, ed. Kathy Peiss, Christina Simmons, and Robert A. Padgug (Philadephia: Temple Univ. Press, 1989), 163–64.   (Back)

36.  Bederman, Manliness & Civilization, 104.   (Back)

37.  Colin A. Scott, "Sex and Art," American Journal of Psychology 7 (January 1896): 198.   (Back)

38.  Kennedy, Reminiscences, vii.   (Back)

39.  Kennedy was hardly alone among Whitman’s friends in thinking that the poet had fathered one or more children. In a letter of 14 March 1895, to Kennedy, Richard Maurice Bucke wrote: "I know little about Walt’s children—do not know how many there were—believe there were several. He and their mother were not married. This is the whole story. I, for my part, am no believer in the sacredness of the marriage ceremony, can imagine a perfect pure union without it and a very impure one under its sanction and without knowing more of the case than above I could not condemn Walt’s act. It might have been either right or wrong we not having the data cannot tell which. Like yourself I have no desire to hold W. up as a saint who could do no wrong. But I claim that the fact of his having children by a woman to whom he was not married by the church is in itself no evidence of wrong doing" (quoted in O[ral] S. C[oad], "Whitman as Parent," Journal of the Rutgers University Library 7 [December 1943]: 32).   (Back)

40.  See "Mr. O’Connor’s Letter—1883," in Richard Maurice Bucke, Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), 79–81.   (Back)

41.  Similar language appears in Kennedy’s The Real John Burroughs, where Kennedy referred to Traubel as "the little German Jew of Camden" and criticized him and "others of the Philadelphia set" for "[throwing] the 1,000-candle-power search-light of their spyings on to their hero" (84).   (Back)

42.  The facts of the Parton case cannot all be recovered, but this much appears clear: in 1856, Whitman borrowed $200 from Parton, recently married to Fanny Fern. Parton had offered the money to Whitman without being asked. Whitman apparently assured Parton that he would be paid from future returns on literary work, perhaps having in mind expected sales of the 1856 Leaves of Grass. Interestingly, Kennedy drafted a full response to this controversy but apparently left it unpublished, and he avoided the issue altogether in "Euphrasy and Rue." The fullest account of the debt controversy is Oral S. Coad’s "Whitman vs. Parton," Journal of the Rutgers University Library 4 (December 1940): 1–8.   (Back)

43.  Ward, "James Parton," 631.   (Back)

44.  Higginson, "The Good Word Equality," American Co-operative News, February 1897, 143.   (Back)

45.  "Did Walt Whitman Leave a Debt Unpaid?" Walt Whitman Collection, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries, New Brunswick, New Jersey; quoted by permission.   (Back)

46.  Bliss Perry, Walt Whitman: His Life and Work (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), 123–24.   (Back)

47.  Traubel, "Questions for Bliss Perry," Conservator 17 (November 1906): 138.   (Back)

48.  Traubel, "The Code of the Gentleman," Conservator 17 (January 1907): 170.   (Back)

49.  Kennedy to Horace Traubel, n.d., Horace and Gertrude Traubel Papers, Library of Congress.   (Back)

50.  In transcribing Kennedy’s essay, we have adhered closely to the original text, retaining odd spellings. In a few instances, we have silently altered punctuation for the sake of clarity, and we have omitted one inadvertently repeated word: "as as" became simply "as."   (Back)

51.  We know of no biographical evidence to support this claim, nor can we find reference to such an incident in the letter from O’Connor under discussion.   (Back)

52.  O’Connor remarked: "I beg leave to tell this reverend militaire that if Longfellow had gone from Cambridge to serve in the hospitals, as Walt Whitman served, the land would have rung from end to end, and there would have been no objurgations on his not enlisting in the army, from the pen of the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson. I also beg leave to tell him . . . that Walt Whitman’s work of comfort and charity beside the cots of the Union and rebel soldiers, will last as long, and stand as fair, as the military bungling and blundering which distinguished this clergyman turned colonel, and evoked such agonized curses from his commanding officer at Port Royal. Better be a good nurse like Walt Whitman, than a nondescript warrior like the Rev. Col. Higginson.’’ (O’Connor’s letter of 1883 is reproduced in Bucke, Walt Whitman, 80.)   (Back)

53.  We have located no Higginson essay treating Whitman in Harper’s Weekly.   (Back)

54.  In a letter to Sylvester Baxter of 8 December 1886, Whitman wrote: "I thank you deeply . . . but do not consent to be an applicant for a pension, as spoken of—I do not deserve it" (see Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, 4:56).   (Back)

55.  The South Carolina writer Paul Hamilton Hayne (1830–86) was too ill to serve in the army during the Civil War, although he became known for war lyrics.   (Back)

56.  See Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, 9 vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1908), 2:19–20.   (Back)

57.  Kennedy appears to have been unaware that Higginson had already republished this obituary in Contemporaries ([Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1899], 72–84). Higginson’s revisions of the 1892 obituary are small and insignificant, with this exception: in 1899 Higginson excised two of the most damning paragraphs where he attributed Whitman’s poor health to sexual excesses.   (Back)

58.  Edmund Clarence Stedman was the author of "Walt Whitman," Scribner’s Monthly, November 1880, 47–64; reprinted with revisions in his Poets of America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1886).   (Back)

59.  Kennedy alludes to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.   (Back)

60.  Kennedy’s remark here may be influenced by his recent reading of the second installment of Traubel’s With Walt Whitman in Camden. Only a few pages before the passage Kennedy cites on Quakerism and war, Whitman tells Traubel: "Shake-speare’s crudities were offensive to [Voltaire]: there was something crude, powerful, drastic, in the Shake-speare plays: Voltaire could not reconcile his nerves to their brutal might. But you cannot shift such luminaries from their orbit by a sneer—by an adjective. Do you think Leaves of Grass was ever really hurt by the people who went at it with a club?" (2:16).   (Back)

61.  Kennedy deleted here the following passage: "The explanation of this curious fact that Higginson alone of the literati of America and Great Britain is an enemy of the ‘bard of the great idea’ lies solely in the inherited overplus of vanity & egotism which." The passage breaks off in this fragmentary fashion and has been struck through.   (Back)

62.  Daniel Longaker’s "The Last Sickness and the Death of Walt Whitman" contains both his own notes on the poet’s sickness and death and the "notes of the post-mortem" performed by Henry W. Cattell of the University of Pennsylvania. Longaker found no evidence of "either alcoholism or syphilis" or indications of any other "debauchery and excesses." Instead he referred to Whitman as "one whose ideal of purity was high" (see In Re Walt Whitman, ed. Traubel, Bucke, and Harned, 410).   (Back)

63.  Kennedy may be thinking of the opening sentences of Longaker’s "The Last Sickness": "Walt Whitman’s last sickness in reality dates from his years of hospital work in 1863–5, and originated at that time in two causes—the first, the emotional strain of those terrible years; the second, blood-poisoning absorbed from certain gangrenous wounds in patients whom he at that time closely attended" (see In Re Walt Whitman, ed. Traubel, Bucke, and Harned, 393).   (Back)

64.  Kennedy first wrote: "(see the case of the male homo)," and then struck through the line. Kennedy’s deletion can be seen as consistent with what Ed Folsom has called the "conspiracy of silence [among those close to the poet] about the physical side of Whitman’s love" ("Whitman’s Calamus Photographs," in Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies, ed. Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996], 210).   (Back)

65.  This final sentence (as the page citation implies) is drawn directly from John Burroughs, Whitman: A Study (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1899), 171.   (Back)

66.  Kennedy quotes from the long lead article, "Sex and Art," in American Journal of Psychology 7 (January 1896): 153–226, 198.   (Back)


Publication Information
"Debating Manliness: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, William Sloane Kennedy, and the Question of Whitman," by Robert K. Nelson and Kenneth M. Price, first appeared in American Literature 73.3 (2001): 497-524. This electronic edition is made available with the permission of the rights holders.


Whitman Archive ID
anc.00164


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.