Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Bertz, Eduard (1853–1931)
Author:
Grünzweig, Walter
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The main claim to fame of Eduard Bertz, novelist, philologist, and self-declared sexual researcher, is his friendship and long-term correspondence with British novelist George Gissing, whom he came to know after he was forced to emigrate from Germany to England for political reasons. In 1881 he moved to Rugby, Tennessee, where he lived in Thomas Hughes's utopian community until 1883.

After he returned to Germany, his new project became Walt Whitman, whose writings he had come to know in the United States. In a letter congratulating Whitman on his seventieth birthday, he vowed that "[i]f life and strength lasts, this pen of mine shall help to reveal you to the German people" (qtd. in Grünzweig, "Adulation" 7). However, this project had already been entrusted to Johannes Schlaf, a naturalist German author. Since Schlaf had the support of Horace Traubel and other Whitmanites on both sides of the Atlantic, Bertz, feeling rejected, shifted the nature of his interest in Whitman.

In 1897 Bertz signed a petition to liberalize German laws regulating homosexuality, and in 1905 he published a book-length article on Whitman in the yearbook of the Wissenschaftlich-Humanitäre Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee), which supported homosexuals scientifically, medically, and legally. Bertz's thesis that Whitman was a (sexually inactive) homosexual was in line with the committee's attempts to create a more favorable public attitude by demonstrating the "social usefulness" of homosexuals.

Schlaf, although himself a signer of the petition, felt that this revelation would hurt his own Whitman project and the rapidly growing popularity of Whitman in Germany. Supported by Traubel and other Whitmanites, he wrote a pamphlet contesting Bertz's claim. Bertz, in turn, now considering himself a victim of a homosexual conspiracy and coverup, wrote two vicious monographs attacking Schlaf and Whitman. Although he claimed that by exposing or revealing Whitman he had sought only to break the hostile public silence regarding homosexuality, the paranoiac discourse of parts of these books reveals clearly homophobic attitudes.

The debate resurfaced eight years later in France. When French Whitmanite Léon Bazalgette disputed the truth of Guillaume Apollinaire's hoax regarding orgiastic events at Whitman's funeral, Bertz intervened by taking Apollinaire's side and again attempted to prove Whitman's homosexuality.

The narrowness of the views expressed in this debate should not obscure its significance. The German battle surrounding Whitman's homosexuality was, internationally, one of the earliest public discussions of an author's gayness and also forms a chapter in the legal and human emancipation of homosexuals in Germany.

Bibliography

Bertz, Eduard. Der Yankee-Heiland: Ein Beitrag zur modernen Religionsgeschichte. Dresden: Reissner, 1906.

———. "Walt Whitman: Ein Charakterbild." Jahrbuch fur sexuelle Zwischenstufen 7 (1905): 153–287.

———. Whitman-Mysterien: Eine Abrechnung mit Johannes Schlaf. Berlin: Gose and Tetzlaff, 1907.

Grünzweig, Walter. "Adulation and Paranoia: Eduard Bertz's Whitman Correspondence (1889–1914)." Gissing Journal 27.3 (1991): 1–20 and 27.4 (1991): 16–35.

———. Constructing the German Walt Whitman. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Lang, Hans-Joachim. "Eduard Bertz vs. Johannes Schlaf: The Debate on Whitman's Homosexuality in Germany." A Conversation in the Life of Leland R. Phelps. America and Germany: Literature, Art and Music. Ed. Frank L. Borchardt and Marion C. Salinger. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1987. 49–86.

Schlaf, Johannes. Walt Whitman Homosexueller? Minden: Bruns, 1907.


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