Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Comradeship
Author:
Kuebrich, David
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Comradeship was, for Whitman, a complex and multifaceted theme in both his life and his poetry. He conceived of it as a crucial form of religious experience which provided humans with an existential sense of God's presence in this world and living proof of a transcendent spiritual realm and the soul's immortal destiny. On a political level, comradeship was to elevate the male personality and refine its coarser elements, creating an unprecedented male intimacy and bonding that would unify the United States citizenry (for Whitman, politics remained largely a male preserve) and create new forms of international solidarity. Comradeship was also to serve an important artistic function, uniting readers with the poet and each other in bonds of timeless mystical affection.

But the aspect of Whitman's comradeship to receive the most attention in the last twenty years is its alleged homosexual dimensions. Groundbreaking work in the field of gay studies has produced a widely accepted critical understanding which asserts that Whitman was the first self-proclaimed homosexual in modern literature and that his homosexuality formed the imaginative source and thematic center of his politics and his poetry. This approach has brought a needed corrective to Whitman scholarship which had, in keeping with the prejudices of an earlier time, treated homosexuality as a pathology to be primly overlooked or confined to the margins of critical discussion. Yet despite its positive contributions, this construction of a gay Whitman has various problematic features which invite further scrutiny. For while there is abundant evidence that Whitman was strongly attracted to other males, it is less clear whether he engaged in homosexual relations and celebrated gay love in his poetry or instead repressed and sublimated his homosexuality into more culturally acceptable forms of religious, political, and artistic expression.

Fredson Bowers and others have speculated that "Calamus," the sequence of poems which constitutes Whitman's primary poetic treatment of comradeship, was inspired by an actual love relationship Whitman had with another man. This may or may not have been the case, but what is beyond dispute is that Whitman conceived of the love he felt for other men as religious and as a crucial aspect of his spiritual life. Writing in 1870 to Benton Wilson, one of the Union soldiers he met in his hospital work, Whitman emphasized "our love for each other—so curious, so sweet, I say so religious" (With Walt Whitman 2:370). When Horace Traubel told the elderly poet that his correspondence of 1863 to Union veteran Elijah Fox was "better than the gospel according to John for love," Whitman responded that the sentiments of the letter were "the most important something in the world—something I tried to make clear in another way in Calamus" (With Walt Whitman 2:380).

Whitman always conceived of comradeship as an essential feature of his religious vision. In "Starting from Paumanok," written in conjunction with "Calamus," he describes "two greatnesses," love and democracy, which are informed by a "third one rising inclusive and more resplendent," that is, the "greatness of Religion" (section 10). In "Calamus" itself, Whitman gives primary emphasis to the spiritual meaning of "manly love." It is the love of comrades, he announces in the opening poem, rather than "pleasures, profits and conformities," which he needs to "feed" his "soul" ("In Paths Untrodden"). This theme is further established in the second poem as Whitman affirms that the experience of loving comradeship raises his soul to a heightened state ("how calm, how solemn it grows to ascend to the atmosphere of lovers") and instills in him a sense of integration into a more real spiritual order: the "real reality" which transcends the natural world, making it, in comparison, seem but a mere "mask of materials" or "show of appearance" ("Scented Herbage of My Breast"). Elsewhere in the sequence he also calls attention to how friendship culminates in a spiritual love that is part of a higher spiritual reality, referring, for example, to how it liberates his soul so that, becoming "disembodied" and "[e]thereal," it "float[s] in the regions" of spiritual love ("Fast Anchor'd Eternal O Love!").

Whitman believed this elevated state of loving consciousness was an anticipatory experience of the life his soul would know more fully after death. Because this love was a mystical prolepsis of immortality, he spoke of love and death as meaning "precisely the same" and as being "folded inseparably together" ("Scented Herbage of My Breast"). But in closely associating love and death, Whitman's point is not, as routinely (mis)interpreted, that the love of comrades paradoxically leads to death but that it anticipates the greater love the soul will know in the afterlife when united with God, "The great Camerado, the lover true for whom I pine" ("Song of Myself," section 45).

For purposes of analysis, comradeship may be spoken of as having political dimensions, but these are also religious because Whitman envisaged both his ideal citizens and his ideal state as fundamentally religious. The spiritual marrow of Whitman's politics is most clearly and succinctly revealed in Democratic Vistas, where he asserts that his envisioned future democracy is to be a "sublime and serious Religious Democracy" (Prose Works 2:410) and insists that its citizenry must be thoroughly infused with an "all penetrating Religiousness" (Prose Works 2:398). Friendship among religious citizens in a religious polity would necessarily be suffused with spirituality. Whitman imagined a future democratic individualism that would find its needed counterbalance in a comradeship that "fuses, ties and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing all," and both were "to be vitalized by religion" because "at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element" (Prose Works 2:381).

In its aesthetic function, comradeship is equally religious. Whitman wished to beget a passionate, timeless spiritual relationship between himself and his readers. His poetry was to "arouse and set flowing in men's and women's hearts, young and old, endless streams of living, pulsating love and friendship, directly from them to myself, now and ever" (Prose Works 2:471). These bonds of love would not, he proclaimed, be severed by death: "I cannot be discharged from you! not from one any sooner than another! / O death! O for all that, I am yet of you unseen this hour with irrepressible love" ("Starting from Paumanok," section 14). Much as nineteenth-century American Protestants saw themselves as receiving spiritual sustenance from Christ in their efforts to establish the heavenly city in America, Whitman dreamed of future generations of "Americanos, a hundred millions" who would turn to him for inspiration as they worked to build his ideal religious democracy: "With faces turn'd sideways or backwards towards me to listen, / With eyes retrospective towards me" ("Starting from Paumanok," section 2).

When considering the meaning of comradeship, it is still germane to recall Whitman's exchange with John Addington Symonds, the bisexual British scholar who, over a period of nearly two decades, repeatedly inquired about the meaning of "Calamus." Finally responding in 1890, Whitman asserted, in tones of bewildered outrage, that he found Symonds's suggested gay reading "damnable" (Correspondence 5:73). Recent scholarship dismisses this reply by interpreting it not as a rejection of a gay reading but as merely an indication of Whitman's distaste for Symonds's use of current European medical terminology for homosexuality (Erkkila 167) or for his "aristocratic or connoisseur or feminized" model of homosexuality (Martin 177).

Such explanations strain belief, and they become even more problematic when the letter to Symonds is paired with another of Whitman's equally forceful repudiations of a homosexual reading from the same period. In this case Whitman speaks not to an upper-class European but a fellow working-class American. In December 1888 Whitman gave Horace Traubel, the painstaking biographer of his final years, another letter he had written from Washington during the Civil War to his friend Hugo Fritsch in New York. Whitman told Traubel the letters would help him to "clear up some things [about "Calamus"] which have been misunderstood: you know what: I don't need to say." Following this, Whitman went on to complain that the world was "so topsy turvy, so afraid to love, so afraid to demonstrate...that when it sees two or more people who really, greatly, wholly care for each other...they wonder and are incredulous or suspicious or defamatory." Indulging himself in an unusual fit of pique, Whitman asserted that people inevitably come to false conclusions "about any demonstration between men—any," and then they "gossip, generate slander...the old women men, the old men women, the guessers, the false-witnesses—the whole caboodle of liars and fools" (With Walt Whitman 3:385–386).

These forceful rejections of a possible homosexual theme in "Calamus" should be paired with Whitman's own personal reflections in his notebooks around 1870 in which he anguishes over his affection for Peter Doyle (considered the closest of Whitman's various male friends), referring to it as an "abnormal PERTURBATION" and a "diseased, feverish disproportionate adhesiveness" (Notebooks 2:887–890). This language indicates that Whitman felt his affection was excessive, and if this attraction contained any conscious sexual dimensions, these appear to be clearly disapproved of as pathological. In short, what limited extra-textual references we have to Whitman's views on homosexuality (if the notebook entry can be so counted) are expressions of strong disapproval.

The grounds for questioning the current homosexual reading of comradeship are further strengthened if one keeps in mind that antebellum culture contained several traditions—among them romanticism, transcendentalism, and phrenology—that encouraged intimate male friendship and often invested it with religious significance (Reynolds 391–398). Also, in nineteenth-century America it was neither uncommon, nor necessarily occasion for comment, for men to share a bed; for example, the young Abraham Lincoln slept openly for four years with his friend Joshua Speed. The existence of these traditions of male friendship and bedsharing explains how in an age when homosexuality was considered immoral, abnormal, and even criminal, Whitman might publish lines like the following: "For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night, / In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me, / And his arm lay around my breast—and that night I was happy" ("When I Heard at the Close of the Day").

That Whitman would compose this vignette and that his contemporaries did not find it offensive indicates that nineteenth-century Americans were considerably less inclined than moderns to equate intimate inter-male affection with homosexuality. The souls not only of Victorian moralists but also of even such sensitive readers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau sometimes shrank from Whitman's poetry, but this was not in response to detected suggestions of homosexuality but because of its candid presentation of the human anatomy and heterosexual love. Attention to our culture's changing perceptions of male friendship cautions against readily interpreting Whitman's poems of "manly love" as homosexual texts.

Much of the textual evidence for a gay reading of comradeship is also far from compelling. The primary argument from Whitman's fiction is based on a highly questionable reading of a short story of 1841, "The Child's Champion," which maintains that the sipping of a drink is to be read as fellatio and that the kicking of a boy's back is suggestive of anal rape. Homosexual interpretations of the poetry also contain problematic elements. The reading of "Song of Myself" as a homosexual dream or fantasy repeatedly strains the textual evidence, e.g., the interpretation of the male bathers (section 11) as a "fantasy of mass fellatio" or of the passage on touch (sections 28–29) as ending with anal intercourse. Equally unconvincing is the frequent reading of section 5 of "Song of Myself," in which Whitman describes the union of his body and soul, as actually being a depiction of homosexual oral sex.

Nor is there persuasive evidence for a gay interpretation of Whitman's life. The extensive body of letters Whitman wrote to Civil War soldiers, and especially Peter Doyle, usually considered his most intimate "camerado," is perhaps the best record we have of his male friendships. This correspondence is noteworthy not for its romantic passion, of which there is little, and certainly not for its eroticism, of which there is none, but rather for its expression of parental love. The persona that emerges is not that of an erotic lover but of an older friend who also serves as a caring, and at times doting, father and mother.

Pointing to these problematic features of the current gay reading does not refute such an interpretation but rather calls for its reexamination. For such a review, several guidelines might be suggested. The first would be to give serious consideration to Whitman's insistence to Symonds that "L of G is only to be rightly construed by and within its own atmosphere and essential character" (Correspondence 5:72). At a very minimum, this would mean relating comradeship to Whitman's pervasive religious purposes and the culture of nineteenth-century male friendship (which included intensely affectionate, nonsexual relationships). Also, given Whitman's own strong repudiations, it seems that a proposed gay reading should not present homosexuality as the core of his personality and the central theme of his poetry, but rather emphasize Whitman's tentativeness and confusion about his sexual identity and the indeterminacy inherent in his treatment of male friendship. Finally, a gay reading might be more strongly argued if based not on authorial intent but a hermeneutic stressing the fusion of the horizons of the text and the modern reader.

Some two years before penning his strong denunciation to Symonds, Whitman allowed to Traubel that he himself sometimes experienced moments of personal puzzlement about "Calamus": "perhaps I don't know what it ["Calamus"] all means—perhaps never did know. My first instinct about all that Symonds writes is violently reactionary—is strong and brutal for no, no, no. Then the thought intervenes that I maybe do not know all my own meanings" (With Walt Whitman 1:76–77). Perhaps this comment is part of a long elaborate ruse Whitman skillfully wove throughout his final years to mislead Traubel, skillfully camouflaging his earlier effort to proclaim a gospel of gay love while yet keeping open the possibility of a future gay reading. Or perhaps it is a sincere admission of puzzlement and a clear illustration that Whitman was capable of a profound humility. Either way, the passage points to the intricacies surrounding Whitman's comradeship and the need for modesty in interpretation. Perhaps such factors as the complexity of Whitman's personality, the indeterminacy of his poetic style, the ineffable nature of mystical experience, the fluidity of sexual desire, and the inevitable subjectivity of interpretation combine to defy any clear determination of what Whitman meant by comradeship.

Bibliography

Erkkila, Betsy. "Whitman and the Homosexual Republic." Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Ed. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 153–171.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: U of Texas P, 1979.

____. "Whitman and the Politics of Identity." Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Ed. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 172–181.

____. "Whitman's 'Song of Myself': Homosexual Dream and Vision." Partisan Review 42 (1975): 80–96.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Symonds, John Addington. Walt Whitman: A Study. London: Nimmo, 1893.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908; Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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