Selected Criticism

Sex and Sexuality
Miller, James E., Jr.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Themes of sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very beginning and have shaped the course of the book's reception. The first edition in 1855 contained what were to be called "Song of Myself," "The Sleepers," and "I Sing the Body Electric," which are "about" sexuality (though of course not exclusively) throughout. From the very beginning, Whitman wove together themes of "manly love" and "sexual love," with great emphasis on intensely passionate attraction and interaction, as well as bodily contact (touch, embrace) in both. Simultaneously in sounding these themes, he equated the body with the soul, and defined sexual experience as essentially spiritual experience. He very early adopted two phrenological terms to discriminate between the two relationships: "amativeness" for man-woman love and "adhesiveness" for "manly love." Although Whitman did not in the 1855 Preface call direct attention to this element in his work, in one of his anonymous reviews of his book ("Walt Whitman and His Poems," 1855) he wrote of himself and the 1855 Leaves : "The body, he teaches, is beautiful. Sex is also beautiful. . . . Sex will not be put aside; it is a great ordination of the universe. He works the muscle of the male and the teeming fibre of the female throughout his writings, as wholesome realities, impure only by deliberate intention and effort" (Poetry and Prose 535). 

Whitman added other sex poems to his book in 1856, including "Poem of Procreation" (now "A Woman Waits for Me") and "Bunch Poem" ("Spontaneous Me"). At the end of the volume he included, without permission, Emerson's letter praising the 1855 Leaves (its "great power," and "free and brave thought"), and alongside it he published his own letter in reply. He may have been misled by the nature of Emerson's praise to emphasize the centrality of his themes of adhesiveness and amativeness: "As to manly friendship, everywhere observed in The States, there is not the first breath of it to be observed in print. I say the body of a man or woman, the main matter, is so far quite unexpressed in poems; but the body is to be expressed, and sex is" (Poetry and Prose 529). 

It was not until the 1860 edition of Leaves that Whitman gathered the poems celebrating sexuality into the cluster "Enfans d'Adam" ("Children of Adam") and the poems celebrating "manly love" into "Calamus." When Whitman came to Boston to see his book through the press there, Emerson tried to persuade him to withdraw the sex poems, but Whitman refused. He probably understood that if he really desexed Leaves it would be like self-castration. Although Emerson never publicly withdrew his endorsement of Whitman, he passed up opportunities to repeat it. Emerson's silence together with Whitman's loss of his job at the Interior Department in 1865, charged with writing "indecent poems," were early warning signs that he and his Leaves were embarked on a difficult road ahead. 

In subsequent editions of Leaves, Whitman revised and shifted his poems of amativeness and adhesiveness, but by and large his dominant themes became not the body but the soul, not youth but old age—and death. His experience in the Civil War hospitals seems to have provided a turning point for Whitman's focus. He even claimed, in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" (1888), that the war revealed to him, "as by flashes of lightning," the "final reasons-for-being" of his "passionate song" (Poetry and Prose 516). In his Civil War poems, Drum-Taps (1865, later included in the 1867 Leaves), the "Calamus" theme runs throughout—"cropping out" as Whitman himself said of it in his 1876 Preface to Two Rivulets (Prose Works 2:471). Whitman critics have not failed to notice in "Drum-Taps" the poet's theme of adhesiveness—the joy in the physical transmuted by the war into pain and anguish—in such poems as "The Wound-Dresser," "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," and "A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown." 

In 1868 W.M. Rossetti published a British edition of Whitman's poetry, Poems by Walt Whitman. In effect, this was an expurgated Leaves, with "Song of Myself," "Children of Adam," and "Calamus" omitted, except for a few poems of the "Calamus" cluster placed in a section entitled "Walt Whitman." In spite of Rossetti's gutting of the book, it established Whitman's reputation in England and attracted many ardent admirers. Some, when they became familiar with the poems purged by Rossetti, became even more ardent, while others turned hostile. The former included Anne Gilchrist, who fell in love with Whitman and wrote an article "An Englishwoman's Estimate of Walt Whitman" (Boston 1870), especially praising Whitman's sex poems. Algernon Swinburne wrote a poem in praise of Whitman in Song Before Sunrise (1871), but loudly reversed himself in his 1887 essay, "Whitmania," after encountering all of Leaves. John Addington Symonds read Whitman's poems as a young man, and, bowled over, found his way to the whole of "Calamus." He would later strike up a correspondence with Whitman in Camden, pressing him on the real meaning of his "Calamus" poems, leading Whitman ultimately to reply in a notorious letter in 1890 claiming to have had six illegitimate children during his "jolly" "times south" (Poetry and Prose 958). 

Although in the fifth edition (1871-1872) of Leaves, Whitman seemed temporarily to lose his way in shaping Leaves to contain his new work ("Passage to India" and related poems), some ten years later, in the sixth edition (1881-1882), he adopted his earlier practice of integrating the poems of a lifetime into a single structure. Before the book could be distributed by its publisher in Boston, however, it was found to be immoral by the Society for the Suppression of Vice; because Whitman refused to remove the offensive parts, the book was withdrawn and published in Philadelphia. The Boston censors found offensive not only the whole of "A Woman Waits for Me," "The Dalliance of the Eagles," and "To a Common Prostitute," but also passages vital to the life of a number of Whitman's greatest works, including "Song of Myself." But the "Calamus" cluster with its songs of "manly love" was left intact! 

In "A Backward Glance," Whitman made his final assessment of the sex poems that had given him so many problems. Writing a bit after the most recent attempt to censor his book, Whitman affirms boldly—" Leaves of Grass is avowedly the song of Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality. . . . Of this feature . . . I shall only say the espousing principle of those lines so gives breath of life to my whole scheme that the bulk of the pieces might as well have been left unwritten were those lines omitted" (Poetry and Prose 518). A similar claim might have been made for the "Calamus" poems of adhesiveness; that no such claim was made was attributable, surely, to the fact that they had never inspired public controversy as had the sex poems. 

Whitman said in "A Backward Glance," "I have not gain'd acceptance of my own time, but have fallen back on fond dreams of the future" (507). It is clear that near the end of the twentieth century, Whitman's book has won a worldwide reputation that would astonish him. The story of that acceptance, beginning after his death in 1892, has been told only in part—and is still unfolding. At the center of the story is a shift from concern about his poems of "Sex and Amativeness" to concern about his poems of "manly attachment" and adhesiveness. Providing a frame of reference for understanding this shift are changes in perspective brought about in the first half of the century by Freudian and psychoanalytic thought, and in the latter half by the rights movements of gays, lesbians, and feminists (allied to the black civil-rights movement). 

Emory Holloway, in his Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative (1926), provided the first scholarly biography of the poet, and his experience may stand as an example of the continuing controversy over Whitman. In his research, Holloway happened to run across the manuscript of a "Children of Adam" poem, "Once I Pass'd through a Populous City," and discovered that it had originally been addressed to a man—and therefore "belonged" in the "Calamus" cluster. He was the first biographer to agonize over how to write about Whitman's sexuality. A revealing footnote to Holloway's biography is that he later became obsessed with demonstrating that Whitman was telling the truth in his claims to fatherhood in his letter to Symonds; his obsession led to his publication, after long years of research, of Free and Lonesome Heart: The Secret of Walt Whitman (1960), claiming discovery of "Whitman's son." 

Holloway's dilemma has been inherited, in one form or another, by subsequent biographers and critics of Whitman. What can be assumed factually about sexuality in Whitman's life? What may be said validly about sexuality in his poetry? 

As to the life: Gay Wilson Allen's biography, The Solitary Singer, published first in 1955, revised in 1967, and reprinted 1985, remains indispensable. In his preface to the latest edition, Allen pointed out that attitudes toward Whitman's sexuality had changed since he first wrote his book. He had decided, he explained, to use the word "homoerotic" to indicate that his "sexual emotions were stronger for men than for women"; he had avoided the use of "homosexual," he said, because "at the time that term implied a practitioner of pederasty," for which there was no evidence (Allen xi). Justin Kaplan, whose biography, Walt Whitman: A Life, appeared in 1980, followed Allen in using the word "homoerotic." And in his essay, "The Biographer's Problem" (1989), Kaplan pointed out that the biographer's requisite "intimate evidence" on Whitman's sexuality remained elusive (25). Kaplan's point is borne out by a brief and informative biography of Peter Doyle, Martin G. Murray's "'Pete the Great': A Biography of Peter Doyle" (1994), which sketches Whitman's relationship with the horse-car conductor he met in Washington at the end of the Civil War—a relationship well-known since 1897, after the appearance of a collection of Whitman's letters to Doyle under the deliberately chosen title Calamus. Though the warmth and intensity of the bonding are clear, the "intimate evidence" is still missing. About Doyle, Kaplan concluded: "Maybe it doesn't matter"; the "evidence" for Whitman's homosexuality exists, he asserted, in his poetry and letters (26). 

As to the poetry: Robert K. Martin's The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (1979) has brought the controversy about how to interpret the sexuality of Whitman's Leaves into clear focus. His opening chapter on Whitman begins: "Although Whitman intended his work to communicate his homosexuality to his readers, and although homosexual readers have from the very beginning understood his homosexual meanings, most critics have not been willing to take Whitman at his word" (3). Martin's edited volume, The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life After the Life (1992), brings together an international array of critics and poets who start from Martin's basic assumption. By their very nature these works set new directions for the continuing discussion of Whitman. Two other critics have taken Whitman "at his word" and assume his homosexuality a given: Michael Moon, Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass" (1991), and Byrne R.S. Fone, Masculine Landscapes: Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text (1992). In their approaches, all these critics have brought new and valuable insights into the many meanings of Leaves

But have they, in clearing away some distortions, contributed others of their own? There are many critics who agree on the pervasive homoeroticism in Whitman's life, letters, and poetry, and even on his latent if not overt homosexuality; they are not, however, ready to adopt such a singular and reductive assumption about what Whitman "intended" in his Leaves —"to communicate his homosexuality to his readers." Throughout his prefaces and "A Backward Glance"—and in his poetry—Whitman wrote at length about his purposes, including his themes of amative and adhesive love, but also (among others) his themes of selfhood and freedom, being and becoming, democracy and equality, war and tragedy, spirituality and death. Nor are all critics ready to accept the assumption that such seismic chasms divide readers as implied by such ponderous sexual labeling. There remains the fact that innumerable "heterosexual" readers, both men and women, have felt the power, sexual and other, of Whitman's Leaves. His appeal is universal, not exclusive. Sexual labels are simplistic, distorting as they do the complexity of any "real" individual's sexuality. In short, all readers can share, consciously and/or unconsciously, Whitman's omnisexual vision—omnisexual in the all-encompassing sense of embracing auto-, homo-, and hetero-erotic impulses. Individuals possess these impulses within them by the fact of being human and sexual, assimilated in passing through the stages of growing up. There is much more in their sexuality that brings human beings together than divides them, whatever the nature of their "sexual preference," whatever the nature of their sexual experience—experience central to human experience, and allied closely always, as Whitman reiterated, to the spiritual: "Lacks one lacks both" ("Song of Myself," section 3). 


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 

Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980. 

Folsom, Ed, ed. Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 

Fone, Byrne R.S. Masculine Landscapes: Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992. 

Kaplan, Justin. "The Biographer's Problem." Walt Whitman of Mickle Street: A Centennial Collection. Ed. Geoffrey M. Sill. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1994. 18-27. 

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989. 

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

____, ed. The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life After the Life. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1992. 

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957. 

____. "Leaves of Grass": America's Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. Twayne's Masterwork Studies 92. New York: Twayne, 1992. 

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991. 

Murray, Martin G. "'Pete the Great': A Biography of Peter Doyle." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 12 (1994): 1-51. 

Shively, Charley, ed. Drum Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1989. 

Whitman, Walt. The Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Louis Untermeyer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949. 

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


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