Selected Criticism

Gould, Mitch
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In "There was a Child Went Forth," Whitman's "yearning and swelling heart" fed an "[a]ffection that will not be gainsay'd" for a mother "with mild words" and an "anger'd, unjust" father. Walter Whitman, Sr., was so often incapacitated by depression or alcoholism that Walt acted as a substitute father to his brothers and sisters, as he suggests in an early story, "My Boys and Girls." Even when Louisa Whitman's "very good but very strange boy" (qtd. in Perry 19) grew to manhood and buried his father, he acknowledged in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" that he was still crying out for his father's withheld embrace and loving kiss.

The poet also continued to hunger for his mother's acceptance of his renegade sexuality, recreating her in "Song of the Broad-Axe" as "the best belov'd" who is "less guarded than ever, yet more guarded . . . Oaths, quarrels, hiccupp'd songs, smutty expressions . . . do not offend her" (section 11). In reality, in 1856, when those lines were written, Moncure Conway had in fact detected a guarded expression in Louisa's eyes when he dropped in for his interview and found two impressions in Walt's unmade bed. In 1856 Fred Vaughan was living in the Whitman household. Despite her foreboding, however, Louisa supported her son by describing her own same-gender attraction to an Indian squaw, as recorded in "The Sleepers."

As the adult child of an alcoholic, Whitman's formative experiences of love "became part of him . . . for many years" ("There was a Child Went Forth") and conditioned his frustrations in securing lifelong love, creating the "bitterest envy" described in "When I Peruse the Conquer'd Fame." When he confessed in "Calamus" number 16 that he was puzzled at himself, or in "Calamus" number 9 that "I am ashamed—but it is useless—I am what I am" (1860 Leaves), he was concerned with his self-defeating behavior. In "Are You the New Person Drawn toward Me?" he warned prospective lovers that the fault lay within himself: "Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy'd satisfaction?"

Whitman's major lovers—Fred Vaughan, Peter Doyle, and Harry Stafford—were cut from much the same depressive, journeyman mold as Whitman, Sr. Whitman caroused with Vaughan at Pfaff's tavern and with Doyle in its Washington equivalents, enabling their addictions and thereby perpetuating his hold over them. He rationalized his attraction to these roughs by arguing that his superabundance of personal magnetism could cheer them up. In reality, his relationships were generally marked by stormy scenes, jealousies, infidelities, betrayals, and eventual abandonment. However, he viewed Horace Traubel (who broke the journeyman mold) as his final, steadfast lover, in every sense except the physical.

In "Song of the Open Road," we find another problem that a man like Fred Vaughan encountered in trying to love Walt Whitman: Whitman's demand to come out of the "dark confinement" (section 13) and walk along the "open road." "I nourish active rebellion," Whitman challenges (section 14); "Camerado, I give you my hand! . . . will you come travel with me?" (section 15). As he boldly "saunter'd the streets," Whitman "curv'd with his arm the shoulder of his friend" ("Recorders Ages Hence") and had intended in "Calamus" number 8 to "go with him I love" (1860 Leaves), but even for Whitman, the decision to publicly "tell the secret of my nights and days" ("In Paths Untrodden") was so frightening that he compared himself to Jesus in the garden sweating blood ("Trickle Drops"). All too soon he saw Vaughan "content himself without me" ("Calamus" number 9, 1860 Leaves). Vaughan's escape from the "ironical smiles and mockings" along the open road ("Song of the Open Road," section 11) was to impregnate his girlfriend Frances and thereby trap himself into marriage.

Because of these well-known failures, critics have seldom grasped how Whitman's loving relationships were paradoxically successful in giving him a crucial measure of the love he craved, as he stated in "Calamus" number 39 (1860 Leaves): "Doubtless I could not have perceived the universe, or written one of my poems, if I had not freely given myself to comrades, to love." Doyle was his lover for roughly ten years. Vaughan regretted his desertion and never stopped thinking of Walt. But Traubel was with him at his deathbed. All of these men spoke of Whitman's persistent spiritual presence in their lives.

"Song of Myself" is the poem in which Whitman explicitly links his experience of God to his loving bedfellow (section 3). Perhaps he was thinking of Vaughan when he wrote, "This the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face, / This the thoughtful merge of myself, and the outlet again" (section 19). Once he saw the Self reflected in his lover's eyes, his tentative celebrations of it were utterly justified to his own heart. As a transcendentalist, Whitman believed that this epiphany, "the origin of all poems" (section 2), like the "damp of the night" drove deeper into the soul than any sermons or logic (section 30). His conviction is dramatized in section 5 of "Song of Myself," which begins when he loafs with his soul on the grass and ends in his encounter with the fullness of the Godhead, which Elias Hicks said resided in every blade of grass.

The deep affirmation he found with his soul alleviated shadows of shame and self-doubt and thereby unlocked his native affinity with creation. In section 5 of "Song of Myself" he attests to his restored sense of brotherhood with men and women, and in section 6 he compares this essential commonality with the grass: "Growing among black folks as among white . . . I give them the same, I receive them the same." Whitman's frequent sympathy for "shunn'd persons" ("Native Moments"), as well as his social and geographical catalogues, are an attempt to communicate this feeling.

Love, then, the "kelson of creation" ("Song of Myself," section 5), is the unifying "purport" of Leaves of Grass and Whitman's entire career. Since Whitman perceived that all America's "experience, cautions, majorities, ridicule, / And the threat of what is call'd hell" were actively arrayed against men like himself, he vows that his words would remain always "weapons full of danger, full of death," and that he would "confront peace, security, and all the settled laws, to unsettle them" ("As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado"). America's acceptance of his dream of a "new city of Friends" ("I Dream'd in a Dream"), where other men and women would be free to share his transcendent experience of love, was the next great test of the young American democracy.


Perry, Bliss. Walt Whitman: His Life and Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906.

Shively, Charley. Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Camerados. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.


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