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The Furtive Hen and the Cat Whose Tail Was Too Long: On Whitman's Traces

1. A glance from across the sea

In the early morning of July 12, 1874, Edward Carpenter, a young English poet and Socialist activist, decides to write a letter to the author of Leaves of Grass from Trinity Hall, in Cambridge:

My dear friend
—It is just dawn, but there is light enough to write by, and the birds in their old sweet fashion chirping in the little College garden outside. My first knowledge of you is all entangled with that little garden. But that was six years ago; so you must not mind me writing to you now because you understand, as I understand, that I am not drunk with new wine.
My chief reason for writing (so I put it to myself) is that I can't help wishing you should know that there are many here in England to whom your writings have been as the waking up to a new day. I dare say you do not care, particularly, how your writings, as such, are accepted; but I know that you do care that those thoughts you weary not to proclaim should be seized upon by others over the world and become the central point of their lives, and that something even transcending all thought should knit together us in England and you in America by ties closer than thought and life itself. When I say 'many' of course I do not mean a multitude (I wish I did) but many individuals—each, himself (or herself, for they are mostly women—fluid, courageous and tender) the centre of a new influence.

Carpenter is well aware of the strong resistance to change coming from the Church, the university, and society in general, and yet . . .

Yet the women will save us. I wish I could tell you what is being done by them—everywhere—in private and in public. The artisans too are shaping themselves.

He has faith in America, where "life is so intense," but also has another fundamental reason for turning to Whitman as a "dear friend," in spite of the fact that they had never met:

Because you have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart. (—And others thank you though they do not say so.) For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature. Women are beautiful; but, to some, there is that which passes the love of women.

Carpenter's letter turns out to be long. It is night when he closes it:

You I suppose I shall not see. Yet if anyone should come from your side to England—this address will always find me. There are many who, if their pens were here, would send greetings to you across the sea.
Farewell: wherever the most common desires and dreams of daily life are—wherever the beloved apposition is, of hand to hand, of soul to soul—I sometimes think to meet you.
I have finished this at night. All is silent again; and as at first I am yours
Edward Carpenter.
(Traubel, 1906, Volume 1, 158-61)

A few years earlier, in 1867, Carpenter, then 23, had been given an offer to replace Virginia Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, as a "fellow" at Trinity Hall in Cambridge. Any candidate to that office had to belong to the Anglican Church, and for some time Carpenter complied without feeling truly committed. The year after, the reading of Leaves of Grass made him realize he was not doing the right thing in the right place. He left Cambridge, turning his back to the privileges both of an ecclesiastical career and of his family's burgeois class. Instead, he resolutely moved to Northern England to join the struggles of the working-class masses and to live his own sexuality to the full.

All along, he was feeling an increasing desire to meet the author of Leaves of Grass; for a while he cherished the idea of creating an innovative "center of organic thought" in Camden, where Whitman lived (Reynolds, 1995, 527). The project did not materialize, but on May 2, 1877 Carpenter managed to reach that shabby working-class town on the Delaware River during his first journey to the United States, which he would describe much later in Days with Walt Whitman (1906).

So here goes Carpenter looking for his beloved poet. He knocks at the door of the humble home of Walt's brother George and his wife Louisa, with whom Walt lived at that time. They warmly welcome him, but Walt has gone out, so they invite him to come again the next day, when in fact the long-awaited meeting will take place.

Edward is then 33, Walt 57, and had already been stricken with paralysis: he appears "at first sight quite an old man, with long grey, almost white, beard, and shaggy head and neck; gray dress too; but tall, erect, and at closer sight not so old – a florid fresh complexion, pure gray-blue eye (no sign of age there)." After a while Carpenter becomes "aware of a certain radiant power in him, a large benign effluence and inclusiveness, as of the sun, which filled out the place where he was – yet with something of reserve and sadness in it too, and a sense of remoteness and inaccessibility." All together, he is impressed by Whitman's majestic presence, as well as "by a certain untamed 'wild hawk' look, not uncommon in the Americans" (Days, 4-7). A sense of immediate familiarity is shared by the two men from their very first encounter. It is clear that they are interested in each other and have a lot to talk about, as the rest of their relationship will show. Just as evident is Carpenter's keen perception of certain ambivalent traits in Whitman's personality. To some of these traits, that are present in his poetry too, we will have several occasions to return.

Walt is ready to spend the rest of the day alone with his interesting visitor, and proposes a trip across the river, to Philadelphia. "With evident pleasure" he leans on Edward's arm, and they slowly walk to the ferry. As they go, Carpenter realizes that Whitman is cheerfully greeted by almost everybody: in the street, at the embarcadero, in the ferry, at the arrival in Philadelphia, where a driver steps down from his dray to shake hands with the poet. The man used to be a "stager" on New York's Broadway, had not seen the poet for three or four years, and was moved to tears. And "in his pocket the poet discovered one or two packets of sweetmeats for absent little ones" (Days, 8-9).

A few days later, Whitman goes to visit his "dear friends, the Staffords," in Kirkwood, a few train stops from Camden. When Carpenter joins him on Sunday, Walt introduces him to Harry, who at that time was his "boy," and to the rest of the large and welcoming family of farmers. He then takes Edward to visit Timber Creek, a pleasant, secluded wooded nook along a stream, where he loved to meditate, loaf, undress, and take therapeutic mud baths in a pond, alone or in discreet company. In the course of their conversation, Walt mentions how comforting to him was the attention paid to his poetry in England, since America, to which the poems had been addressed, did not seem to care overmuch. Now his strongest desire was to have the Leaves published in England in their integrity, and not only in the necessarily anaesthetized anthology provided in 1868 by William Michael Rossetti, through which his poetry had nevertheless become known in England and in Europe.

The day before, in Philadelphia, Edward had been introduced to Anne Gilchrist and her children. They had recently moved to the States because Anne, a London widower and cultivated essayist, well known in literary circles, had become desperately enamored of Whitman through his poems. After six years of epistolary correspondence, she decided to cross the ocean in order to marry him and give him many children. Once in Philadelphia she rented a place that had an extra room exclusively reserved for Whitman and for anybody who might want to visit him. So Carpenter ends up spending a pleasant week in Whitman's company in "the prophet's chamber," as he called it (Days,17), and treated as one of the family. He could not have dreamed of a better chance to be close to Walt, to observe him interact with other people with his typical directness and physicality, to feel his immanent presence, to witness his sense of "nowness," that is, his way of being entirely where he happened to be until the moment when, all of a sudden, he would get up and leave without ceremony. Of his "obstinacy" Carpenter becomes aware very soon. He attributes it to Walt's Quaker background, without further inquiries, while having plenty of opportunities to realize that in Leaves of Grass the poet had indeed transfused his own "Personality" in several ways, including "the same strong and contrary moods, the same strange omnivorous egotism, controlled and restrained by that wonderful genius of his for human affection and love" (Days, 32).

A sexual tryst between the two friends has been surmised, suspected, deemed credible or taken for granted. For the time being we can suspend our wondering about this (relevant) matter, until we find (and we will) reliable traces that will lead us to the right track. In fact, if even only once in his lifetime Walt happened to have as a sexual partner an attractive young man as cultivated and mature as Edward Carpenter, we would have a term of comparison with the innumerable relationships that Whitman canvassed in his entire life with proletarian boys or very young men who often were genuinely affectionate or in love with him but always in an objective position of socio-cultural asymmetry, not to say subalternity.

The mutual bond of friendship and trust between Carpenter and Whitman is important for both of them but just as much for us, indirect spectators, because through the perceptive narrative of our visitor-reporter we enter the everyday life of Whitman the man: breezy, cordial, ecumenically open to men, women, lovers and families of lovers, all belonging to the working class, as by and large his parents and relatives were. The presence of Harry Stafford and the visit to Timber Creek give Carpenter and us a glimpse into that particular type of constant erotic and sentimental affections so characteristic of the man and mirrored in so much of his poetry. On the other hand, neither in the man's life nor in his poetry do we find "love stories," in the commonest sense of the term.

Of all this ample and positive variety of social and personal relationships Carpenter perceives also the shadow zones, into which one can proceed only to some extent, until one meets a barrier of inaccessibility. Nobody knows what lies beyond. Perhaps an indefinite mixture of introversion and poetic creativity (indeed the dominant trait in Whitman's being), that subjugates all other thoughts and sentiments and defines the private territory of an inviolable self.

Seven years later, on June 27, 1884, Carpenter is again in Camden for about a fortnight, and this time he visits Whitman in the modest building he had recently "part-purchased at 328 Mickle Street." The poet appears to him "a trifle thinner perhaps and certainly more infirm" (Days, 35). They sit in a room on the ground floor, overlooking the street, have lunch at Carpenter's hotel, take a walk exchanging news on mutual friends, converse about the profoundest nature of Leaves of Grass and about Doctor Bucke's recent biographical volume on the poet. They "talk a little about social questions", and to his Socialist friend Walt says: "I believe, like Carlyle, in men; I think that notwhithstanding all set-offs the great capitalists and masters of private enterprise have, in America at least been useful" (Days, 38). We know how conservative, or better, reactionary Thomas Carlyle was, to the point that in 1867, when the Reform Act extended the right to vote to the working class in England and Wales, he wrote Shooting Niagara: And After?, a libel against democracy, especially of the United States brand. Whitman himself had felt the need to respond publicly to this attack, but this did not prevent him from sharing Carlyle's cult of the individual to the point of always keeping himself above the collective struggles of the proletariat as well as of the abolitionists. His political ideal (or better, a fragment of his haphazard political feelings) looks back to the 18th-century agrarian, Jeffersonian thought, by then outdated, which envisioned "the creation of a vast, independent, democratic class of small owners" (Days, 39), like the one to which belonged both sides of Whitman's stem families in the 17th and 18th centuries. But these families slowly declined. Was it by chance? Or incompetence? No. The pre-industrial age was giving way to rampant capitalism, the domain of those individuals that he defined "useful."

Whitman does not seem to possess a clear historical perception of this transition and of its implications, and therefore he is unequipped to elaborate the contradictions (in this case political) in which he gets caught. Or perhaps he did not really care about them. That he was aware of them is sure enough: he had honestly warned us from the first poem of 1855, eventually titled "Song of Myself": "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then . . . . I contradict myself; / I am large . . . . I contain multitudes." In his own theory one of the main functions of the Poet was to be the "equalizer" of social and political contrasts, which precisely authorized him to keep all contradictions open, without discarding any of them but rather balancing them. This theory actually justifies the conclusion reached by Whitman himself in his late years and reported by Traubel: from all that he had written anybody could extract any thought and its opposite (Traubel, "Walt Whitman as Both Radical and Conservative," 1902).

2. The furtive hen

In the inevitable passage from the Poet with a capital letter to an everyday poet, an olympic neutrality might somewhat wane. Between the impulse (and the duty) to write freely about whatever one cares about and the applause of a society that does not want to listen a frustrating rift is bound to open. As the moment of the Civil War becomes nearer and nearer Whitman tries to reach a compromise.

In the morning of June 30, 1884, on the verge of departing, Edward Carpenter sits with the poet for the last time. He had quickly identified a series of contradictions intrinsic to his friend's personality and thinking. Now he listens to this last (and wonderful) confidence, and writes it down for us, verbatim, we trust.
We had a long and intimate conversation. He was very friendly and affectionate, and sat by the open window downstairs enjoying the wafts of fragrant air, while he talked about 'Leaves of Grass.' What lies behind 'Leaves of Grass' is something that few, very few, only one here and there, perhaps oftenest women, are at all in a position to seize. It lies behind almost every line; but concealed, studiedly concealed; some passages left purposely obscure. There is something in my nature furtive like an old hen! You see a hen wandering up and down a hedgerow, looking apparently quite unconcerned, but presently she finds a concealed spot, and furtively lays an egg, and comes away as though nothing had happened! That is how I felt in writing 'Leaves of Grass.' Sloane Kennedy calls me 'artful' – which about hits the mark. I think there are truths which it is necessary to envelop or wrap up. (Days, 42-3)
The description of the hen's movements is so precise and funny that we can see the scene as in a Disney cartoon, but Whitman's predicament was serious indeed. In the figure of the furtive hen the poet instictively finds a perfect objective correlative to describe his strategy.

In 1855 the narrator/author of the dyonisiac "Song of Myself" had thrown in the face of his readers the glove of defiance, radically refusing to respond to any indiscreet question about his way of dealing with sexuality: "I swear I will never translate myself at all, only to him or her who privately stays with me in the open air." He was actually rehashing the basic Transcendental principle of refusing all social conventions in the name of genuine Nature.

Much later in life, while sharing his meditations with Carpenter, Whitman will recall the young poet of the body, but only in a quick retrospective flash, since that period of his life has long been gone, circumstances have changed, certain prices that had been naively unforeseen had been paid, and the due lessons finally brought home. Though unwilling to repudiate his former self he is now cultivating different ambitions. Since 1865 his most urgent priority has been to come to terms with the tragic situation of his country, divided by the Civil War. In the new context, sexuality will of course remain the pivot of human life and of his own poetry, but the horrors of a war witnessed in the first person require that his primary role as a Poet be turned to heal the nation's wounds, just as he had spontaneously done in Washington with the torn bodies of wounded and dying soldiers. The political poet steps forth, putting a mute on more private and controversial themes in order to win credit from that part of society whose principles and behaviors he did not share but whose consensus was crucial to his most cherished aim: that of being recognized as the national poet. Here we find the insoluble and unsolved knot of Whitman's poetic program and of his life, located between ante bellum and post bellum.

When in the furtive hen apologue Whitman says that perhaps women are better equipped to seize what lies behind Leaves of Grass he is evidently referring to his earlier Leaves, where sexuality was given ample space, and right he was, because in the eternal battle of sexes women have always been the subaltern, aggrieved party, so they knew better than men what sexuality was about. The reactions to the early Leaves clearly show a sharp gender split between appreciative women and heavily critical and even despising and derisive males belonging to the ruling classes, homophobic as well as oppressive of women. Summing up, the potential readership of the poet of the body is threefold: two thirds of it is made of "comrades" and progressive women, which means syntonic but not hegemonic. The other third is hegemonic and hostile.

After 1860, Whitman's narrative strategy veers in the opposite direction. Political poems need no "hints." They are theatrically shouted from rooftops, applauded by the establishment and by its followers, that is, by the majority of the reading public, which nevertheless does not forget the author's immoral past and will frustrate his aspiration to become the Bard of the nation. In 1865 Secretary of State James Harlan will be the first to accuse him of immorality and force him to leave his employment in the Indian Bureau in the Washington Home Department. Later, he was assigned to another office, thanks to the intervention of friends, especially the writer and fellow civil servant William Douglas O'Connor. Many years after, again on charges of immorality, Boston's Attorney General will attack the 1881-82 edition of Leaves of Grass, published in that city.

3. Three types of resistance: Whitman, Dickinson, Melville

In 1884, through the ingenious apologue of the furtive hen Whitman privately consigns to Carpenter the basic instructions for a shrewd reading of part of his Leaves. By that time, the motivations for adopting a technique of "indirection" had already been made public by the poet in the second, definitive version of "When I Read the Book" (1871, now in the section "Inscriptions"), but only four years earlier there was no mention of it in the first version of the same poem (1867):

When I read the book, the biography famous;
And is this, then, (said I,) what the author calls a man's life?
And so will some one, when I am dead and gone, write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life;
As if you, O cunning Soul, did not keep your secret well!)
Here, the last line casts a sarcastic snigger at unwelcome inquirers, because at that stage the poet's defence strategy against potentially hostile readers was still based on total secrecy, on keeping a hermetic and scornful silence in the face of the whole world. In 1871 the tone of the narrator is totally different:
When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man's life?
And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
(As if a any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirection
I seek for my own use to trace out here.)
Not only does he drop his sarcasm, but his doubts about really knowing himself call for some kind of opening up to his ideal readers, the comrades. There surfaces a need to share compatible assumptions with them, to create a new idiom for a community of equals, different from the everyday language one uses in society at large. In order to allay the suspicions of ordinary readers the language of the poems will have to be veiled, allusive, suggestive, so as to be fully understood only by the comrades and to create or strengthen a sense of belonging and solidarity. Whitman had actually adopted various extremely communicative narrative voices since his debut in 1855, and the intimate voice was one of the most charming, but only later did he come to identify it as a special language to be used when addressing his special friends. At any rate, that voice is one of the poet's greatest creative achievements, uniquely his own: intimate and seductive, it insistently urges the reader to a closer relationship, questioning, entreating, confessing torments and desires. In the following century it became quite clear that the target had been perfectly hit. In 1955, exactly one hundred years after the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman was recognized and honored by Allen Ginsberg in his famous poem "A Supermarket in California" not only as a "dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher," but also as a groundbreaking poet.

In calling for a reader's active role, Whitman's indirection technique appears by now very modern. In fact only in the second half of the 20th century was a solid and consistent apparatus of critical concepts and tools devoted to that aspect of the reading process by a plurality of European scholars. Briefly, Umberto Eco opened the way with his Opera aperta (1962) and summed up its developments in Lector in Fabula (1979). Since 1967 Wolfgang Iser's and Hans Robert Jauss' Rezeptionsästhetik worked on the concepts of "the implicit reader," of a "horizon of readers' expectations," and so forth, until in 1980, on the other side of the ocean, Stanley Fish asked: "Is There a Text in This Class?"

Some time around 1868—that is, approximately fifteen years before Whitman explained to Carpenter his theory of indirect communication—an unmarried Amherst woman who wrote poetry like her bachelor Long Island peer had formulated a similar idea about expressing one's mind in words:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—[poem 1263, R. W. Franklin edition]

Emily Dickinson's advice had different motivations: some were obviously metaphysical, others mundane. Since she had no desire to publish her poems, there was no worrying about gaining a public readership. Moreover, the imperative first line of Poem 1263 shows an awareness of the possible asymmetry between a narrator's level of consciouness and that of the addressees. Here in fact the speaker knows better than the potential readers what "Truth" is. Not an ordinary fact-checking nor a shared social persuasion, but an absolute, divine epiphany that human beings can hardly bear, because their eyes are too weak. Thus "The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind."

As to social relationships at large, Dickinson had very early, very clearly, and once and for all made up her mind, without ever faltering or complaining. Her family's economic affluence gave her the privilege of autonomy: she did not have to look for a job nor to get married. From the silence of her cozy room she could shoot as she pleased at the majority's idola: "Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne'er succeed" (1859); "The Soul selects her own society— / Then shuts the Door— . . . I've known her—from an ample nation / —Choose One— / Then—close the Valves of her attention— / Like Stone—" (1862); "Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man— / Poverty—be justifying / For so foul a thing" (1862).

The literary career of Herman Melville, who lived almost exactly in the same years and in the same places as Whitman, was shaped by social circumstances fairly similar to those of Dickinson, though his own beginnings were different from those of both our authors. His patrician family, of Dutch origins, was very wealthy until 1830, when Herman's father, a tradesman of sorts, went broke and soon died. After sailing around the world on a whaleship, at 27 Melville became a successful writer almost by chance, on the instigation of his family, who urged him to write about the fascinating adventures in the exotic seas of Polynesia he had described to them. Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) opened an easy career for him. All he had to do was to churn out for the new mass readership a series of ready-made products along the same line of his first books. That would have cost him the auctioning of his mind, to quote Dickinson's words, but Melville was as determined as Dickinson in following his own unprofitable metaphysical pursuits, and wrote two huge books one after the other that wrecked his bodily and mental health and turned out to be commercial and critical disasters. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) and Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) mark the end of any possible relationship between Melville and a large public. Melville's father-in-law had to support him and his family during a long period of depression and inactivity. In a couple of scathing short stories Melville squared his account with a money-oriented society. In "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853), one of his masterpieces, he gave a graphic description of a reluctant writer, that is, an employee in a Wall Street office who gradually refuses his role as a mere copyist of a lawyer's business papers. In a less famous story, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (1855), he blasted at gender inequality as the other cornerstone of social structure. After these final gestures he disappeared from the (literary scene and buried himself for twenty years as a customs inspector in New York's harbor, leaving behind the manuscript of his last masterpiece, "Billy Budd, Sailor," published in London only in 1924.

The tormented profile of Melville's publishing "career" (or non-career) gives us a perfect representation of the literary state of the art at mid-19th-century, when the decline of an elitist culture (in which producers and consumers roughly shared similar standards) and the outbreak of mass culture bring about an irreversible fracture between writers with high aspirations and the business of literary trade. La bohème is born, and provides a compensation chamber where disaffiliated artists can gather with their likes and survive. Significantly, in the late 1850s Whitman becomes a regular client at Pfaff's, a beer cave on Broadway near Bleecker Street, where unconventional men and women artists could freely meet, mixing with people of all kinds. In Whitman's unfinished poem "The Two Vaults," Pfaff's was a place "where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse / While on the walk immediately overhead pass the myriad feet of Broadway." Within those vaults Walt felt quite at ease. And yet, he was not giving up his ambition to receive a larger recognition from the wider world outside of that cozy cellar. If anything, that ambition kept growing.

4. The impossible missions of Leaves of Grass

Whitman does not intend to give up a public battle of his own that has at least three targets. The first, shared by the most innovative writers of his time, is to create a high-level literature with a distinctly "American" character, that is to say, emancipated from the English models, language included. The second is the rescue of sexuality from silence and repression, and on this ground he is alone. The third is linked to the first in a fairly mixed, confused way, since it introduces a celebratory intention charged with a kind of patriotism veering to nationalism and finally to imperialism, which has little to do with the intention and the necessity of creating a new and original literature.

The first objective is historically justified, since nobody could reasonably dispute the emergence of American writers of great stature and originality, working in a milieu that was becoming increasingly different from the European context. Leaving Dickinson aside, whose poetry was still clandestine, there were enough writers to testify to the ripeness of a very diversified literature in the United States: suffice the names of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Douglass, Poe, Stowe, and Louisa May Alcott. Whitman is the one who most directly corroborates "The American Scholar," Emerson's passionate oration delivered before the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Society on August 31, 1837, in which he exhorted the students to raise their eyes from ordinary material occupations to the cultural enterprises that millions of United States citizens and the entire world were expecting. In his turn, Emerson was actually echoing the plea made to his fellow citizens by Noah Webster in 1783 on the verge of publishing his first speller, a prelude to his major American Dictionary of the English Language. Webster insisted that the new nation was to become as independent in literature as it had become in politics. Thus through Emerson the thread connecting Whitman to the 1776 Declaration of Independence becomes quite visible.

From the academic heart of Boston, from the places where the first English Puritans landed, Emerson's eyes turn away from the pompous celebrations of a foreign past: "Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. [. . .] I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. [. . .] The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride." This time Emerson is tapping (with impeccably sassy aplomb) from a very high Old World source indeed, nothing less than William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads (1798), a manifesto of the proto-Romantic poetry of the low and the humble. And yet he concludes: "We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe."

Whitman encounters Emerson for the first time in New York City, in March of 1842, attending his lecture on "Nature and the Powers of the Poet," and remains deeply impressed. The final version of Emerson's lecture is to be found in "The Poet," the centerpiece of his Essays: Second Series, 1844, in which he takes a further step toward defining what remains to be done for a truly American literature. "Dante's praise is that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher," Emerson says, and laments that "we have yet had no genius in America" capable of doing that. "Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres." ( In this case Emerson is exactly prophesying what Whitman would start to do a decade later, without ever stopping to the end of his life. If, when, and how much Whitman knew what Emerson wrote (or rather, how much he would admit to know) has been long debated, but we know for sure how profoundly taken he was by that lecture. As editor of the New York Aurora, Whitman wrote that Emerson's lecture was one of the richest and most beautiful compositions he had ever heard anywhere, at any time, and promptly paid back what he had learned there by carrying out Emerson's program to a tee. He even went beyond that program, toward a different and slippery goal, all of his own.

Whitman wants to celebrate the democracy and the greatness of "these States," as he used to call them, in alternative to "America," a general, comprehensive term, amply geographic as well as mythological, which the United States—a historically defined reality—keep appropriating as though the latter were synonym of the former and represented them only, thus transforming "America" into an ideological term. To speak of democracy is one thing (though not simple); to speak of "greatness" is another (and delicate) affair, which asks for a more detailed definition of that greatness and of its scope.

If Whitman, following Emerson's steps in that precise historical moment, meant to remind Europe that something important existed in culture and literature outside its narrow and hoary borders, he was certainly doing something justified, even over-ripe. Poe had started striking that note in 1842, Melville in 1850, both of them praising Hawthorne's talent as something the United States had not previously produced and was on a par with the best European examples. But was this Whitman's intention? Or was he thinking of the "greatness" of "America" in a social, ideological, and political sense?

In spite of his never-ending complaint about America's indifference or misunderstanding of his artistic achievements, Whitman decides to celebrate exactly that America, in order to win it over and be recognized as its national poet. And it comes easy to him, because he shares the gut patriotism of the majority of his fellow citizens, their chauvinistic drives, and finally the imperialistic ideology that sums them up. To celebrate such attitudes there was no need of the revolutionary style of his early years, that had made him a decisive poet in unscrewing the doors of tradition from their jambs.

Yet, successful poets are far more in tune than Whitman with the society that counts, and can spontaneously offer what that society loves, along with patriotism: morality, sentimentalism, easy musicality. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) is their champion. He comes from one of the oldest and most substantial New England families, and feels most at ease with the social and cultural Boston elite. He is professor at Harvard, the first translator of Dante in the United States, and one of the five "Fireside Poets," as they called themselves: that is, poets who could be read by the fireside in the intimacy of an entire family, children included, and, by extension, recited in schools.Therefore the Fireside Poets were the only American poets who could sell as much as their English counterparts, and Longfellow was the only American poet who earned the honor of being portrayed in a bust installed in London's Westminster Abbey, while, on the other hand, his poems were earning him a handsome and steady income. He actually was a very skilful verse maker, a master of traditional meters, rhythms, rhymes, and melodies, which could be easily memorized and recited, while conveying moral messages on the side. His Ballads and Other Poems (1841) exploited a very popular and easily recognizable form. Evangeline, a romantic poem, sold 36,000 copies in the first year. The Song of Hiawatha (1855) captured its readers by mixing the lore of the Finnish saga Kalevala with improbable Native American legends. It came out in the very same year that marked Whitman's debut as a poet with the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The past and the future of American poetry confronted each other face to face, but the comparison of the sales is unmerciful. Whitman did not succeed in selling all the 795 copies he had beautifully printed in Brooklyn. Hiawatha sold 10,000 copies in one month, which went up to 30,000 in eight months and to 50,000 in two years (Reynolds 1995, 353). Whitman lost the match because he had written a book that was different from all others, disconcerting, and largely incomprehensible.

5. The growth of Leaves of Grass

The title of Whitman's first collection of poems winks at the floral fashion of the day, fostered by Sara Parton (the best-paid columnist of her time) in her Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-folio (1853) and in other works that appealed to a very vast audience, mostly female. On the other hand, beyond the naive attempts at self-promotion of its author, Leaves of Grass is a book that grows upon itself, organically, like plants and trees, according to one of Whitman's deepest philosophical convictions, that he shared with the Transcendentalist thinkers and writers of New England, Emerson above all: the belief that Nature's laws permeate the universe and human life in all their aspects, whereby even a book could grow like a tree.

Whitman's poems grew from twelve in the first edition to 389 in the last one, but the title of the book remained the same. The author, who was a dedicated and creative typographer from the very beginning of his career, produced or oversaw a number of disparate volumes of Leaves, mostly for commercial reasons, but today only six of them are considered real editions, inasmuch as each of them adds new material to the previous one:
  • Leaves of Grass, Brooklyn, New York, 1855.
  • Leaves of Grass, Brooklyn, New York, 1856.
  • Leaves of Grass, Boston, 1860-61.
  • Leaves of Grass, New York, 1867.
  • Leaves of Grass, Washington, 1871-72.
  • Leaves of Grass, Osgood, Boston, 1881-82; reprinted by Rees Welsh & Co., Philadelphia, 1882.
A seventh volume published in 1891-92 and traditionally called "Deathbed Edition" is basically a reprint of the previous one (1881-82), but also something else. In fact the ailing author was persuaded by a friend to add two "annexes" comprising the poems that he kept writing in the intervening decade, but he was adamant in keeping the new poems clearly separate from what he considered the complete and definitive body of Leaves.

If we take a good look at all these editions we realize that the structure of each of them has little to do with the organic growth of a tree, and much more with the author's endless uncertainties about the layout of his work. From the very beginning he excludes arranging the poems in a chronological order, which would have allowed the reader to follow their evolution. Besides, in preparing each new edition he revises or rewrites the texts, modifying, cutting and sometimes pasting them together. Sometimes they are totally expunged, temporarily or definitively. Finally, he keeps shuffling the single poems as well as the clusters (sections) that contain and somehow order them. This leads to an unusual and major consequence: each edition offers a specific reading experience which cannot be recuperated in the following ones.

From the Civil War onwards Whitman tends to lay out single poems and clusters in a sequence that mirrors the life span of a man (Whitman himself), who has by now come to realize that the Civil War is the pivot of his own life and of the nation's. Thus the "Drum-Taps" section and the following elegies for Lincoln's death are duly placed at the center of the volume, while other poems or sections are scattered here and there in a fairly random way. A striking example is given by the dissemination of two of his earliest and most revolutionary poems. "Song of Myself," Whitman's germinal and longest masterpiece, loses the first position it held in the 1855 edition, though everything he ever wrote after derives from it, one way or another. Its twin piece, "The Sleepers," another long poem and masterpiece, is transferred hundreds of pages later, for no apparent reason. Again: the great coeval twin sections "Children of Adam" and "Calamus" (1860) are kept together, not too far from the opening of the final edition but not ahead of the execrable block of the "Inscriptions" (1860-1881).

Summing up, if we take a look at the photographs of the large room in which Whitman wrote, read and slept, we will notice that not an inch of the floor or top of the pieces of furniture emerged from the layers of papers, tickets, books, newspapers, clippings and so forth that lay scattered everywhere. It is credible that in that sea of paper Whitman could find whatever he needed, but only he knew where. Nevertheless that sea of paper tells us a lot about the order and chaos of Leaves of Grass, and, by extension, about some phrenological bumps of Whitman's head, since the book is solemnly proclaimed to be the receptacle in which he cast his body and his "Personality."

In the era of the internet the Walt Whitman Archive offers the unique chance of perusing each edition and of following step by step the entire metamorphic life of the Leaves before it gets crystallized in 1881-82. So we will not miss the treasure of synaesthetic inventions that the author, in his triple role as mutant poet, passionate typographer, and material maker of books, lavished in all the editions of his Leaves, starting with the first one. Especially with the first one.

6. The first edition, 1855. The buried masterpiece

Today the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass ranks among the most important works in literary history because it marks the debut of one of the greatest poets of the 19th century, whose resonance in the entire world has few rivals. First of all it marks a decisive turn in the course of Western poetry, becoming an archetype of modernity in the Americas, in Europe, and finally in the rest of the planet. It was Malcolm Cowley who, in 1959, made a major move in the recognition of the 1855 edition by publishing it separately in the inexpensive and popular Penguin Books, available anywhere. He called for a radical change in what was then the current reading of Leaves of Grass by proclaiming its first edition a masterpiece in its own right, buried under the following editions.

En passant, two years later, in Paris, appears a volume of poems entitled Les fleurs du mal, another lifetime book, another archetype of modernity and of the city as its symbol. Over Les fleurs also loomed a vegetal symbol, as shady and disturbing as Whitman's Leaves wanted to be sunny and heartening.

The 1855 edition is fascinating not only for its poems but also as a beautiful object, created by the author himself. A fairly rare circumstance, which calls our attention both to the synaesthetic play of text and paratext and to the declining role of artisanship in a printing business that was increasingly relying on the standardized procedures of mass production (Corona 1996, 13-17). A parallel decline hits the carpenters' manual work that Whitman's father practiced and taught to his son. Walter Whitman, Sr. was proud of being able to build a whole edifice with his own hands, and his son was so convinced that poetry was to be "made," and not simply "written," that he even transferred some carpentry terminology into his verse—"My foothold is tenon'd and mortis'd in granite" (from the poem that would later be titled "Song of Myself"). The 1855 edition is indeed one of the last documents produced by manual printing techniques, while the following editions of Leaves of Grass adopt the new mechanical devices.

To celebrate his debut as a poet in the most solemn way, Whitman would have liked to make it coincide with the Fourth of July, Independence Day, but the book actually went on sale in late June (Folsom-Price, "The First Edition of Leaves of Grass", in Life & Letters, Biography, Walt Whitman, in WWArchive). 795 copies of the volume were printed at the author's expense in Brooklyn, on a handset press in the small print shop of a friend, Andrew Rome. 599 copies are bound in dark green cloth, and some of them have golden decorations. The author had free access to the shop and could oversee all phases of the printing. He prepared a certain number of pages, made last-minute corrections to some of the copies, leaving imperfections in others in order to save time and money. Once a single fascicle was printed, the lead characters were reshuffled and re-used for the next batch. Reprinting was therefore impossible, and there is no extant manuscript, owing to the author's negligence. Whitman left the original manuscript in Andrew Rome's print shop, and in 1858 "it was used to kindle the fire or feed the rag man," as he told Traubel late in life. The distribution of the volume in Brooklyn and Manhattan was entrusted to Fowlers & Wells, printers and phrenologists, but many copies remained unsold. About 200 of them have survived to this day. When one appears at book auctions, buyers are ready to invest as much as 300,000 dollars.

The volume of the first Leaves is thin (95 pages), but unusually large. Its size was not a matter of choice but of contingency, in terms of time and cost, since Whitman took advantage of the large legal sheets ready for use in Andrew Rome's shop. The format of the following editions is more standard: smaller, almost pocket size, as the author desired, so that the book could be carried around "eternally" by his ideal readers (the "comrades"), preferably between shirt and skin, close to the heart, as he specified in 1860 in "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand," in the "Calamus" section (Corona, in Camboni, 1994). On the other hand, the accidental large size of the first edition allows Whitman's long lines to unroll across the page with a spaciousness never recovered.

Easy access to a small print shop offers other advantages. Morning after morning Whitman could follow every phase of the production of the volume, including the decoration of the covers, that he pursued with splendid floral motifs, while from the title's letters sprouts and roots emerge in relief. The graphic patterns and the cromatic shades of the paper pasted on the inside of the covers are remarkably refined.

Not only does the 1855 edition strike the reader with the elegance of its binding, but also with the singular setup of its paratext, that reveals a strategy of mise en scène worthy of a great stage director. The dotted "Leaves of Grass." of the title in the frontispiece is written in very large characters, and "Grass." is gigantic. Could Whitman have in the back of his mind Emerson's words in "The Poet," published just a year before, in which he said that though by now his country had remarkable poets, still missing was a man like Dante, "who dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher"?

At the bottom of the front page we find the place and year of publication: "Brooklyn, New York: 1855." The name of the publisher is absent because of differences arisen with one of the distributors as the volume was going through the printing, but more remarkable is the absence of the author's name. Instead, from the center of the opposite page emerges a man's standing figure, cut above the knees, in a worker's outfit. A rough, wide-rimmed hat, slightly thrown back; coarse pants; and a light-colored shirt open on a darker undershirt. The posture is relaxed but alert: his left hand is hidden in the trousers' pocket, the right is closed in a fist, negligently resting on the hip without excluding the possibility of action. The gaze is intensely addressed to the reader, as though waiting. The reaction of the anonymous Boston Critic's reviewer was prompt and clear: "The man is the true impersonation of his book—rough, uncouth, vulgar." From his very debut as a poet, Whitman wanted to distance himself from any conventional image, and signed the book with his body. Gabriel Harrison, a Brooklyn friend and photographer who specialized in "occupational" portraits of workers at their trade, had no problem in portraying his model as one of them, according to Whitman's wish. It has been recently ascertained that the final etching from the original dagherrotype had two versions: the former was retouched so as to enhance the proletarian bulk of the poet's crotch (Genoways, in Belasco-Folsom-Price, 2007); the latter was left as it was, so not all copies are alike in this respect. This rockstar-like exhibition of sexual seductivity on the threshold of his book of verse shows the absolute coherence of Whitman's poetics, that goes as far as to privileging the visual over the verbal.

Only when we turn the page, in its middle, we may hardly discern, among the obligatory legal data, printed in the minutest characters, the name of a certain Walter Whitman who had "entered" the book in the year 1855 in the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the United States for the Southern District in New York. "Walter Whitman" is the actual registry name of our poet, but not the one his family and he himself chose to use. At first sight that discrepancy made even Emerson wonder about the author's identity.

The volume's layout deserves attention too. The book opens with a long, untitled prose piece, arranged in two colums like a newspaper article. The pages devoted to it are numbered in Roman characters, to mark their separation from the poems' pages. Under this unassuming typographic form lies one of the most important essays in the literary history of the United States, which will eventually be referred to as "The 1855 Preface." AMERICA, in capital letters, is its first word, and the first A is much bigger than the rest of the word's characters. Yet, in spite of the Preface's relevance, Whitman wanted to keep it separate from the poems' body, which he considered an organic and intangible whole, and the material layout of their pages is conceived accordingly.

At the top of almost every page of poetry the dotted title "Leaves of Grass." is uniformly reprinted in bold type, except in three pages (13, 57 and 65), where it is reprinted in an even larger bold type on top of "I celebrate myself" (later "Song of Myself"), "Come closer to me" (later "A Song for Occupations"), and "To think of time," as though it were their title. Where else do we find the same title given to different compositions? Conversely, the shorter compositions, huddled at the end of the volume, are untitled, probably owing to lack of space. Nevertheless, this meticulous and chaotic arrangement achieves an interesting result: the central metaphor of the book is incessantly repeated in large print so as to fill the readers'eyes even before their minds begin taking the poems into account, which is exactly what happens with subliminal advertising.

The sum of these various artifices scattered in only 95 pages can give us an idea of how bewildered the first innocent buyers must have been. Reviewers point out the strangeness of this book. The anonymous one in Life Illustrated (28 July 1855) declares: "It is like no other book that ever was written, and therefore, the language usually employed in notices of new publications is unavailable in describing it." In the influential North American Review (January 1856) a perceptive, serious, and largely positive reviewer like Edward Everett Hale writes: "Everything about the external arrangement of this book was odd and out of the way." And each following edition will bring endless variations to this meticulous "strangeness."

After ten pages of prose we get to the first poem. The upper third of the page is occupied by the book's title in very big bold type. A long horizontal bar separates it from the first poem, which bears no title and opens with a tercet (a tribute to Dante's Commedia, at the onset of another long poetic journey?):

And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
In the original printing the "I" in bold type is as tall as the first two lines, exactly as tall as the A of "America" at the beginning of the prose. The equivalence of America and the narrator is visually established even before we learn from the text that this is indeed what the author meant to declare. As a skilful typographer Whitman knows that the medium carries the message.

"Celebrate," capitalized, is a long word, solemn, scanned by its Latin syllables. The rhythm enhances its visual prominence on the page. Thanks to the bivalence of the English pronoun, the command of the second line is addressed to a single reader as well as to a plural audience. The second line stresses the biblical imperiousness of the narrator's voice. The third line explains the rationale of the command in terms of a shared physical human nature, and seals an unrhymed tercet as powerful and resonant as Dante's first terzina at the beginning of his long journey. Unlike Dante's Commedia the rest of Whitman's long poem will take a rambling formal course, and yet will return to a closing tercet that in its last line will reassert the relationship between "I" and "you" in very different, milder, friendlier tones.

Graphically as well as in terms of roles, "I" (always capitalized in English, as it happens), "myself", and "you" (always lower-case) make a lopsided triad, that incorporates and submits smaller and subaltern interlocutors to the dominant "I." After an untitled introductory essay that deals mainly with the nature of poetry in a general and ample way, the reader is faced with a very long untitled poem (only later will it become "Song of Myself" ), with no regular or numbered strophes, with no recognizable meter or rhymes. Now that Whitman's game has long been over and we have become acquainted with all kinds of literary experiments, we know that this strange poem, the longest Whitman ever wrote, is not only his most germinal, revolutionary, and important, but has been recognized in the whole world as a poetic landmark. Yet, we should be aware that the average 19th-century reader was thrown without any guidance into the vertiginous experience of confronting what looks like a shapeless text, occasionally erupting and flowing ahead like lava.

Through the years, and in spite of the unfortunate processes of self-normalization, Whitman will release the cells of the immense poetic store of his beginnings into every fiber (to use a key-word of his) of the growing Leaves. This first, long, rambling and adventurous journey comes to an end after 44 large pages and over 1300 lines, the last of which seals another tercet, symmetrical to the initial one, recalling the same protagonists: "I stop somewhere waiting for you." The capitalized "I" is again and always the subject, the "you" is always the object. We are reminded of Robinson Crusoe, the archetypal narrative of nascent English imperialism: I Master, you servant, do as I say, Friday. Yet, after such a long journey, and without being confined on an island, the I and the you are still together, locked up in the same dialectical but asymmetrical relationship established from the very beginning, in view of an appointment which is of course fixed by the narrator and continues well after the reading is over, exactly as Whitman's trysts with the "boys" of his life. At the end of the long narrative journey, the "imperial self," as Quentin Anderson memorably called it in 1971, is still there, dictating the rules, but in the meantime he might have grown fond of his interlocutors to the point of needing them. Specularly, the "you" bossed around here and there by that imperial self might even not show up at the next appointment. Unlike Friday, the reader of the Leaves does not live on an island in the middle of the ocean but in a boundless continent that allows him to go wherever he pleases (provided he is not black and a slave, which is not the case). Here we are not in feudal England, we are in a democracy, though slightly bizarre. So plenty of readers, disconcerted, bored or annoyed, are not going to show up at all, but the "comrades" will, since they are the ideal addressees of the message and are inclined to forgive the narrator's imperiousness because, in other moments, they are seduced by a special vibration in his voice.

It is generally believed that Whitman's poems were mostly composed between 1854 and '55, sometimes from notes taken years before. His verse has no recognizible antecedents; it is an original invention which enormously influenced the course of modern poetry not only in America and Europe, but in the whole world. His lines can be brief as well as endless, do not follow formal metrics, do not rely on rhyme or regular forms so as to allow total flexibility. In his long poems we notice free associations, parallelisms, sudden shifts in themes, genres and registers (just as in the author's personal moods, witnessed by Carpenter). Hence the fluvial character of the narrative, that drags along disparate themes and motifs: political, historical, philosophical, scientific, and so forth. The narrative styles bow to the thematic shifts, and are lyrical, oratorical, prophetic, argumentative, prosastic, popular, cantabili etc. Now and then, however, the narrative movement stops, leaving room to separate, perfectly focussed sketches, both verbally and visually. And yet, deep down like in Wagner's Rheingold, we keep hearing the dark, incessant running of the river, that in our case will be the "spinal river," as Whitman called the Mississippi, America's backbone. Over a century ago, in his Note di letteratura americana (1894) Francesco Chimenti argued: "Whitman […] getting rid of any conventional rule and of all the trammels of rhyme and measure […] substitutes harmony with melody, which is an ampler, more epic music. It is like Wagner's music, if we compare its complicated orchestral effects to the easier cadences of sung music, of which Italians are so fond."

On the whole, in the 1855 edition, ten out of the twelve poems show a substantial stylistic unity, which for brevity's sake we might call lyrical. Three long poems are the most relevant of the volume as well as fundamental in Whitman's entire production, and they will also become models for future compositions. The first one will eventually be known as "Song of Myself," the fourth as "The Sleepers" (the nocturnal pendant of the first one); and the fifth as "I Sing the Body Electric."

Only two poems are basically different from the rest: "Europe,The 72d and 73d Years of These States" and "A Boston Ballad (1854)." Both are centered on an exclusively political-polemical theme, and stylistically leaning to the gothic-sensationalist style and to the jokes of street poems. Their early presence signifies a precise thematic orientation, which comprises political poetry and adopts a specific, crude style of its own. "Drum-Taps," that stands in the middle of Whitman's career and of the Civil War, will mark a moment of confluence of the double stream of his inspiration: the erotic and the political.

7. Two answers

On July 21, 1855, shortly after the publication of Whitman's volume, Ralph Waldo Emerson sends the poet a private letter which manifests the surprise and joy experienced in reading Leaves of Grass (Whitman had strategically sent him an advance copy). Emerson's letter has entered the nation's literary Pantheon, but it pays to give it a close re-reading:
Dear Sir,
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our Western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, & which large perception only can inspire.
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.
I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real & available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay my respects.
R.W. Emerson

On December 11 Emerson does go to Brooklyn looking for his "benefactor," and even takes him out for lunch at the Astor House restaurant in Manhattan, forbearing Whitman's gross appropriation of his private letter, made public in the papers without asking his permission.

"Disgraceful," Emily Dickinson would have justifiably commented, while Emerson's letter, addressed to a total stranger, clearly shows considerable generosity. Scholars interested in the complexity of the relationship between the two writers have read the letter against its apparent grain and observed that the word "poetry" is remarkably absent in it. Whitman's work is defined as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." Emerson wrote poetry as well, and "wit and wisdom" indeed produces a smart assonance, almost a refrain, duplicated by "Western wits." "Wisdom" is a precise word. "Wit" covers a larger semantic field, that includes intelligence, knowledge, ingenuity, acumen, articulateness, an ability to surprise people by mixing disparate elements, humor, verve, a talent for bantering, and the like. While skilfully avoiding the word "poetry," Emerson yet shows how profoundly aware he is of the extraordinary originality of Whitman's verses and of the amplitude of their expressive and emotional range.

Not quite as gratifying but very interesting for us is Charles Eliot Norton's review, which appears in September 1855 in the prestigious New York Putnam's Magazine. Norton, an eminent figure of the literary establishment, is one of the earliest reviewers of Leaves of Grass (actually the second, after Charles A. Dana). A fine writer, translator of Dante, professor at Harvard, "Brahmin of the Boston Brahmins," but also a great traveller, a friend of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Leslie Stephen, he was considered the most learned man of his time. The prompt intervention of such a luminary belies from the very beginning Whitman's perpetual complaint about critical indifference to his poetry. Norton's critical point of view is sturdily traditional, and yet not at all blind or hostile a priori. His approach is obviously urbane but also witty. Presenting what he considers "a curious and lawless collection of poems, called Leaves of Grass," Norton underlines their author's "scorn for the wonted usages of good writing," and his "use of words usually banished from polite society," and yet recognizes that "there is an original perception of nature, a manly brawn, and an epic directness in our new poet." He is deeply taken by "this gross yet elevated, this superficial yet profound, this preposterous yet somehow fascinating book." Like Emerson, he appreciates Whitman's ability in handling disparate themes and modes. Emerson memorably defined Whitman's hybrid style as "a singular mixture of Bhagavat Gita and the New York Herald," and Norton joins in: "It is a mixture of Yankee transcendentalism and New York rowdyism, and, what must be surprising to both these elements, they here seem to fuse and combine with the most perfect harmony."

With humorous fair play the critic finally avows to have "no intention of regularly criticising this very irregular production; our aim is rather to cull, from the rough and ragged thicket of its pages, a few passages equally remarkable in point of thought and expression." He thus leaves the largest part of his review to excerpts from the preface and the poems of Leaves, so as to offer the readers a direct, undiluted taste of Whitman's unconventional but fascinating writing. While avoiding his "most bold" expressions, Norton's choice of the excerpts shows an altogether remarkable critical intelligence. A couple of them are chosen from the long poem that would later be entitled "Song of Myself." Understandably, one leans to the patriotic (the Goliad massacre); the other presents a series of somber sketches of suffering of all kinds. For example: "I am the mashed fireman, with breast-bone broken…tumbling walls buried me in their debris" etc. Both scenes are narrated with the impassive precision and skill of the expert reporter that Whitman was in his journalistic writings.

In the final paragraph of his review Norton amusingly targets some of the narcissistic postures and poses Whitman at times indulged in, and makes an important remark about the peculiar title page of the book:
As seems very proper in a book of transcendental poetry, the author withholds his name from the title page, and presents his portrait, neatly engraved on steel, instead. This, no doubt, is upon the principle that the name is merely accidental; while the portrait affords an idea of the essential being from whom these utterances proceed. We must add, however, that this significant reticence does not prevail throughout the volume, for we learn on p. 29, that our poet is "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos." That he was an American, we knew before, for, aside from America, there is no quarter of the universe where such a production could have had a genesis (italics mine). That he was one of the roughs was also tolerably plain; but that he was a kosmos, is a piece of news we were hardly prepared for. Precisely what a kosmos is, we trust Mr. Whitman will take an early occasion to inform the impatient public.

From the inside of his country's culture, from the very site of its original, more traditional, conservative, and hegemonic core (Harvard, New England), Norton can see that a poet like Whitman could appear only there, in that country, although not too close to Harvard. Besides, his idea of what America represents and stands for is crystal clear, as it would be for Ezra Pound, whom we shall meet later in our discourse, even farther from Harvard, on the European side of the Atlantic.

Norton's acknowledgement interrogates those of us who are not Americans but too often assume to know them well enough. In 1956, on the verge of the anthropological change that Pier Paolo Pasolini painfully saw happening in Italy in its swerve from an agricultural to an industrial country shaped after American models, a very cool Neapolitan musician, songwriter and singer, Renato Carosone, launched "Tu vuo' fa' l'americano," a sprightly song that became immensely popular in Italy and apparently even sold well in the Unites States without being translated into English. The song satirized the American craze pervading Italy at that time. Its refrain was: "You want to pass as an American, you act like one, you dance rock and roll, you drink whisky and soda, but, listen to me, there's nothing you can do about it, you were born in Italy, in Naples, ok?" The question is: if Whitman is the quintessence of America, as he strenuously wanted to be, as he succeeded in being, as his compatriots recognize instantly, which facets of it does he represent to his fellow countrymen and to a world which for the past hundred years has been so heavily influenced by America?

8. The second edition, 1856. Advertising strategies, losses, and new achievements

After the commercial flop of the first edition Whitman tries a new start using stratagems of various kinds. The most outrageous and disrespectful is the abuse he makes of the most resonant phrase in the congratulatory private letter that Emerson had sent him in July 1855: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Whitman prints it in large golden characters across the spine of the new edition, adding "R.W. Emerson" as a signature. As though this were not enough, at the end of the poetic part of the volume he adds an appendix called "Leaves-Droppings," divided into two parts: "Correspondence" and "Opinions.1855-6." In the first part he pretends to record an epistolary exchange with Emerson that never took place, reproducing once more Emerson's 1855 letter (to which he had never answered), now followed by an "answer" meant to signify that he did indeed write "Poems" (with a capital letter), something that Emerson had never explicitly acknowledged in his letter:
BROOKLYN, August, 1856.
HERE are thirty-two Poems, which I send you, dear Friend and Master, not having found how I could satisfy myself with sending any usual acknowledgment of your letter.
What follows are 14 pages of a delirious, egocentric, and chauvinistic tirade, in which he falsely claims to have promptly sold all the copies of the first edition, and to be ready to rapidly produce hundreds, perhaps thousands of poems, that in a matter of few years will be printed in ten or twenty thousand copies. He and America, like Nature, will not be stopped. America's triumph will be celebrated by him and by the new poets. In the final lines he acknowledges that it was Emerson who opened the way:
The first edition, on which you mailed me that till now unanswered letter, was twelve poems - I printed a thousand copies, and they readily sold; these thirty-two Poems I stereotype, to print several thousand copies of. I much enjoy making poems. Other work I have set for myself to do, to meet people and The States face to face, to confront them with an American rude tongue; but the work of my life is making poems. I keep on till I make a hundred, and then several hundred—perhaps a thousand. The way is clear to me. A few years, and the average annual call for my Poems is ten or twenty thousand copies—more, quite likely. Why should I hurry or compromise? In poems or in speeches I say the word or two that has got to be said, adhere to the body, step with the countless common footsteps, and remind every man and woman of something.
Master, I am a man who has perfect faith. Master, we have not come through centuries, caste, heroisms, fables, to halt in this land today. Or I think it is to collect a ten-fold impetus that any halt is made. As nature, inexorable, onward, resistless, impassive amid the threats and screams of disputants, so America.
While at first sight the general title of the appendix, "Leaves-Droppings," might be taken to describe "falling leaves," we should be aware that "Droppings" are – literally- what pigeons or other birds let fall on the heads of inadvertent passers-by. What sense does it make to plant this particular word in the title of a literary appendix? Should we understand that his Leaves could fall upon our heads not only as lightly as a sweet caress but also as heavily as disgusting organic missiles? Is he using his "indirection" technique to send under cover a naughty, sarcastic warning or repartee, and to whom? To us, innocent readers, to wake us up before it's too late? To the hesitant reviewers, grappling with a kind of poetry they had never seen before? To hostile reviewers like the infamous Ruphus W. Griswold, who defined the 1855 poems "a mass of stupid filth", intrisa di una "degrading, beastly sensuality, that is fast rotting the healthy core of all the social virtues", etcetera? Or even to Emerson, so reluctant to call his Leaves poems? The guessing game is open . . .

The second part of the appendix, "Opinions.1855-6," collects nine reviews, favorable and otherwise, including a couple written anonymously by the author himself. The room given to negative evaluations could be taken as proof of the equanimity that Whitman considered the Poet's supreme virtue, but, given his well-known appreciation of advertising techniques, he might have thought of taking any advantage he could also from controversies and deplorations.

Not even this second show of narcissistic and exploitative nonchalance made a dent in Emerson's magnanimous poise; on the contrary he discreetly kept helping Whitman on several occasions and for a long time. Almost a decade later, in fact, he activated all his most influential connections to the end of helping Whitman gain a governmental job in Washington.

The poet's claims of literary independence are not quite matched by facts. His desire to capture a larger reading audience induces him to normalize a number of material and stylistic features of his books. The size of the 1856 volume is standard, easier to handle. Printing types are also standardized, as well as punctuation. The poems' thematic range is wider, so as to attract a larger number of readers. Poems are now given titles; along with a table of contents they allow a quick selection of the poems according to a variety of interests. The repetition of "Poet" in every single title is a piqued answer to the reviewers who found his poems too close to prose. The book opens of course with a "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American." Apart from that, indeed "the 1856 edition had something to offer to everybody," as David Reynolds argues in his cultural biography of Whitman (1995, 354). We have a "Poem of Women," a "Poem of the Daily Work of The Workmen and Workwomen of These States," a "Poem of the Body," maybe for artists and doctors, a "Poem of Procreation" for mothers, a "Poem of the Propositions of Nakedness" for the naughty, a "Liberty Poem for Asia, Africa, Europe, America, Australia, Cuba, and the Archipelagoes of The Sea" for the politically minded, and a "Poem of You, Whoever You Are" for everybody.

The numbered sequence of 32 poems is framed by two 1855 compositions, relocated at the beginning and at the end of the volume so as to suggest a narrative continuity. The first poem is the very long one that opened the 1855 edition and will become "Song of Myself." The last one (third in 1855) is a farewell poem ("Burial Poem"), later entitled "To Think of Time." Along with its new features, the volume keeps several from the previous edition: the green binding with some reliefs and gold decorations; the title page printed in enormous types; the date and place of publication (Brooklyn, New York, 1856); the name of the author hidden in the small type of the copyright note (this time Walt instead of Walter), and the proletarian 1855 image of the author facing the title page.

What gets lost in the second edition? First of all the ellipses (mostly four), which now and then created indefinite spaces between one phrase and the next: "mind breaths," to borrow Allen Ginsberg's wonderful image that gives the title to one of his books. The ellipses' disappearance freezes the text in conventionally ordered sequences where there was an archipelago of floating islands. The introduction of titles favors the reader's orientation but dissipates the earlier poems' shifting and enticing nebula.

All of this happens because the 1856 edition inaugurates a transition between two phases of Whitman's poetry and of his country's cultural organization. The first phase was a wonderful and unrepeatable moment of exploration of the self and of its relationship with the world, a moment of emotional, psychic and erotic wandering, which is now replaced by the resolute, affirmative, and ambitious posture of someone who wants to speak to the masses of a nation in a moment of crisis, proposing himself, a Poet, as interpreter, regulator, and unifier, with the help of an increasing amount of didactic and oratorial tones. The narrating self, once introspective and idiosyncratic, yields part of the poetic space to the public speaker, and the form of his utterance changes accordingly.

The 1856 edition drops the pattern of the 1855 long poems (the future "Song of Myself" and "The Sleepers"), which were structured as a hybrid flow of images anticipating the twentieth-century stream of consciousness techniques. That pattern now splits into two different narrative forms: compact shorter poems, and "Songs". The "shorter poem" form is exemplified in "Sun-Down Poem" (later "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," one of Whitman's absolute masterpieces). Its well-defined and tight metaphoric structure can be replicated and modulated in different pitches, and this is a new tool that Whitman will use for the rest of his career. The best examples of this technique are "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" (1859), "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" (1860), "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (1865), down to manneristic replicas like "Passage to India" (1871). The "Songs" are long poems, potentially endless, supported by the so-called catalogues, that is a sequence of short images, usually contained in one line, that take the reader for a quick, pre-cinematic trip through American or global spaces. Among the most interesting examples I would suggest three 1856 poems: "Salut au Monde!" (a political piece), "Song of the Open Road" (a Beat archetype), and "Song of the Broad-Axe." In their technique Dziga Vertov saw an anticipation of the montage experiments by avantgarde Russian filmmakers in the twentieth century. Along with visual effects, in the "Songs" Whitman elaborates a remarkably rich sound texture, "a spectacular eloquence," as a language-juggler poet like Edoardo Sanguineti defined it. Almost a sound-track.

"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" does not belong to the "Songs" group but is close enough to them because its theme is treated with a cinematic eye. This could be the reason why in the final edition of Leaves Whitman, once in a lifetime, put it in the right place, in the group of "Songs" at the close of the "Calamus" cluster. Its structure relies on the Leitmotiv of the tide fluxes in New York Bay, developed through a cyclical metaphoric structure, both temporal and spatial: hours of the day; setting sun; hours of the tides; hours of the movements of the ferry passengers from their Manhattan workplaces back to their Brooklyn homes, and vice versa; tide fluxes that thump against the ferries or suck them along as the ferries cut the waves; sun returning after the stars of the night; new day; new crossings (but always identical); eternal tides that come and go but are always the same, though the hours shift ever so slowly, precise and unperceived, like the lifetime of the present and future passengers. That is why, from its very title, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" offers a dazzling example of how to use the gerund verbal form, which incarnates an eternal present, without a beginning and without an end (that is, without history): Whitman's time, "American" par excellence.

A letter sent on the 25th of September 1868 from New York to his young lover Pete Doyle in Washington shows how deeply "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is shaped by Whitman's long familiarity with the particular world of the Bay of New York. The letter is written in the simple language familiar to Pete, who was an omnibus driver: "The river & bay of New York & Brooklyn are always a great attraction to me. It is a lively scene. At either tide, flood or ebb, the water is always rushing along as if in haste, & the river is often crowded with steamers, ships & small craft, moving in different directions, some coming in from sea, others going out. Among the pilots are some of my particular friends—when I see them up in the pilot house on my way to Brooklyn, I go up & sail to & fro several trips. I enjoy an hour or two's sail of this kind very much indeed." (E. H. Miller, 1990, 137).

9. Transcendental visits, 1856

The second edition of Leaves of Grass has just come out. On November 10, 1856, Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) decides to pay a visit to Whitman, whose work had impressed him. Bronson was a bizarre Transcendentalist philosopher and reformer, and a typical representative of the progressive New England culture, like his daughter Louisa May Alcott, a militant abolitionist and feminist who, later on, thanks to the success of her Little Women, was able to redress the family's poor economic situation. In his visit, Bronson takes along two friends: Sarah Tyndale and Henry David Thoreau, who had never before met the poet. LikeWhitman, Thoreau was a dedicated bachelor as well as a peculiar and controversial Concord citizen who in 1854 had published Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Sarah Tyndale was a notorious activist in the field of women's rights, abolitionism, and Fourier's utopian socialism, as well as a great Whitman admirer.

Whitman welcomes them in the very modest home of his family, in Brooklyn's outskirts. He is wearing his most ordinary clothes and a hat. They climb the stairs up to the attic, to a room that Walt could use. In a corner an unmade bed which he shared with his mentally handicapped brother Eddy, and a chamber-pot in full view. Around, books scattered on the floor, and, on a wall, pictures of Hercules, Bacchus, and a satyr (Reynolds,1995, 363).

In his journal, Bronson Alcott will describe the Thoreau-Whitman encounter: "Each seemed planted fast in reserve, surveying the other curiously, like two beasts, each wondering what the other would do, whether to snap or run." They shared the spiritual and metaphysical core of transcendentalism but Thoreau had mixed feelings about the way in which sexuality was treated in Leaves of Grass. On the other side, Whitman objected to Thoreau's "superciliousness," his reluctance to appreciate the common life, while Thoreau mistrusted what he considered Whitman's exaggerated enthusiasm about the people's virtues (Reynolds,1995, 364).

In a letter to his friend Harrison Blake dated December 9, 1856, Thoreau goes a long way to recollect and make sense of the contrasting impressions he had of the poet:
That Walt Whitman, of whom I wrote to you, is the most interesting fact to me at present. I have just read his 2nd edition (which he gave me) and it has done me more good than any reading for a long time. Perhaps I remember best the poem of Walt Whitman an American & the Sun Down Poem. There are 2 or 3 pieces in the book which are disagreeable to say the least, simply sensual. He does not celebrate love at all. It is as if the beasts spoke. l think that men have not been ashamed of themselves without reason. No doubt, there have always been dens where such deeds were unblushingly recited, and it is no merit to compete with their inhabitants. But even on this side, he has spoken more truth than any American or modern that I know. I have found his poem exhilarating, encouraging. As for its sensuality,—& it may turn out to be less sensual than it appeared—I do not so much wish that those parts were not written, as that men & women were so pure that they could read them without harm, that is, without understanding them. One woman told me that no woman could read it, as if a man could read what a woman could not. Of course Walt Whitman can communicate to us no experience, and if we are shocked, whose experience is it that we are reminded of?
On the whole it sounds to me very brave & American after whatever deductions. I do not believe that all the sermons so called that have been preached in this land put together are equal to it for preaching. We ought to rejoice greatly in him. He occasionally suggests something a little more than human. You can't confound him with the other inhabitants of Brooklyn or New York. How they must shudder when they read him! He is awfully good.
To be sure I sometimes feel a little imposed on. By his heartiness & broad generalities he puts me into a liberal frame of mind prepared to see wonders, - as it were sets me upon a hill or in the midst of a plain - stirs me well up, and then -throws in a thousand of brick. Though rude & sometimes ineffectual, it is a great primitive poem, - an alarum or trumpet-note ringing through the American camp. Wonderfully like the Orientals, too, considering that when I asked him if he had read them, he answered, "No; tell me about them." I did not get far in conversation with him, - two more being present, - and among the few things which I chanced to say, I remember that one was, in answer to him as representing America, that I did not think much of America or of politics, and so on, which may have been somewhat of a damper to him. Since I have seen him, I find that I am not disturbed by any brag or egoism in his book. He may turn out the least of a braggart of all, having a better right to be confident. He is a great fellow.

What a fascinating addition to the wide net of intersecting points of view, ambivalences and polyvalences through which we have passed. Like Charles Eliot Norton, the puritan bachelor firmly rejects Whitman's "sensuality" while manifesting a subterranean, even homoerotic attraction. Like Norton, he recognizes Whitman's "American" traits, but with a difference. To the conservative and Europe-oriented Bostonian those traits qualified the poet as half-crazy, while to the trueborn son of New England, whose soil he searched looking for arrow-points, the scantiest traces of the defeated Native Americans' presence in the area, Whitman was "courageous and American," in a very positive sense. At the same time, Thoreau told Whitman that he did not care much for America. Thus, again, what are we all talking about when we talk about America?

10. The third edition, 1860

The third edition of Leaves of Grass is no longer printed by occasional artisans, but by professional publishers. William Thayer and Charles Eldridge were enterprising young men, eager to qualify themselves on the conservative Boston market as innovating publishers. They let the poet know about their interest in his verse, and in order to follow closely the printing process, Whitman, then 40, moves to Boston for the first time in his life and settles there for three months.

The size of the sturdy, cloth-bound volume of 456 pages is standard. The decorations of the cover and of some pages are chosen by the poet himself. Again, like in the previous editions, instead of the author's name we find an engraving made from a Charles Hine painting portraying the large bust of a man wearing a short, thick beard, and dressed like a dandy. The title page does not look printed, but handwritten, in italics, and is divided in two by a bar. The top half carries the title of the volume, and the lower one specifies place, publishers, and date. The title is composed mainly of two words: Leaves, surrounded by flying flourishes that look almost Art Nouveau, and Grass, printed in large, capitalized types, out of which sprout lively, wagging spermatozoa, graphically announcing the theme of sexuality. In the lower part of the page we notice another innovation: the date 1860-61 is accompanied by "the 85th year of the States", that is, a patriotic re-numeration of the years starting from the Revolution. Thus, on the eve of the Civil War abyss, the theme of sexuality is balanced by the patriotic theme. The two branches of the 1860-61 edition interlace under the sign of the political democracy inaugurated by the Revolution, which is supposed to eventually embrace a sexual revolution.

The structural novelty that characterizes this edition and will become permanent lies in its sections, or clusters, that group the poems under titles that specify their dominant theme: for instance,"Chants Democratic and Native American." The substantial thematic novelty is to be found in the twin clusters "Enfans d'Adam" and "Calamus," that celebrate two ways of loving, one between partners of the same sex and one between partners of opposite sexes.

All these innovations contribute to make the third edition, on a par with the 1855 edition, the most important of all. Besides, it is also the richest in new poems (124), and the most political, since it announces itself as "the new bible" of American democracy, marking the zenith of Whitman's career (1858-59). Marina Camboni (1994) has paid particular attention to Whitman's effort to create an "American language," conceived as a global super-language, actually imperialistic, capable of absorbing and conglomerating all other languages, just as "America" is the virtual sum total of all the countries in the world.

The 1860 edition opens with a new, important, and programmatic long poem entitled "Proto-Leaf" (later "Starting from Paumanok"). Equally important is "A Word out of the Sea" (later "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"), but the most ambitious section of the whole volume, and the closest to Whitman's heart, is "Calamus", made of 45 poems devoted to male homophilia. Male-to-male affection was to be the foundation of the "New Bible," and the most tenacious cement of American democracy. The section "Children of Adam", placed before "Calamus", is thinner. Obligatory as it was, it turns out to be more didactic than passionate, and yet proposes quite a novel notion: that women are endowed with a natural and autonomous sexual desire. The two sections, always coupled, will prove to be the most stable throughout all the metamorphic Leaves editions, as a further confirmation of the central role Whitman attributed to sexuality in his poetry as well as in his own life.

The "Calamus" poems grow from an original core named "Live Oak, with Moss," conceived in 1857-59 and probably connected with autobiographical circumstances. It was a series of twelve interconnected poems which narrated a man's love story for another man in terms explicit enough to induce Whitman to keep them unpublished. The worsening of the political tensions in his country during the preparatory phase of the 1860 edition persuades him to shuffle and modify the texts of the "Oak" sequence in order to interrupt its narrative continuity and dilute the erotic charge of the love story (Erkkila, 2011). The "Calamus" poem that better maintains the tone of the original is "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing."

The term Whitman chose for his favorite cluster carries several connotations. The first relates to the phallic aspect of the aromatic plant growing in swamps. The second is homoerotic: in a story narrated in Nonnus' "Dyonisiaca" (5th century AD) the plant was named after the young, handsome, and desperate Kalamos, who, ready to die in the same river where his lover Karpos had suddenly drowned, was transformed into that plant. Besides, the Greek word kalamos applies to two instruments made from the same reed and functional to making poetry: the calamus used as a writing tool, and a musical wind instrument particularly suitable to accompany "Calamus"' elegies (Price, 2004).

Having heard what the new poems were about, Emerson, who was born in Boston and knew it well enough, hurried to reach Whitman. Perhaps the publishers had shown him some of the poems, and Emerson worried about the "Enfans d'Adam" cluster. Twenty-one years later, in "Specimen Days," Whitman records the famous dialogue he had with Emerson, walking up and down the green center of that historic city:
Oct. 10−13. - I spend a good deal of time on the Common, these delicious days and nights - every mid-day from 11.30 to about 1 - and almost every sunset another hour. I know all the big trees, especially the old elms along Tremont and Beacon streets, and have come to a sociable-silent understanding with most of them, in the sunlit air, (yet crispy-cool enough,) as I saunter along the wide unpaved walks. Up and down this breadth by Beacon street, between these same old elms, I walk'd for two hours, of a bright sharp February mid-day twenty-one years ago, with Emerson, then in his prime, keen, physically and morally magnetic, arm'd at every point, and when he chose, wielding the emotional just as well as the intellectual. During those two hours he was the talker and I the listener. It was an argument-statement, reconnoitring, review, attack, and pressing home, (like an army corps in order, artillery, cavalry, infantry,) of all that could be said against that part (and a main part) in the construction of my poems, "Children of Adam." More precious than gold to me that dissertation - it afforded me, ever after, this strange and paradoxical lesson; each point of E.'s statement was unanswerable, no judge's charge ever more complete or convincing, I could never hear the points better put - and then I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way. "What have you to say then to such things?" said E., pausing in conclusion. "Only that while I can't answer them at all, I feel more settled than ever to adhere to my own theory, and exemplify it," was my candid response. Whereupon we went and had a good dinner at the American House. And thenceforward I never waver'd or was touch'd with qualms, (as I confess I had been two or three times before).

For a while, Emerson's apprehensions seem excessive. Almost immediately the young and adventurous Boston publishers go bankrupt. The political situation undergoes dramatic changes. Nevertheless, in quieter times, two decades later, the local District Attorney accuses Whitman of obscenity, in part for having attributed to women an autonomous sexual drive.

In spite of some tactical adjustments and revisions, the 1860 edition widens the space so far devoted to the body, to sensuality, to sexuality, and the poems celebrating those neglected dimensions of human life remain the deepest and more original of the entire Leaves of Grass. The poet/narrator does not cease to argue and interrogate himself about the body, about an uncharted eros, about a panic feeling that often escapes his understanding, that burns inside the bodies but also erupts and overflows out of them. He is inebriated by the "subtle nourishment of the air," by the skies that listen to "the hunger of desire," by the "odor of the earth in the woods," as well as by the seductive glances of unknown passers-by in the streets. His is more the song of a diffuse and fluctuating eros than of love conceived in the usual, well-defined ways, and this feature is one of the most distinctive in Whitman's poetry. More on this theme will be said later on.

In the United States such an approach to sexuality encounters a deep resistance even from the most significant writers, extraneous to the academy or the establishment at large. We have seen Thoreau's reaction. Emily Dickinson famously recorded her only phrase on Whitman in a letter to her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson on April 25, 1862: "You speak of Mr Whitman - I never read his Book - but was told that he was disgraceful." "Disgraceful" is a very heavy word, that Dickinson uses not to blame the poet's book (allegedly unread) but the man's bad reputation. "Disgraceful" is somebody who breaks the most sacred canons of decency, whose behavior is so vile, dishonorable and ignominious as to throw shame even on those who deplore it. Whitman's reputation must have been awfully bad indeed, at least in New England.

Among the greatest, Herman Melville is the only compatriot who, in his narratives, shows a total openness to a free, democratic, and homoerotic sexuality, even surpassing Whitman in terms of interracial relationships. Several passages in Moby-Dick celebrate the fraternity of class and bodies felt by the proletarians of the sea: for example chapters 3 ("The Spouter-Inn") and 4 ("The Counterpane") deal with Ishmael's initial unease at the idea of sharing the bed in a poor inn with an unknown harponeer from the South Seas. Only when that discomfort vanishes, a profound friendship can develop, that allows Ishmael to become a mature man capable of narrating the vicissitudes of the Pequod. Another example is to be found in chapter 94, "A Squeeze of the Hand," where the sailors' hands, busy squeezing in large vats the lumps of whales' sperm-oil to make it ready for refining, first casually bump into one another, and finally grab one another joyfully. Melville was born, lived, and died in New York. He did not belong to the hegemonic New England culture, though he was not immune to metaphysical obsessions that drove him to depression and almost insanity. Deep down, he had become an alien to the whole, huge American island, after sailing around the world for years as a ship-boy on merchant vessels and finally on whalers, journeying as far as Polynesia, elbow to elbow with the proletariat of sailors from all countries, enjoying a freedom that he could not find in his own country (Corona,1984).

In the United States, even among scholars and biographers, starting from Whitman's contemporaries, we notice a long resistance to deal openly with the poet's (homo)sexuality and, therefore, with a relevant part of his poems. It was argued that there was no sufficient evidence of proven facts to reach an undisputable verdict, and Whitman himself was indeed the first to disseminate vague or false notions on that subject. It is outside of his own country that the poet of the body and of democratic sexuality kindles great attention in many different social environments, first of all in England. Even before Dante Gabriel Rossetti's anthology (1868), the "Calamus" poems are avidly read by writers, poets, and university students, especially in Cambridge, who find their own sexual tendencies represented with unusual audacity, but also by men and women engaged in social struggles for equality and political rights, including sexual freedom. Among them, as we have seen, Anne Gilchrist, a fine and emancipated intellectual, who, from afar, fell in love with Whitman's poems and finally (and unfortunately) with the poet himself; outrageous artists like Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne; unconventional and tormented souls like John Addington Symonds; or a genius like Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. On quite a different side, Whitman became a truly venerated and inspiring figure among the more progressive workers of the textile manufactories of the Manchester area, in the Lancashire district of northern England. For instance, J. W. Wallace, the indefatigable socialist leader of a group of Whitmanites who called themselves "the Bolton College," admired Whitman so ardently as to go to Camden with Dr. John Johnston in the autumn of 1891 to see the man he considered "the divinely inspired prophet of world democracy" (Johnston-Wallace, 1917).

A similar split takes place in the field of literary studies. Since the early 20th-century it was left to Europeans scholars to establish a clear connection between the Calamus feelings and homosexuality, which opened the way to a spate of psychosexual interpretations offered in the rest of the century. The first study is a 1905 article by German critic Eduard Bertz. Relevant studies are Jean Catel's Walt Whitman: La naissance du poète, published in Paris in 1929; the biography published in Denmark in 1933 by Frederik Schyberg; and the fundamental book by Sorbonne professor Roger Asselineau: L'évolution de Walt Whitman après la première edition des 'Feuilles d'herbe' (Reynolds, 1995, 579), later translated into English.

The extraordinary thematic novelty introduced by Whitman's poems in the middle of the 19th century is the opening of a public discourse on what would come to be called homosexuality – but which in his own time had no name. In the Western world we find no other poetic oeuvre of comparable level that rescues the vitality of the senses obscured by the Christian millennia and further mortified by the Victorian religion of work. In his poems, Whitman is writing an important chapter in the history of Western conceptions of sexuality, and, as if this were not enough, proclaims that the exercise of the senses must be bound to the exercise of democracy. The polemical uproar raised by such ideas helps the diffusion of the "new Bible" in England, Europe and finally in the whole world.

Whitman is well aware that in dealing with male-to-male relationships he has first of all to use a terminology that would never, even remotely recall the old theological and stigmatizing notion of "sodomy." His new conception of sexuality requires a new vocabulary, and he finds it in phrenology. "Adhesiveness" will be the appropriate term for man-to-man relationships, and "Amativeness" for man-to-woman's. Whitman's propositions are actually revolutionary, and to many they appear highly utopian. He maintains that the new masculine relationships should surpass the boundaries of friendship, solidarity, and even the warmest affections, which in the 19th century were particularly warm anyway, as attested by the letters men wrote to one another. Males should better understand (and accept) that eros can lead to tenderness, a feeling that runs against contemporary codes of virility. This masculine tenderness would provide the Republic with the strongest and more democratic cement. To reach this stage, masculine aggressiveness had to be depotentiated, disgregated from inside and overturned into its opposite: tenderness. Twenty years later, Edward Carpenter agreed with him and observed that in "homogenic" relationships (as he called them) there was an opennes between men belonging to different social classes that was not to be found in different types of relationships.

11. The tragic chasm, 1861-65. Drums tap, a love is born, and Henry James shows up

The third and fourth edition are separated by the chasm of Civil War. In November 1860 Abraham Lincoln wins the presidential elections. In December South Carolina declares its secession from the Union, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, and later by other States. Walt's brothers, Andrew and George, immediately join the army that Lincoln was gathering. When the family is informed that George has been wounded in the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, which took the lives of a huge number of soldiers (between 13,000 and 18,000), Walt rushes to look for his brother and, from a hill overlooking the Rappahannock River, he sees the battlefields. The next day, December 29, 1862, he writes to his mother that he has seen the first signs of the war, "a heap of feet, arms, legs, &c. under a tree in front a hospital."

When Walt finds George he is relieved to see that the wound to one of his cheeks is superficial, but he decides to remain all the same in Washington as a voluntary nurse to assist the wounded soldiers who keep filling the forty or so hospitals of the city. It is well known that the number of casualties among soldiers and civilians, long underestimated, was close to a million, since that fratricidal war, fought at home, killed more people than all the other wars the United States have waged abroad in their entire history.

In Washington, Whitman manages to secure a part time job as a copyist in the Army paymaster's office. At 43, his long, grey-white beard makes him look older. Many soldiers actually call him "Old Man." Three exhausting years in the midst of daily carnage put his health to a heavy test and in the long run compromised it. Nevertheless, Whitman considered that experience the most profound of his life. The letters, many Drum-Taps poems, and a considerable part of Specimen Days describe his daily task of taking charge of the innumerable needs of thousands of wounded or dying soldiers, northern and southern, suffering and helpless. He now looks at the tragic materiality of a war he had endorsed and which now offers him the unforeseen opportunity of expressing his love for young men in a way most congenial to him and most welcome by them. In a letter dated March 19-20,1863, to Nathaniel Bloom and John F.S. Gray, sympathetic "comrades" at Pfaff's beer haunt in New York, he writes: "These Hospitals, so different from all others—these thousands, and tens and twenties of thousands of American young men, badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia, &c. open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet."

The war becomes a powerful incentive to writing. By March 1863 the first group of poems that will become part of Drum-Taps is ready. The political and ethical character of these poems persuades him of their superiority to the Leaves in so far as they lack their "turbulence," that is, the more explicit homoerotic ardors. He writes this in July to a devoted and loved friend like William Douglas O' Connor, so we might believe him, and similar statements can also be found elsewhere. We might take them as a sign of some uneasiness about his own sexuality, or of a sly satisfaction at the idea of producing a separate, clean, patriotic book, that could sell well even with those readers who had moral reservations on the Leaves (Reynolds, 1995, 457). On November 17 he writes to Charles Eldridge, his Boston publisher, who, after the failure of his business, worked in Washington: "I must bring out Drum Taps. I must be continually bringing out poems—now is the hey day. I shall range along the high plateau of my life & capacity for a few years now, & then swiftly descend."

1865 is a crucial year, crammed with relevant events both for the nation and the poet. In Washington, on January 24, Whitman goes back to work in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior. One winter night, unspecified but definitely stormy, after dining with his friends John and Ursula Burroughs, he mounts an omnibus at the Capitol. He is the only passenger. Thirty years later, after the poet's death, Peter Doyle, the streetcar conductor, will recall for Doctor Richard M. Bucke his encounter with Whitman: "We felt to each other at once. I was a conductor. The night was very stormy, - he had been over to see Burroughs before he came down to take the car - the storm was awful. Walt had his blanket - it was thrown round his shoulders - he seemed like an old sea-captain. He was the only passenger, it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go in and talk with him. Something in me made me do it and something in him drew me that way. He used to say there was something in me had the same effect on him. Anyway, I went into the car. We were familiar at once - I put my hand on his knee - we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip - in fact went all the way back with me. I think the year of this was 1866. From that time on we were the biggest sort of friends" (Bucke, 1883, 23).

Walt is 45, tall and robust. His athletic presence impresses Peter, who is 21 and very attractive. He comes from a large Irish family immigrated to Baltimore and now living in Virginia. He had taken part in the Civil War as an artilleryman on the Confederate side. In Washington they start a very close and instinctive relationship. Few words and long walks, during which Walt declaims Shakespeare, and Peter, who was born in Limerick, answers with short and often salacious rhymes (Folsom-Price, "Peter Doyle" in Life & Letters, Biography, Walt Whitman, in WWArchive). Walt would like to live with his new friend, but Peter has his widowed mother and numerous brothers and sisters to take care of. With all of them Walt establishes a very cordial and affectionate relationship, and Peter becomes the most important "comrade" of his life.

In the Spring the public scene collapses. On March 4, 1865, Whitman is present at Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration of his Presidential mandate. On April 9 the battle at Appamattox defeats General Lee and marks the Civil War's end. On April 14 Lincoln is assassinated in a Washington theater. Peter is there, in the second gallery, and had a good view of the President's box, so he was able to give Whitman a detailed description of the whole scene, which turned out very useful for his Lincoln lectures.

In Drum-Taps Whitman collects 53 new poems, and the notes taken during his hospital visits will become a book, Memoranda during the War (1876), later enlarged as Specimen Days (1882). By May the printing of Drum-Taps is over. During the summer Whitman writes the elegy on Lincoln's death, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and "O Captain! My Captain!" In October Drum-Taps is published. The reviews are timely and authoritative. The major reservation they share concerns the style, deemed too close to prose, as respectfully observed by the New York Times and Brooklyn's Daily Union. On November 11, in the Round Table, the young William Dean Howells, already very active in literary circles both in the United States and in England, regrets the "lack of poetry" of these poems but appreciates with great relief the absence of sexual references, which in the past editions had led him to hold his nose (Price, 1996). In 1865-66 Drum-Taps is republished with the 18 additional poems of "Sequel to Drum Taps," but for some time Whitman will keep these poems separate from the body of Leaves of Grass.

There is another young man with a great future who most unpredictably enters Whitman's arena. On November 16, 1865, The Nation, a new, progressive New York weekly, publishes an unsigned article fiercely hostile to Drum-Taps. Its author is none other than Henry James, then 22 but quite self-assured. Only much later did he partially recant, and look with a different eye at "Calamus" and also at "The Wound-Dresser," one of the Drum-Taps poems. The patronizing snobbery of his youthful incipit is inimitable: "It has been a melancholy task to read this book; and it is a still more melancholy one to write about it." Of course nobody had assigned those tasks to him, and he certainly feels no melancholy in performing them. Rather, in a growing fury, he shows great pleasure in snapping at Whitman's throat, so as to silence him. The future development of his sumptuous narrative style, as well as his retrogressive choice to return from the New World to Old England, as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot would do, show how diametrically opposite to Whitman's were James' vision of the world and his poetics.

To James, Whitman's book is "an offense against art [. . .] the effort of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry. [. . .] The frequent capitals are the only marks of verse in Mr. Whitman's writing." Not only does James seem—or pretend—to ignore that Whitman drew no boundaries between poetry and prose, but he goes much further in challenging his very conception of the poet. In fact James claims that "he is not a poet who merely reiterates [. . .] plain facts ore rotundo. He only sings them worthily who views them from a height." In advocating such distance James radically refuses a basic tenet of Whitman's poetics. But what is most striking is James' total blindness towards Whitman's actual poems as they glaringly are: an incessant conversation between the writer and the reader, that, even in many contradictory ways, tends to cancel a fixed hierarchy between author, text, and reader. This attitude will make him a revolutionary artist and a fertile anticipator of innovative 20th century aesthetic theories, as we have seen in Chapter 3. On the contrary, what James anticipates is T. S. Eliot's conservative, objectivistic view of art, which, more generally, calls for a wholesale rappel a l'ordre: common sense, taste, rationality, respect for the reader, established aesthetics, religion, morality, politics, etc. No wonder that to James, Whitman seems "aggressively careless, inelegant, and ignorant [. . .], rude, lugubrious, and grim."

Nevertheless, after having described at length and demolished the poet's "anomalous style," James makes a serious remark, though couched in sarcastic words: "He must have something very original to say if none of the old vehicles will carry his thoughts." Are we sure that Whitman really had nothing "original" to say? Let us put aside democratic ideals, which were not exactly at the top of James' worries, but what about sexuality? Was there really nothing in Drum-Taps that could touch him (very) intimately? Not even poems like "Vigil strange I kept on the field one night," "Give me the splendid silent sun," "O tan-faced Prarie-boy"? or "The Wound-Dresser," that he recuperated only later? There was in fact too much that could touch him, to the point of throwing him into the "homosexual panic" so keenly described by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in 1985 in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, where, among other examples, she speaks specifically of James' famous and wonderful story "The Beast in the Jungle."

12. After the war. America shattered, the Leaves scattered. The fourth and fifth editions: 1867, 1871-72

After the intense, almost furious production of verse and prose spurred by the war, Whitman seems overwhelmed by the tensions he had to bear in his creative work and, simultaneously, in his nursing activity in hospitals. One more tension weighs on him: the reconstruction and prosecution of his democratic project in a nation divided and destroyed. The fourth edition, not particularly memorable, appears in 1867, and so much mirrors its author's predicament that, unlike all other editions, it neither carries his name nor his image. The poet who from the very beginning had wanted his books to represent himself and America, seems now led to represent the falling to pieces of America in his very book, which fails to reach a unitary structure. According to Folsom and Price's laborious reconstruction, "Whitman bound the book in five different formats, some with only the new edition of Leaves of Grass, some with Leaves plus Drum-Taps, some with Leaves, Drum-Taps, and Sequel, some with all of these along with another new cluster called Songs Before Parting, and some with only Leaves and Songs Before Parting" (in Re-scripting Walt Whitman, chapter 6, WWArchive).

For the first time Leaves of Grass opens with an "Inscription", a prelude to the inauspicious future sisters that function as a table of contents. Almost pathetically, at the very moment of the country's and of the book's deflagration the "Inscription" announces the fusion of the originary, individual "ONE'S SELF" with the post-bellum "EN-MASSE" (evidenced by the capital letters), as an auspice of greater national unity. The new poems are only six, and the more remarkable are "The Return of the Heroes," structured like a short poem, and "The City Dead-House," both haunted by death, the legacy of a war still burning in the collective memory. The latter poem deals with the death of a single individual, a poor prostitute whose body lies abandoned in the city morgue, but the same destiny had recently involved thousands of soldiers, evoked in "The Return of the Heroes" as in a limbo hanging between the moment in which their lives were truncated and the present moment, in which the earth fulfills its metamorphic function on the unburied bodies in order to create new life.

In the final edition's architecture the two poems multiply their power thanks to a clever positioning in "Autumn Rivulets", the meditative section immediately following "Drum-Taps" and the elegies on Lincoln's death. They are accompanied by poems written in different dates but focussed on the theme of metamorphosis: "Old Ireland" (1861) and "This Compost" (1856). The latter can be considered the most intense meditation left by Whitman on the incessant transmutations operated by Nature on every dead thing in order to bring it back to life in different forms.

The most stable sections of the volume remain "Children of Adam" (formerly "Enfans d'Adam") and "Calamus," which he now places closer to the beginning of the volume so as to render them more functional to the new organization of Leaves. In fact both sections deal with "relationships," which so far had been mostly personal but from now on will be reconfigured as a model for the new political relationships to be established between the States. This strategy tends to make more acceptable to the general public the male homoeroticism profused in the "Calamus" songs (no matter how diluted in the course of time), by redressing it as a brotherly fraternity, similar to the affection he lavished as a nurse on the wounded soldiers in Washington's military hospitals. We are witnessing the beginnings of the construction of the Good Grey Poet image, that will be widely exploited in the following years.

In the summer of 1869 Whitman resumes planning a new edition of Leaves. In July 1870 he is in New York to follow the printing process with publisher J. S. Redfield, and by the end of the year the book is on sale in New York, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia. Reviews are scarce, and nothing seems to happen. Whitman then proceeds to a first re-edition, increasing its size with seventy-some poems linked to Passage to India, 24 of them new and the rest selected from earlier editions. The number of pages rises from 384 to 504. In 1872 he re-publishes the whole lot in Washington adding more material, in part already published in a separate booklet with a prose introduction. Another deflagration of texts, within which Drum-Taps is finally incorporated in Leaves of Grass, though in three different sections, to the end of strengthening the volume's political frame. The 1881-82 edition will provide the final structure of Leaves of Grass.

Among the new poems "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" stands out because of its elusive power. It is the only poem written after the Civil War that portrays an African-American figure, a "dusky woman," a former slave, in the moment she salutes the American flag. Given Whitman's problematic feelings toward Blacks, it opens the way to all kinds of readings. The most ambitious novelties of the 1871 edition are a long poem, "Song of the Exposition," and the tighter "Passage to India," both occasional compositions, belonging to the genre of the public address, perfectly in line with the productions of Whitman's middle years, and destined to the largest possible exploitation in terms of visibility and circulation, thanks to the clever communication machine mounted by the poet through a solid network of personal contacts and collaborations with newspapers, magazines, and institutions. The musing poet of profound meditations becomes a manager of himself on the national stage.

The first title of "Song of the Exposition" was "After All, Not to Create Only," and gains an immediate mediatic resonance with the public reading the author gave on September 7, 1871, at the opening of the fortieth annual Exposition of the New York American Institute. On the same day the poem is published by the New York Evening Post and New York Commercial Adviser, and will be later reprinted in other journals and in pamphlet form before being included, along with "Passage to India," in Leaves of Grass 1871, second issue. The poem is also introduced by a prose note devoted to the great material achievements of the United States, consolidated by the advent of the artistic Muse, twin of Democracy, visible in Expositions which by now have nothing to envy in their European models. The managers of the Exposition are very pleased with the Ode, though its oratorical character has not gained the favor of 20th-century critics. Nevertheless, since the text was written in a month, destined for a public reading and therefore structured as an oration, it should be read aloud to test its brilliant sound orchestration, never absent even in the most occasional of Whitman's compositions.

"Passage to India" appears in Washington in 1871 as a separate volume along with 74 other poems, before being transferred as a supplement to the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass, second issue, and only later incorporated as an integral part of Leaves.

The notoriety achieved by "Passage to India" confirms Whitman's ability as a self-manager. The composition shows a remarkable departure from his initial poetic program: its decorations are old-fashioned and the narrative is mannered, even though in "Song of the Exposition" and elsewhere some lyrical interludes recall the poet's best years. The artist is distracted by other lures, but is far from being extinct. On a spectacular level, he can stage a perfect representation of no less than three of the historic technical inventions of the century, "our modern wonders, superior to the Seven ancient and ponderous": the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable (1866); the opening of the Suez Canal (1869-71), for which Giuseppe Verdi refused the Kedhivé's invitation to compose a hymn, because he did not want "to write occasional music"; and the completion of the first transcontinental railway line in the United States, realized in 1869 thanks to an extremely laborious conjunction of two existing sections. Of course Whitman's attention is drawn to the most spectacular of these events, the inauguration of the Suez Canal, with its parade of royal guests on steamships crossing an exotic and primitive landscape. It is significant that the new waterway is celebrated not so much as a radical geopolitical change in the passages and traffics between West and East, especially advantageous to the British Empire at the zenith of Victoria's reign, but as the breaking down of a cultural barrier between rational and civilized countries and parts of the world still immersed in the fog of primitive superstitions, which automatically assigns to the West the mission of civilizing the supposedly backward Eastern countries. Thus the poet of democracy proves to be thirty years ahead of Rudyard Kipling, the singer of the White Man's burden (obviously a British burden) in 1899. The opening of a passage to India and the American transcontinental railway are represented as the fulfilling of the dream of the "Genoese" Columbus, of Vasco de Gama, and of a number of captains and sailors who perished in the open seas, while the global navigation around the planet's "vast Rotundity" is understood as the realization of noble aspirations rather than of colossal colonial enterprises.

At the same time, right in 1871, the important prose book Democratic Vistas insists on a theme that is essential to the realization of the political mosaic he intends to compose.

13. The political poet. Genealogies and point of view

The sort of patriotic-political poetry cultivated by Whitman has suffered the blows of 20th-century literary criticism and of the readers' changing tastes. Before putting it back in the dusty aesthetic corner where it belongs we should clarify its ideological assumptions, which have suffered no decline of fortune. Recalling some basic historical facts that shaped the United States might be of some help.

Whitman had the luck of finding himself quite well situated by birth in the social stratification formed since the 17th century by whoever landed in the territory of the future nation. Both his stem families, obviously white, belonged to the European national groups (English and Dutch) that settled in Long Island well ahead of the others: in 1635 the English stock, shortly later the Dutch. They were economically well-off, and had a similar religious background (Protestant) that made them more prestigious than most of the late-comers: Irish, Italians, Poles, Greeks, Latin Americans, Chinese and so forth. On such bases was established the hegemonic core of the ruling class of the Northern colonies and later of the whole country. For some time the acronym WASP defined their members as White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, to which gender-conscious women later added Male.

This automatic primary advantage enjoyed by the male Whitmans gets somehow obscured in much critical and biographical scholarship, possibly because of the relative economic decline undergone by Walt's ancestors, so that he is more often than not classified as belonging to the working class (and let's incidentally add that Whitman himself did everything to enhance that image of himself). We can agree to the use of the term "working class" if we consider that Walt's relatives did not belong to the aristocracy or bourgeoisie in the European sense, nor were they feudal landowners like the colonists in the Southern States or wealthy Northern entrepreneurs, or professional workers (lawyers, professors, physicians, clergymen) as in the cases of Emily Dickinson's or Emerson's families. The Whitmans and the Van Velsors were landowners on a limited scale, helped by some 12-15 slaves in cultivating the land or in servile ministrations in the family's home. Their prosperity also slowly declined, but without sudden downfalls. Walt's father became an artisan, a carpenter, building and selling houses, until the techniques of pre-fabricated building materials threw him out of business. The family's economic conditions would never flourish again, and if anything would often become precarious, but never comparable to those of dependent workers: "mechanics," manual or rural workers, fishermen, cooks, servants, domestic helpers, nurses, spinners, washerwomen, and the like. Walt's healthy brothers managed to support themselves decently, one of them reached a good position in St. Louis, and none of them had to accept heavy or ill-paid jobs. Walt, in particular, had any number of opportunities as typographer, journalist, owner of journals, clerk in a governmental office in Washington, but he preferred to avoid the obligations of a steady job or profession. In this he was a Beat ahead of their time, because he could afford to choose. Writing was his real, steady profession, but, in his case, it did not bring a regular income. Something else was necessary. It has been reckoned that in the final years of his life, apart from some independent income, he was generously supported by friends and admirers, including millionaire Andrew Carnegie, so he put together something equivalent to three salaries of Camden workers' families, and, at his death, he left a consistent sum of money. Thus his overall income places him somewhat above the working class level, in a relatively comfortable lower middle class.

On this point, a comparison with the vicissitudes of Herman Melville, his fellow New Yorker of the same age, proves once more useful. Melville comes from a prominent family, which goes totally broke. Like Whitman, for a short period he makes do with some teaching, then enrolls as sailor on whaleships and goes all around the world. For a long middle period he falls into inactivity, due to psychic tensions and depression. His well-to-do father-in-law supports him and his family. Finally he buries himself for twenty years in the New York harbor as customs inspector, observing with lucid disenchantment how the economic and social engines work in his country. Whitman does not seem to have Melville's lucidity. As a transcendentalist, he nurtures an idealistic, that is, spiritualistic attitude. Ready to inveigh against feudal inheritances, he is all for democracy and celebrates the "average man," whom he also loved to befriend, but does not have a clear class consciousness, which after all is neither surprising nor casual in the United States. His "innocent" belonging to the original core of his country's society and the alterity (or haughtiness) that goes with it are betrayed when his glance, in his life and his poems, falls on those who are external to that core, or excluded: Blacks, Native Americans, in some ways recent immigrants, Mexicans, a good slice of the rest of the world outside "America," and even women, who, nevertheless, rightly loved and appreciated him. Such attitudes are not overt. They rise from deep down, and surface on the margins of fleeting details of his poems' language, which contradict the abstract, loud ideological pronouncements inscribed in the general design of "American" democracy. But Whitman knew a lot about contradictions . . .

14. The contradictions of everybody's poet

Now and then, in the company of some trusted and astonished friends, Horace Traubel, Whitman's memorialist, who was devoted to him but was also a Socialist, could not refrain from questioning him about some of his strange initiatives, like, for example, writing "The Dead Emperor," a eulogy of Wilhelm I, king of Prussia and "Deutscher Kaiser," who had died in 1888; or, in 1890, the tribute "For Queen Victoria's Birthday." One day Traubel went back to the theme of contradictions, and Whitman, as he used to do when pushed against the wall, looked annoyed and curtly answered that he was aware he could be credited with statements favorable or hostile to all the best ideas (Traubel, 1902). Though disappointed, Traubel had to conclude that indeed in his master's work there was no consistent ideology. At any rate, Whitman's answer to Traubel gives us a good key to an understanding of the universal appreciation his poetry received from poets and writers of all kinds, from women and men engaged in the political debate from very different ideological positions, as well as from uncommitted, ordinary readers. Indeed, in his writings anybody can find something to suit anybody. As long as one does not look around too much.

It is left to us to decide whether Whitman was simply indifferent to his contradictions or unable to come to terms with them, owing to his acknowledged "caution." And to evaluate his self-assigned role of Poet as "equalizer," as supreme arbiter, above all contentions or divisions, above all parties, singer of the slaves and of the masters of slaves. An olympic arbiter endlessly inveighing against radicals that are too radical, dangerous extremists like the angry abolitionists. Yet, without their rage the abolition of slavery would never have happened, nor would any advancement of the rights of workers and women.

From another angle, it is interesting that an educated and informed person like Traubel, who day after day, for four years, verbalized everything he heard from his Bard, would witness the perfect equivalence between the poet's work and his personality, exactly as Edward Carpenter did in the few days spent with him. During his second visit to Whitman, in July 1884, Edward Carpenter recuperates in his booklet an insightful note that he will transfer to Days with Walt Whitman (38): "I am impressed more than ever with W.'s contradictory, self-willed, tenacious, obstinate character, strong and even extreme moods, united with infinite tenderness, wistful love, and studied tolerance; also great caution and a certain artfulness, combined with keen, penetrating and determined candour: the wild-hawk look still there, 'untamable, untranslatable,' yet with that wonderful tenderness at bottom." Carpenter hits the mark. Whitman could be, and was, one thing and the other: in his later years he would realize it to the full. As to his being cautious, he told Carpenter: "Phrenologists always say that caution is my chief characteristic – did you know that?"

Nevertheless, together with all the fluctuations of his temperament, ideas, and the variety of its expressions that can be found in his poetry, very different observers agree about at least one invariable trait of the man and of his work: an unmistakably American character, that seems to need no further explanations. Original in his creative writing, sometimes deemed extravagant by conservative critics, Whitman is impatient of any form of ties, rules, and obligations, as a man and as an artist.

15. America: a world or an island?

If we turn our eyes to the the opposite end of the political and ideological spectrum, even Ezra Pound, who knew that Whitman's big oak had provided the wood for his carvings, feels the need to acknowledge his own debt in a brusque poem written when he was 28, "A Pact" (1913). Recognizing in Whitman the inventor of modern American poetry, he sees in him not only a father, even if "pig-headed," but someone who was made of the very same stuff as himself, that is, America, the same America Pound had decided to turn his back to:

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman -
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends,
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root –
Let there be commerce between us.

Some years before, at age 24, in a ruder form, Pound had already represented this tension in the brief prose "What I feel about Walt Whitman," dated 1909 and published only in 1955. For the first time, with merciless acumen and moving devotion, Pound catches the perfect equivalence between Whitman and his own loved-hated America, and this happens just one year after he moves to the other side of the Atlantic. In order to see his own country he had to reverse the Puritans' journey.

In 1909 Pound writes:
From this side of the Atlantic I am for the first time able to read Whitman, and from the vantage of my education and - if it be permitted a man of my scant years - my world citizenship: I see him America's poet. [. . .] He is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America. [. . .] He is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplished his mission. [. . . ] He is content to be what he is, and he is his time and his people. [. . .] I honour him for he prophesied me while I can only recognise him as a forebear of whom I ought to be proud. [. . .] Whitman is to my fatherland (Patriam quam odi et amo for no uncertain reasons) what Dante is to Italy.

As in James' case, Pound's statements are radically opposite to Whitman's assumptions and to what America represents in that historical period, and he takes his own stand as a painful fate, that of a conservative defender of the past. Like Dante, who did not write his Commedia in Latin, the noble language of the past, but in the new Italian parlance, "la volgar lingua," bestowing on it the status of a literary language, Whitman writes in his people's common language. Instead, in his invective Pound falls back on Latin, like Petrarch: "Whitman is to my fatherland (Patriam quam odi et amo for no uncertain reasons) what Dante is to Italy [. . .] Et ego Petrarca in lingua vetera scribo, and in a tongue my people understood not." At the same time, he claims to be proud of having reached a clearer perspective on his own country by distancing himself from it and absorbing other cultures as a cosmopolitan citizen of the world. Whitman, instead, like most of his fellow-countrymen, thought that the whole world converged in the great crucible of America. Through his stem families' lineage Whitman had been there ever since, and this may explain why, differently from so many of his contemporaries, he hardly felt the need to step out of its frontiers, except for a quick detour in Canada, which he practically considered part or at least an annex of the States. At any rate, Pound is as convinced of his cosmopolitan choice as Whitman of his domestic proclivity: one sap, one root. Unfortunately, Pound's self-assurance did not help him in avoiding the risks of miscarriage, of turning into unfamiliar and slippery (political) roads that were believed to be safe.

As to Pound's explicit and scathing verdict on Whitman's "exceeding great stench" exhaling from America's "crudity," we are reminded of Emerson's better-mannered criticism of his country's exceeding materialism and relative disregard for culture. The progress made since Emerson's times does not seem to overly impress Pound. So much said, it is a fact that Whitman's idea of culture rests on an exalted nationalism and a deep isolationism: both come from afar, and we should never lose sight of them. As a matter of fact, for historical reasons that are in part objective and then become ideologized, many of us Europeans, from the old and stifling shores decried by the Bard, are also used to consider the United States as the quintessence of "America." So did our emigrants, for comprehensible reasons. "L'America l'è lunga e l'è larga," they sang, but we do the same today, for other reasons. But when you finally get there, you realize that "America" tends to project itself as the quintessence of the world, so the game is not over.

From a cooler point of view, though, this "world" could arguably be considered a huge island, which, thanks to its continental size and composite anthropological and social structure could very well stand by itself, without necessarily having to rub elbows with the rest of the (real) world. After all, the so-called Pilgrim Fathers, from whom the whole story began, did not feel comfortable in their crowded and Anglo-Catholic English homeland/island, and asked their King to give them licence to settle "in the northern parts of Virginia," which were assumed to be little inhabited. Yet there were some local, non-immigrant inhabitants; being hunters, they had no use for settling, so that, in the immigrants' representation, they "scoured up and down like animals." Therefore, they could be eliminated without moral qualms. Having cleared the ground, "the pure" were able to re-found corrupt Christianity from top to bottom, in the new Promised Land, living all by themselves, speaking the same language, in the perfect and uncontaminated isolation so cogently represented in M. Night Shyamalan's movie The Village (2004).

The first group of Puritans managed to survive through their first severe North American winter thanks to the divine providence, but also to the maise improvidently given them by the scouring "savages." Their settlement became the Biblical "City on the Hill," beacon of light and prosperity, a model for the rest of the world but also for the late-comers to New England, who were of course expected to conform to it.

This sacral pattern survives in the political institution born with the 1776 Revolution, transforming it into a kind of secular, lay form of religion. Then, one day, some towers of this ideological construction collapsed, the inferior and corrupt underworld broke through the village palisade, and nothing was like before. Yet, to this very day, Barack Obama and Donald Trump included, the City on the Hill is evoked in inaugural addresses of new Presidents, who swear their allegiance to the Constitution laying a hand on Lincoln's Bible.

The only frontier perceived as such by U.S. islanders since the 19th-century is the Mexican border, hardly a Biblical site, but the theater of the 1846-48 war, the first extra-territorial war waged by the United States, advocated and celebrated by our Poet.

16. Retrospective glances

In some late, retrospective prose writings, Whitman tries to draw a fairly reasonable and realistic assessment of his life and works. Especially relevant is "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," now placed at the end of the final Leaves. The tone in which he addresses the reader is confidential, a fireplace tone: "So here I sit gossiping in the early candle-light of old age - I and my book – casting backward glances over our travel'd road." In spite of the series of prefaces written for the various editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman now says that his intentions were not quite clear to himself. Along the road, he adds, his thoughts and purposes have become more definite. He honestly admits he wanted "to take part in the great mèlée," encountering strong, unforeseen resistance, "anger and contempt," that he still feels around him. A good part (actually the better part) of this essay is devoted to identifyng several antecedents – literary or otherwise - without which Leaves of Grass would not have seen the light: Walter Scott's poems; the Bible and the ancient literary masterpieces of the West (Homer, Ossian, Nibelungen, Dante, Shakespeare, etc.) and of the East (Hindu poems), all read outdoors, in contact with Nature; Poe's short poems; his own personality; and the direct experience of the Civil War. Yet, the old masterpieces do not fit modern America, though she is sitting on top of them: "The New World needs the poems of realities and science and the democratic average and basic equality, which shall be greater." This evolutionary concept opens the way to a trail of bombastic and chauvinistic hyperboles, current in those times. He was living in an age of nationalisms, often extreme, and Europe was full of poets and writers who were honored and rewarded as great icons of their countries, highly visible in the rest of the world, while the States had no equivalents yet. In France, for example, Victor Hugo was a typical role model, and his personal misfortunes did not diminish his stature. Whitman cleverly draws the card of the democratic, Republican New World:
I know very well that my "Leaves" could not possibly have emerged or been fashion'd or completed, from any other era than the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, nor any other land than democratic America, and from the absolute triumph of the National Union arms.
Does not the best thought of our day and Republic conceive of a birth and spirit of song superior to anything past or present?
Of the great poems receiv'd from abroad and from the ages [. . .] is there one that is consistent with these United States [. . .] and is not a denial and insult to democracy?
Think of the United States to-day—the facts of these thirty-eight or forty empires solder'd in one—sixty or seventy millions of equals, with their lives, their passions, their future—these incalculable, modern, American, seething multitudes around us, of which we are inseparable parts! Think, in comparison, of the petty environage and limited area of the poets of past or present Europe, no matter how great their genius. Think of the absence and ignorance, in all cases hitherto, of the multitudinousness, vitality, and the unprecedented stimulants of to-day and here. It almost seems as if a poetry with cosmic and dynamic features of magnitude and limitlessness suitable to the human soul, were never possible before. It is certain that a poetry of absolute faith and equality for the use of the democratic masses never was.

The more he proceeds in his broodings the shriller his tone becomes, veering towards an almost phobic fear of contact that recalls the old Puritan separatism: "I was to show that we, here and now, are eligible to the grandest and the best – more eligible now than any times of old were. [… this] I said to myself before beginning."

Excited by such nationalistic fervor, Whitman pushes aside, as a passing reminder, what he himself, at the beginning of his career, had proclaimed the cornerstone of his poetry:
From another point of view "Leaves of Grass" is avowedly the song of Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality. […] I am not going to argue the question by itself; it does not stand by itself. […] the lines I allude to, and the spirit in which they are spoken, permeate all "Leaves of Grass", and the work must stand or fall with them, as the human body and soul must remain as an entirety.

Inevitably, this brief paragraph of a late and retrograde essay greatly reduces the importance of a central aspect of the author's former view of life, which he had extensively treated before the Civil War and the consequent prevalence of his political ambitions. Thus his more original, flowing, and innovative poems are relegated to the background.

At the same time, his persistent dissatisfaction about what he considered insufficient recognition persuades him to stop caring about the wide world's judgment, to remain obstinately faithful to himself, to rely on "a small band of the dearest friends and upholders ever vouchsafed to man or cause" like devoted William O'Connor, Dr. Bucke, and Horace Traubel, and to look ahead to a future appreciation, which implied an "ultimate vivification" of sensibilities that might take a hundred years to mature.

In the late 1880s Whitman was still fighting his frustrations with an incessant self-promotion campaign pursued to the very end, and with a mass of occasional stuff published under the stage lights. Of course nothing prevented him from writing poems that would express his personal inclinations, such as "a feeling or ambition to articulate and faithfully express in literary or poetic form, and uncompromisingly, my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual, and aesthetic Personality." The readers would decide whether they found it interesting or not, but his ambition to graft all of that into "the midst of, and tallying, the momentous spirit and facts of its immediate days, and of current America," expecting unconditional applause, was quite unrealistic. Emerson had warned him ever since 1860, conscious as he was that Whitman's ideas on sexuality were unacceptable to the public opinion, and would insert an unremovable wedge between his writings and the general readership. Nevertheless, the poet's persistent rage shows he was not yet ready to accept this bare fact, in spite of the negative consequences he had suffered through the years. His individualism (in itself so American) could go to such extremes as to border with a sense of omnipotence and a refusal to recognize the existence and resistance of a social majority, which nevertheless (and paradoxically) belonged to the "race of heroes," the apex of human evolution he had extolled. At any rate, his disappointments hampered but did extinguish his ambition to become the poet of the Nation.

A propos of the "anxiety of influence" famously described by Harold Bloom in his 1973 book, I would make one last comment on Whitman's uneasy brooding on himself, his country, Europe, insufficient recognition, etc. When he specifies that he always read the great European books outdoors, a question comes up to him, to which he gives a perfectly Transcendental, smart answer: "As it happen'd, I read the latter [books] mostly in an old wood. The Iliad (Buckley's prose version,) I read first thoroughly on the peninsula of Orient, northeast end of Long Island, in a shelter'd hollow of rocks and sand, with the sea on each side. (I have wonder'd since why I was not overwhelm'd by those mighty masters. Likely because I read them, as described, in the full presence of Nature, under the sun, with the far-spreading landscape and vistas, or the sea rolling in.)"

The thaumaturgic and immensely vast American Nature, astutely exalted by Emerson in one of his capital essays ("Nature," 1836), certainly was an incorrupt and inexhaustible treasure Europe could not compete with; a treasure that (momentarily) saved Whitman from his "anxiety of influence" and from a dangerous European contagion.

Along with a protectionist foreign policy, Whitman had to manage an interior policy as well, and he did it brilliantly. Determined as he was to reach the largest possible readership and to make his democratic work representative of a large and heterogeneous country, he opened up his style to a wide variety of local linguistic sources and registers, without privileging the elites of the learned and affluent. He believed that common citizens were more genuine, robust, and vital, so he did not hesitate to ransack the popular styles of music, theater, and religious, political, and literary oratory. His originary intention was to become an orator, someone who would address himself directly to an audience standing physically in front of him, vis-à-vis, ready to share and absorb emotions and energy, and this he does in his most flamboyant period.

U.S. readers and students are of course more likely to perceive their poet's democratic accent directed to his fellow citizens than the isolationist one directed to the rest of the world. An island is an island, after all.

17. Transatlantic openings. William Michael Rossetti's anthology, 1868

While in the United States the poet is busy looking after his personal success and the nation's fragmentation that he is trying to reassemble, in England William Michael Rossetti's project of an anthology devoted to Whitman's poems reaches its goal: on February 5, 1868, the volume Poems by Walt Whitman is in the bookstores. Its advocate is highly qualified. Born in a poor family that had a high regard for culture, brother of Christina, a poet, and of Dante Gabriel, a poet and painter who had inherited from his Italian father the name and the passion for the greatest poet of that land, in 1848 William Michael was one of the seven founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Rossetti's anthology, cautious in selecting the erotic poems, raises a much more positive response in England than in the States (M. Wynn Thomas, 2005). In May 1867 Rossetti had prepared the ground publishing in the London Chronicle an article on "Walt Whitman's Poems" which praised their originality. He also engages in a long dialogue with the poet about the best criteria to adopt in publishing them in England, receiving rather tortuous replies. At the beginning of the exchange Rossetti claims that it would not be impossible to publish the entire edition, expurgating some passages that might be censored. Whitman answers he would not agree to that, but since the edition is already being printed Rossetti decides that the English edition be guided by two criteria: the dangerous poems will not be published at all, and the published ones will be those the curator liked best. Thus the subjectivity of the choice would clearly emerge, and the option of an authorized edition would be bypassed. Whitman feigns a thousand quibbles about as many points but is actually ready to accept Rossetti's suggestions. Nevertheless, in 1871 he would still complain to F.S. Ellis about the "horrible dismemberment" of his Leaves. As a matter of fact, the anthology marks a decisive progress in the diffusion of his poems in England, in Europe, and, backwards, in a better recognition of them in the United States.

In his preface, Rossetti proclaims "the absolute and entire originality" of this poet, who can legitimately appear "formless" to those who stick to "the established forms" that prevent them from seeing "so great and startling a genius" whose work "is practically certain to stand as archetypal for many future poetic efforts—so great is his power as an originator [. . .] Victor Hugo's Légende des Siècles alone might be named with it for largeness." Interestingly enough, Rossetti, like his compatriot Edward Carpenter, also notices the "profound Americanness" of Whitman, who moves at his nation's rhythm, and is endowed with an "amplitude" of vistas adequate to its vastness, and with a poetic "intensity" capable of capturing and expressing what he contemplates.

Even before Rossetti's anthology appeared, Whitman's homoerotic poems had surprised a good number of English university students, arousing affections and identifications while soothing anxieties and worries. The anthology, prudent as it is, promotes a larger circulation of such texts. The readers are especially struck by the audacity with which Whitman stages homoeroticism in peremptory connection with the principles of equality and democracy, valid for men and women alike. This unusual interlacing is particularly appealing both to the large workers' movements inspired by Socialism and to women and men fighting for their civil and sexual rights.

Whitman bursts into England creating astonishment. He seems to come from nowhere, to have done everything by himself, and of course this is what he advertises, believes, and counts upon. Which is at least half true, and quite American. The ideology of self-reliance had been expounded once and for all by Emerson in his 1841 essay at a philosophical level, but Whitman would have done what he did independently of Emerson's contribution. His family's way of life, his own temperament, the inviolable American tenet of independence (national and personal), the fast development of a growing country, of a growing city (New York), and the overall cultural climate led him in that direction. Moreover, in his Quaker and patriotic head traditions existed to be discarded: "Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!" ("Song of Myself"). His poetry's primary aim was to debunk any tradition, the English tradition first of all, as clearly stated in his earliest notebooks.

We have mentioned that his (homo)erotic poems strike the readers for their novel approach to sexuality and for the alternative behaviors they suggested to those who felt uncomfortable with the conventional ones. Exemplary is Symonds' case, as we'll see. Whitman's powerful contribution to the ongoing revision of sexuality's representations will become fully apparent a century later, when the global 1968 movement rescues the supposedly chimerical utopias of yore and makes them real.

Whitman's poems open up an extraordinarily fascinating chapter in the history of Western sexuality that goes down to D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and further. For a while, things move faster in England than in the States, and this accounts for some initial conceptual and terminological differences, which cause misunderstandings but also incentivizes dialogues, curiosity, questions. Hence the pilgrimage of visitors who travel all the way from England to the remote industrial and proletarian suburb that was Camden, New Jersey, to see and talk to the real and disconcerting personage appeared from nowhere. Along with eminent literati like Edward Carpenter, Oscar Wilde, Edmund Gosse, and Anne Gilchrist, arrive the leaders of a community of workers and professionals from Bolton - a large center in the Manchester textile manufacturing district – who looked at Whitman as a venerable figure like Christ or Buddha. They had to go out of their way because, unlike an infinite array of his compatriots, Whitman never visited England, or Europe for that matter, though he entertained epistolary contacts with many English writers and literati. For instance, he won the esteem and friendship of their Poet Laureate, Lord Alfred Tennyson, perhaps because of shared underground homoerotic inclinations.

A writer like John Addington Symonds (1840-1894) is among the first to ask the poet to shed more light on the true meaning of his poems, and he does it repeatedly, for decades. In vain. On certain topics Whitman does not like to entertain written correspondence, and gives Symonds a hard time. This deliberate epistolary silence shows the paradox implicit in his furtive hen strategy, since in England his poems excite the sympathetic interest he missed at home. It is there that his ideal readers (the comrades) come to the fore, attracted by something so far unheard of, something they needed, which comforts and strengthens them. Yet with such readers he refuses to establish an exchange that might become too explicit and public. He does that only with those who go to visit him vis-à-vis and can guarantee discretion. In short, the man who launched a world-wide revolution desires to stay in a closet invisible to the whole world except to his adversaries. As though his English admirers forced him to acknowledge himself as a comrade rather than as a Universal Spirit floating above everything, which is what he meant to be as a Poet. Ontologically elusive. "Inaccessible" (Carpenter).

It is not by chance that one of the questions Englishmen (and Symonds in particular) are curious about is the narrative technique of "indirection." Symonds is a young man with a split and tormented personality. He writes to Whitman a few years after reading something by him, on October 7, 1871, humbly enclosing a poem entitled "Love and Death: A Symphony," that he had composed under the "Calamus" influence, especially of "Scented Herbage of my Breast." He thanks Whitman for the spiritual nurture received from his poems, but wants to make sure he is not misunderstanding those particular poems he had been carrying around for years, ever since he had discovered them through a Cambridge friend at Trinity College (Letter of August 3, 1890). And adds, with disarming sincerity: "I am English, married, with three children, & I am thirty."

Symonds will become a writer with very ample interests: he writes mediocre poems (some of them homoerotic, that he keeps to himself and some friends), literary criticism and remarkable biographies; translates Michelangelo's sonnets; devotes seven volumes to Renaissance in Italy, and finally writes Walt Whitman: A Study (1893). He also becomes a pioneer in the studies of what he kept calling "sexual inversion." He gave that title to a book published posthumously in 1896 in Germany and in 1897 in England, when since 1880 the German term "Homosexualität," coined by the German-Hungarian journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny in a letter to the sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, had been gaining ground. Only in May 1892 (the year of Whitman's death) did the term "homosexual" appear in the States, in Chicago's "Medical Recorder" (Folsom-Price, Re-Scripting Walt Whitman).

When Symonds comes across poems of the "Calamus " type, he is one of the first readers to suspect a homoerotic tone, as Carpenter did when he was sixteen. This happens in Cambridge, where, according to some newspapers of that period, "unbecoming" encounters between students and professors were taking place. Symonds' epiphanic perception of Whitman's poetry leads him to decide that Leaves of Grass will become his Bible, that will replace the old basic text of the Judeochristian tradition to which he felt he belonged even though for centuries it had stigmatized his sexual tendency as an "abomination" to the point of convincing him of his "abnormal inclinations." The revolution that Symonds, like Carpenter, senses in Whitman's operation lies in giving to homoerotic attractions a new and decorous space within the framework of a male "democratic" comradeship potentially useful as a social cement, as it was in ancient Greece, to whose "Greek ethics" Symonds would dedicate substantial studies. University people and literati were fairly familiar with the classic world. Among them, Oscar Wilde and D. H. Lawrence see in Whitman a "Greek" quality (Price, 2004), thus introducing in the current public and fluctuating discourse about homoerotic love the most traditional and established word used in classical studies.

In England the link between sexuality and democracy appears particularly intriguing because of the feudal past still weighing on that country, while Whitman's pride in his family's democratic republicanism and his own activity as a progressive journalist stands clearly out. In more general terms, our contemporary point of view allows us to fully appreciate Whitman's early debunking of the conceptual and practical barriers between "public" and "private" in social and political issues. Moreover, the open representation of the dynamics of same-sex relationships, especially frequent among the lower classes, evidences the statutory legal and juridical asymmetry of conventional heterosexual couples, where male predominance is taken for granted. Of course all of this applies to the white population. The interracial world remains outside of Whitman's vistas.

One of the most interesting and profitable cultural lessons we can draw from Whitman's work is a full representation of a 19th-century fluidity of personal, affective, sentimental, erotic and sexual relationships of males and females, young and old, that we would call pre-queer, and lasts until the 1880s and '90s, crossing the very heart of the supposedly infamous Victorian Age. After that divide, medicine and psychoanalysis compartmentalize human behavior into separate boxes, as ecclesiastic authorities had done before them, and their influence will last till the late 1960s. Whitman's poems are perfect reading companions of Michel Foucault's volumes on the philosophical history of sexuality (1970s), written when the law-and-order establishment started crumbling under the blows of feminism and of the budding gay movement.

18. The sixth edition, 1881-82, and the farewell, 1891-92

On April 15, 1881, in Boston, Whitman delivers a solemn lecture to honor Lincoln on the sixteenth anniversary of his assassination. He had been lecturing on Lincoln in several cities since 1879. On this occasion the invitation arrives from George Parsons Lathrop, who is a journalist and Nathaniel Hawthorne's son-in-law, whereby the site chosen for the event is the Hawthorne Room at the St. Botolph's Club, crowded with a select audience of literati. The great William Dean Howells is among them. As a young man he had reviewed Drum-Taps with some reservations, but now, as an appreciated and famous novelist, he warmly welcomes the poet. In the afternoon, the wife of the celebrated portraitist John Singer Sargent hosts a party in honor of the lecturer. Thus "our wild Whitman," as Emerson had defined him in 1857, lands in the heart of the most traditionalist literary society of the United States. Twenty years earlier he had come to Boston to look after the third edition of Leaves with his publishers Thayer & Eldridge. Always controversial, Whitman is by now a recognized artist. Not quite enough though to be invited to Philadelphia in 1876 for the official celebrations of the nation's centennial anniversary. Apparently unruffled, he managed to sport an instant "Centenary" volume of his Leaves.

Another important and dynamic Boston publisher, James R. Osgood, attends Whitman's lecture and offers him another chance to have a new edition published in that city. The preliminaries are quickly settled. Whitman has new poems to add to the previous ones and, to clear the decks of any possible misunderstanding, warns Osgood that all the poems dealing with sexuality would have to stay (Loving, 1999, 405). Again, Boston will prove to have in cauda venenum.

In November 1881 the sixth edition of Leaves of Grass is ready. Osgood prints three batches for a sum total of 2,000 copies, which start to sell well. The volume contains 293 poems, 17 of which are new. They are arranged in what will remain their definitive set-up: punctuation, titles, textual revisions, distribution in clusters, order of clusters according to a thematic criterion. The underlying "organic" principle is that the poems should gradually represent the exemplary life of a man from beginning to end, from birth to death, from the "Inscriptions" to the "Songs of Parting", signed by the typical New York leave-taking clause "So long!" that Whitman had started using in 1860.

But Boston's venomous tail is ready to strike. On March 1, 1882, the city's District Attorney Oliver Stevens informs Osgood that all copies of Leaves of Grass will have to be withdrawn as an obscene publication. On March 4 Osgood informs the author, suggesting a revision. On March 7 Whitman agrees, but he is so far from envisioning its amount as to offer Osgood a biography of himself written by Doctor Bucke and a prose work in progress entitled Specimen Days and Thoughts. The publisher is open to elimination of the incriminated parts as long as the author agrees. Whitman expresses his willingness to negotiate in order to safeguard the publisher's interest, but when on March 23 he sees the list of titles he balks: "I refuse the entire list and each part of it and under no circumstance am I available to a rethinking." Instead he offers his own list of possible arrangements. Meanwhile the sale stops at 1,500 copies.

Whitman endeavors to have all his material back from Osgood, and finds a publisher in the more liberal Philadelphia. Rees Welsh & Co. has a reprint ready in October 1882 and then passes publishing rights to young David McKay, who will also print Specimen Days & Collect. The hububb about the censored book pushes sales beyond 6,000 copies, and by the end of 1882 Whitman pockets 1,000 dollars (Dennis K. Renner, in LeMaster-Kummings, 1998).

The list of objectionable poems underscores the limits imposed upon discourses on sexuality in a key cultural area at that time. The poems were: "Song of Myself," "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers," "I Sing the Body Electric," "A Woman Waits for Me, "Spontaneous Me," "Native Moments," "The Dalliance of the Eagles," "By Blue Ontario's Shore," "To a Common Prostitute," "Unfolded Out of the Folds," "The Sleepers," and "Faces." All of these had to be amended. Two of them were excluded: "A Woman Waits for Me," and "To a Common Prostitute." Once more, it is the female sexuality to be under guard. Not one objection is to be found to "Calamus" or to the male homoeroticism permeating so much of Whitman's poetry. The crime was elsewhere.

It turns out that among the 17 new poems one of the most unacceptable to the censor is a masterful and elusive sketch that recalls Leonardo's eerie drawings of flying birds: "The Dalliance of the Eagles." A rare case of sexual phobia applied to a couple of noble animals.

In the final edition of 1891-92 the two "annexes" that gather the poems written from '81 onwards offer pleasant surprises. At the moment of licensing them, in a "Preface" to the second annex, Whitman wonders, somewhat coyly, whether to publish them or not:
Had I not better withhold (in this old age and paralysis of me) such little tags and fringe-dots (maybe specks, stains,) as follow a long, dusty journey, and witness it afterwards? I have probably not been enough afraid of careless touches, from the first – and am not now – nor of parrot-like repetitions – nor platitudes and the commonplace. Perhaps I am too democratic for such avoidances. Besides, is not the verse-field, as originally plann'd by my theory, now sufficiently illustrated – and full time for me to silently retire?

Indeed in '92 the bell of bodily weakening is tolling. Indeed his latest poems are like specks left on the clothes after a long journey; as such they are tiny, but some of them have a haiku tender grace admired by Whitman's friends and also by readers who had met him only occasionally. And they have new and relevant developments to offer. In perfect coherence with his poetics, the singer of the body, now grown old and semiparalysed, attunes his favorite theme to his present condition and age, and puts on stage an old body, an ailing body. This variation belies the supposed narcissism of a poet enamoured of the body beautiful of handsome young males. Democratically, he chooses anti-ageism, and (again like Leonardo da Vinci) has no hesitation in representing the old body with a clear eye and controlled pathos, in its decadence and fragility. These poems are deemed to be among his best by a minority of critics, who have paid attention to the "late styles" of writers and to "age" as one of life's phases (M. Wynn Thomas, 1981; Lee, 1999).

The complete and final edition of Leaves of Grass so punctiliously prepared by its author consigns to us, once more and for the last time, a work characterised by two contrasting and coexisting aspects. A mediocre repetitiveness is the more evident trait, commonly attributed to an inevitable decline. Yet, when Whitman, now and then, succeeds in reconnecting himself to his "soul" (as he would call it), against his grievous physical condition, his gnawing worrying about inadequate recognition, and the spate of insignificant publications, he can contemplate the minute fragments of a shrunken and yet luminous existence with the lighthearted eyes of a sage. Had not Gioacchino Rossini done something similar, a couple of decades before, in his Péchés de vieillesse?

In spite of the uneven quality of the poems gathered in the final edition, Whitman's fame in the world rests essentially upon it, and its variety attracts millions of ordinary readers and seekers, men and women of all kinds, trades, and ideological allegiances, and each of them can pick up and bring home something interesting, beautiful, bizarre, precious. The same happens with poets and writers of the highest level. A few names suffice to give an idea of their wide range: William James, Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Rimbaud, André Gide, Thomas Mann, Federico García Lorca, Dino Campana, Pablo Neruda, the hilarious Fernando Pessoa (who wrote an ode, "Saudação a Walt Whitman,"grande democrata epidermico," recited by one of his avatars, Alvaro de Campos), Màrio De Andrade, Vladimir Majakovskij, Boris Pasternak, Guo Mòruò, Xu Zhimo, Ai Qing… Poets and writers are accompanied by architects (Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright), painters (Vincent Van Gogh, Joseph Stella, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent), musicians (Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Charles Ives, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Ned Rorem), and even a supreme dancer like Isadora Duncan. On another side, the singer of equality and democracy (in sexual behaviors too) won the devotion of women like Emma Goldman, of men like Edward Carpenter and Allen Ginsberg, and of vast numbers of workers, laborers, union people, and revolutionaries all over the world, from England to Latin America to Russia and China.

Finally, there is one more, less known but no longer subterranean Whitman to dis-cover, who left a different heritage, totally inscribed in his poetics of life. On that Whitman we will close these notes, after taking leave of his last visitors.

19. Last visitors from England: Oscar Wilde and Edmund Gosse

January 1882. A young Oscar Wilde, 27, not yet famous, happens to be in the States for a lecture tour organized by a British theater manager who wanted to show him around in America as the epitome of a dandy and an aesthete before bringing there Gilbert and Sullivan's brand new musical, Patience, a satire of aestheticism, which was the vogue of the moment. The tour was so successful that the scheduled four months became almost a year. On January 18, from Philadelphia, where the show had gotten a very cold reception the day before, Wilde takes the Camden ferry with a publisher, J. M. Stoddart, to visit the poet who had been so important for his life. They are warmly welcome in the home of George Whitman and his wife Louisa, with whom Walt had been living for years. Stoddart will leave shortly after. In his brown velvet suit, sitting on a stool at Whitman's feet, Oscar lays a hand on a knee of the poet, then 62, and immediately seduces him by talking about his own mother who had bought a copy of the 1855 edition of the Leaves and had read him some poems. Later, in Oxford, Wilde used to take the book with him in his walks with friends and read from it with them. He also tells Whitman "to us in England there are only two American poets, Whitman and Emerson." He acknowledges Longfellow's talent, but believes "he has given little to literature that could not come from other European sources" (Allen, 1955, 502).

Quite flattered, Whitman enjoys the informal and amusing conversation "with this handsome big boy," of whom he will later say he could not understand why he had such a bad reputation. He offers Oscar (as he started calling him) elderberry wine made by their hostess Louisa, and when Stoddart asked Wilde how could he manage to swallow it he answered, "Had it been vinegar I would have drunk it anyway, because for that man I have an admiration I cannot describe." After a while, Whitman takes him to his upstairs room for a more private session, has him sit on a chair he clears of all papers scattered on it and elsewhere in the room, and for a couple of hours the two speak of poetry, literature, and aestheticism, which Walt does not appreciate. In the course of the afternoon Walt prepares a milk punch and finally gives Oscar two photographs of himself, one of which should be handed to Swinburne, the decadent poet who was a friend of the Rossettis. The day after the visit Whitman will tell a Philadelphia journalist that he considered Wilde "genuine, honest, and manly virile." Of Wilde as a poet he did not think much; though "exquisite," he felt he somehow lacked substance. In the following weeks his enthusiasm over Wilde's visit and the affectionate (amorous?) relationship that ensued is evident in the gloating letters he wrote to his young friend Harry Stafford. In the first one (January 25) he pointedly says: "He is a handsome big boy – and had the good idea of taking a fancy on me!" In the second one (January 31) he just mentions an exchange of courtesies: "Yesterday Oscar Wilde sent me a large photograph of himself, one foot and a half, almost his entire figure, very beautiful." On his part, Wilde, always a queen, lets more than one person know that "I still have Walt Whitman's kiss on my lips." (Allen, 1955, 502-3; Reynolds, 1995, 540; Richard Raleigh, in LeMaster–Kummings, 1998, WW Archive; Loving, 1999, 412).

On March 1, in a letter written in New York and sent from Chicago, Wilde tells Whitman "I must see you again" before returning to England because "there is nobody in this vast and great world of America whom I love and honor as much" (Traubel, 1906, vol. 2, 288). Of this second encounter, which might have taken place on some indeterminate day of May, nothing certain is known. Wilde was surely in Philadelphia for another lecture in the afternoon of May 10, since on the 11th the Philadelphia Press specifies that "Wilde had dinner with friends and left for New York with the 8 p.m train." Yet, he must have managed to see the poet, since Charles Godfrey Leland, arguably present at that dinner, on that same May 10 wrote in his diary that Wilde had visited Whitman "decked out as a hypothetical cowboy, that he deemed to be the most picturesque product of America" (Reynolds, 1995, 412-13). In his biography of Oscar Wilde (1987, 171) Richard Ellman notes that to George Ives, an English homosexual activist of the Nineties, Wilde said that "Whitman made no attempt to hide his homosexuality." Whatever terminology was being used in these comments, it seems reasonably arguable that, with a straightforward and "honest" person like Wilde, Whitman would drop his usual cautiousness, exactly as he had done with Edward Carpenter, who by the way was going to see Whitman again two years after Wilde, in 1884.

Edmund Gosse's visit in 1885 would take place in a quite different mood. Gosse (1849-1928) was a young, eminent, and prissy Englishman. In the following year, he would have his portrait made by John Singer Sargent. Gosse is engaged in a prestigious lecture tour in the States, and would like to take the opportunity of meeting Whitman. After asking him for an appointment in a letter which got no answer, he decides to go and look for him in Camden. Years later, in the article "Walt Whitman," written in 1893 and published in Critical Kit-Kats in 1896, he gave a different version of these diplomatic preliminaries. In this account, Whitman himself writes to Gosse in Boston asking for an encounter, and Gosse, who did not feel he belonged to the large tribe of Whitmaniacs ready to travel as far as remote Camden to revere him, felt an impulse to refuse his invitation. Eventually, respect for the poet prevailed, and on January 3 Gosse crosses the half-frozen Delaware on the Camden ferry from Philadelphia and finds himself in "a concentration of ugliness that only an American town could exhibit in the dead of winter, "goes around looking for Mickle Street, and hesitantly knocks at the small door of a poor, gloomy building. The "melancholy" Mrs. Davis opens the door, Walt comes hobbling down the stairs and welcomes him with a cheery "Is that my friend?" Instantly all embarrassment disappears, as by some "magnetic charm." The great seducer has struck again. The dismal dwelling-room on the first floor, covered with a miserable wallpaper, of an indefinite color, stained here and there, "as one sees in the bedrooms of labourers' cottages," is strewn with boxes and objects of all kinds, "mountains of papers in a wild confusion." Yet the room is perfectly clean, and so is the man. Grey suit, a "shirt thrown wide open at the throat," grey hair, flowing white beard. Gosse clears a box and sits on it, facing the poet ensconced in the one chair available in the room. Whitman "contemplates" him with great attention, in long silences, "in a state of utter passivity," his head slightly tilted backwards. From time to time his quiet voice emerges from invisible lips behind "the cascade of beard." "He was like a cat – a great old grey Angora Tom, alert in repose, serenely blinking under his combed waves of hair, with eyes inscrutably dreaming." The image Gosse perceives is obviously that of an Oriental sage, which the aging poet was cultivating with utmost care. When Whitman interrupts his silences his guest notices a "perfectly simple trait of urbanity without affectations" but not without "a touch of amused cunning." Charmed and puzzled, Gosse also manifests strongly defensive reactions, exactly along the line of the disturbing feelings Whitman's poems raised in Henry James. In the man's personality he catches a profound and disconcerting trait: "He is, roughly speaking, a keenly observant and sentient being, without thought, without selection, without intensity, egged on by his nervous system to a revelation of himself." It is as though Gosse were describing a great mollusk from the sea depths, very sensitive but wrapped up in itself and, moreover, reflecting like a mirror: "The critic who touches Whitman is immediately comforted by his own image printed on that viscid and tenacious surface." As to the poet's chamber, he notices only two objects somehow related "to art": the portrait of a Native American Indian, which had inspired the passage on the "aborigines" in "Starting from Paumanok", and the photograph of a splendid oarsman bent on his boat. Whitman, once in a while a not too furtive hen, explains first of all that the man was a well-known professional, and a very great friend, "strangely attracted" to him because athletes were his favorite people, very simple and affectionate, accustomed to an open air life. A consolation, "in the face of the insults and derision of the world." Seated all day long next to woodsmen at work Whitman feels "something of their life mix with the odor of split wood and penetrate into his veins, so that I am no longer old and ill." Though Gosse finally declared himself to be "captivated without being converted," we can well understand why those words impressed him more than anything else the poet said in the course of that long and pleasant day. He feels that the polyhedrical personality of the man coincides with the nature of his poems, in which any reader sees himself, as did "Stevenson, Symonds, Emerson, Thoreau, Scandinavian gymnasts, anarchists and chaplains and champions of womens' rights. […] And those who have written on him have said extravagant things." Gosse's evaluation of his poetry obviously rests on a conservative point of view. Whitman is "cryptic and opaque. The only concession one can honestly make is that now and then there are passages of extreme verbal felicity." Yet, there is no form, and therefore "we have just missed receiving from the New World one of the greatest modern poets." Gosse's judgement oscillates: by that time Whitman's poems were forty years old "and do not lose their vitality. […] Nobody is able to analyse their charm, and yet their charm is undeniable."

In the end Gosse's impressions of the man are very positive. The natural American cordiality defeats the British reserve: "Going out, my heart was full of affection for this beautiful old man, who in his quiet accent had just told me, So long, my friend!"

In her "Edmund Gosse" (1931) Virginia Woolf, who could never stand him, draws the vitriolic portrait of a fop, with clear allusions to his repressed homosexuality, with which she was quite familiar. She defines him
as touchy as a housemaid and as suspicious as a governess, he could smell out an offence where none was meant, and hoard a grievance for years. He could quarrel permanently because a lamp wick was snuffed out too vigorously at a table under his nose. Hostile reviews threw him into paroxysms of rage.

As it happens, in 1890, five years after visiting Whitman, Gosse, who had been married for over half a century and was the father of three children, confided his attraction for men to his friend John Addington Symonds, the very same person who had repeatedly annoyed Whitman with questions about the "true" sense of the "Calamus" poems, especially of poem 8 which the author had decided to exclude from his Leaves after the 1860 edition because it explicitly mentioned a man's love for another man.

20. Closing time

19 August, 1890. At a time when his precarious physical conditions seem to announce an imminent end to his life, Whitman resolves to answer Symonds' insistent and unwelcome questions, and does it in a short, explosive letter full of multiple subplots. In a series of writhing convolutions the letter aims at radically refusing Symonds suspicions:
Ab't the questions on Calamus pieces &c: they quite daze me. L of G. is only to be rightly construed by and within its own atmosphere and essential character—all of its pages & pieces so coming strictly under that—that the calamus part has even allow'd the possibility of such construction as mention'd is terrible—I am fain to hope the pages themselves are not to be even mention'd for such gratuitous and quite at the time entirely undream'd & unreck'd possibility of morbid inferences—wh'are disavow'd by me & seem damnable. Then one great difference between you and me, temperament & theory, is restraint—I know that while I have a horror of ranting & bawling I at certain moments let the spirit impulse, (? demon) rage its utmost, its wildest, damnedest (I feel to do so in my L of G. & I do so). I end the matter by saying I wholly stand by L of G. as it is, as long as all parts & pages are construed as I said by their own ensemble, spirit & atmosphere.
I live here 72 y'rs old & completely paralyzed—brain & right arm ab't same as ever—digestion, sleep, appetite, &c: fair—sight & hearing half-and-half-spirits fair—locomotive power (legs) almost utterly gone—am propell'd outdoors nearly every day—get down to the river side here, the Delaware, an hour at sunset—The writing and rounding of L of G. has been to me the reason-for-being, & life comfort. My life, young manhood, mid-age, times South, &c: have all been jolly, bodily, and probably open to criticism. Tho' always unmarried I have had six children—two are dead—One living southern grandchild, fine boy, who writes to me occasionally. Circumstances connected with their benefit and fortune have separated me from intimate relations.
I see I have written with haste & too great effusion—but let it stand. (E. H. Miller, 1990, 282)
The letter closes on the most clamorous lie Whitman ever concocted. In a moment of total panic, the dyonisiac poet he was as a young man re-emerges in a flash, after so many years of restraint, pretending, and camouflage, only to be violently rejected. In just three lines, pathetic forgeries and a perfectly Jamesian admission of an almost fatal emotional block pile up, one on top of the other. Phantoms of a lifetime, shadows upon shadows of a black romance we are called to decipher.

What sort of prohibition occurred to prevent Whitman from having "intimate relations"? At what cost? And who would these "six children" be, two of them dead? His own dead brothers? Some of the dying soldiers in camp hospitals? And who would be the "living Southern grandchild"? The fabled, exotic New Orleans love? His beloved Virginian Pete Doyle? Or Pete's several replicas? The 18 year-old Harry Stafford who replaced Pete in 1876? The illiterate Edward Cattel, same age as Harry, with whom in the same period the poet, almost sixty, used to spend clandestine and pleasant summer evenings at Timber Creek, taking delicious therapeutic mud baths? The affectionate Bill Duckett, a teenage orphan who, in the latest years of Whitman's life, lived with his housekeeper Mary Oakes Davis in the Mickle Street home and in fine days would be taken out by Walt for a ride in a buggy? At home, though, Davis made sure that Bill would not go up to Walt's room to keep him too much company. And what about the boys of yore, in rural Long Island schools? Or the brilliant, never forgotten coachman Fred Vaughan, whom he had met at Pfaff's and lived with in the "Calamus" period?

One day, late in his life, Whitman said to Traubel: "I am double, it's as though I were always two persons, sometimes I think I am myself but also someone else." It is likely that this doubleness, on which he ponders several times in his life without being able to explain it to himself, rested on a 'primary, deep, unfathomable trait of his character, which colors his life, his thinking, his poems and actions, and might be tied to specific but undefined dark and painful moments, perhaps to a "secret."

On September 8, 1888, two years before he decided to give a sharp answer to Symonds' inquiries on "Calamus," Whitman spontaneously offers a hint to his devoted and sympathetic diarist. A letter he had just received from publisher John Camden Hotten reminds him of some annoying expectations his poems had raised in England, and he says to Traubel: "'The story is not to be all told offhand—the cat has a very, very long tail. […] Some day I will tell you the real story of my life: then you will open your eyes.' I looked at him, supposing he was smiling. He was dead serious. 'What do you mean?' 'I can't commence now—some day I will explain.'" (Traubel, vol. 2, 286).

A few days after (September 13) Whitman picks up the subject again, and again he drops it: "W. said to me mysteriously tonight: 'Some day when you are ready and I am ready I will tell you about one period in my life of which my friends know nothing: not now—not to-morrow—but some day before long. I want to tell you the whole story with figures and all the data so that you may make no mistake about it.' I have no idea what he refers to. He saw my blank face. 'Of course you do not understand an allusion so vague—but you ought to know: I have made up my mind to confide in you to the fullest extent.' I looked for more but he added nothing." (316)

Some time later, the enticing game is repeated. "You'll hear that in due time – not tonight. That cat has too long a tail to start to unravel at the end of an evening."

October 20, 1888. Traubel reminds Whitman of his promise to tell him something more about the "big story" of his life:
I asked W.: "Walt, are you in earnest in saying you have a big story to tell me some day?" He grew very grave at once: "Yes, Horace—dead in earnest: you have no idea, no suspicion, of it, but you ought to know it all. I find it hard to steady my nerves for it—it means so much to me, will mean so much to you, means so much to others. The cat has a long tail—a very, very long tail." It did not seem to me there was anything for me to do but be silent. He looked at me intently. Then he reached his hand out and took my own, holding it: "We won't go on with it tonight—not tonight: I am not enough myself to undertake it tonight: it involves so much—feeling, reminiscence, almost tragedy: it's a long, long story: and I don't want you to know only a part of it—I want you to know it all: when I start I want to finish: so we must let it go over to some day, some night, when I am just in the exact mood to speak and you are just in the exact mood to listen. I want you to get it right when I tell it—not wrong: which implies, as I have just said, that you must be in the mood to hear right what I want to tell in the right spirit." I reached over and kissed him good night. He called "good night" to me several times as I went to and out the door into the hallway: "Good-night!" "Good-night!" His voice was full of emotion. (510-11)
A week after (October 27), Whitman picks up the subject again, only to drop it again:
W. referred to his "big secret" this evening again: "I am daily more anxious to have you know the story—all of it: it belongs to you by right of our sacred association—and when the proper moment comes you shall be made acquainted with all its facts. There are best reasons why I have not heretofore told you—there are also best reasons why I should tell you now. It's not so much that I desire to confide a secret to you as that I wish you on general principles to be made familiar with the one big factor, entanglement (I may almost say tragedy) of my life about which I have not so far talked freely with you." I waited for more but that was all he said—except that, seeing inquiry on my face, he concluded: "Not to-night, Horace, dear boy—not tonight. It's the only big factor, involvement ( I could almost say tragedy) of my life, of which I haven't yet openly spoken to you and might even disgust you […] One day you'll see that there is a secret." (543)

Indeed there is some cat-and-mouse play (Kaplan, 1980, 42) in the long round between the old poet of "Calamus" and the young, devoted, and sympathetic diarist, both lovers of men. But, discreet as Traubel was in his relation with Whitman, he was nevertheless a chronicler, a reporter, so Whitman's customary caution could but be heightened. And of course we do not know what kind of secret he was hinting at, though we do know that in his life there are obscure circumstances, silences, undocumented time gaps, repeated destruction of letters and personal papers. The "tragedy" hinted at seems to imply something serious, some painful "accident" like the one long talked about, though never proven (Folsom-Price, "Schoolteaching Years" in Life and Letters, Biography, "Walt Whitman," in WWArchive).

The "accident" might have occurred at Southold, in the remote, rural and backward east end of Long Island. Of such obscure circumstances Betsy Erkkila provides an accurate description:
In Walt Whitman at Southold, [Long Island historian Katherine] Molinoff presents notes from the Southold town historian Wayland Jefferson (based on oral testimony) suggesting that while Whitman was teaching in Southold between late fall and early winter 1840–1841 he was denounced from the pulpit as a sodomite and tarred, feathered, and run out of town by a local mob. The school where he putatively taught was renamed "the School of Sodom." There is no documentary evidence that Whitman ever taught at Southold or that such an event occurred. But while biographers have generally treated the Southold story as apocryphal, Molinoff's pamphlet suggests that as early as 1840–1841, in the period immediately preceding Whitman's publication of such homoerotically nuanced stories as "The Child's Champion" (1841) and Franklin Evans (1842), Whitman may have experienced a deep physical and emotional attachment to a young man which led to his being persecuted by the townspeople of Southold, where for a short time, at age 22, he (probably) taught local children, and may have been accused of sodomy and maybe have been mistreated and abused by parents and populace.

In all this mist, the only unquestionable facts are that a Southold school was referred to as "School of Sodom" for decades, but we don't know exactly why. What we know is that Whitman's purpose to tell Traubel something about "a secret" that could be tragic never materialized, locked up as it was in Walt's phrenological "cautiousness" bump. So we do not have the protagonist's direct testimony.

Instead, about another possible "secret," not at all tragic, another cat, who often jumped from New York's Lower East Side to the Bay Area of San Francisco and Berkeley, has unraveled his merry tail. And who could it be but Allen Ginsberg?

21. A large heritage

Allen Ginsberg, one of the most devoted and intelligent readers of Whitman, takes us back to the poet of the body, but also, for once, to the body of the poet in all its carnality, much less known than the one celebrated in his poems. In 1978, in number 35 of the Gay Sunshine Journal Ginsberg decides to reproduce a written testimony that he had requested of his friend Gavin Arthur and that Gavin gave to him in 1967, the year of the first Human Be-In in San Francisco. Gavin died five years later. On that precious testimony rests the following story.

Gavin Arthur (1901-1972) was the scion of a substantial family, related to the 21st President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur. When he was very young he ended up in a Boston jail as a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He became also a target of FBI attention as an anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, admirer of Soviet Russia, and a civil rights militant. Openly bisexual, three times married, he appears in an avantgarde silent movie of the 1930s together with his first wife, with poet Hilda Doolittle, and the African-American bass baritone Paul Robeson, a homosexual who had to remain closeted for political reasons (he was also a Communist). As by chance the movie is entitled Borderline and was made by the Scottish director Kenneth Macpherson with techniques derived form Pabst and Ejzenšteijn. Gavin Arthur was a friend of many of the most advanced sexologists, like Alfred Kinsey, Havelock Ellis, and Magnus Hirschfeld, and in San Francisco he became an extravagant and genial astrologist. When money was short he would sell newpapers in the streets. So he is a perfect icon of the bohème of those years, characterized by a strong intermingling of unconventional cultural practices and lifestyles and political choices that could be progressive, radical or revolutionary.

Through one of his lovers Gavin happened to learn some interesting details about Whitman's preferences in lovemaking techniques. Walt seems to have been fond of long, slow, tender and sensual manipulations of the whole body, unrelated to genitality in a narrow sense, that one partner would perform on the passive body of the other until he reached a state of total psychophysical ecstasy (in the literal sense of the term) that we could legitimately call "Beatitude," with a slight anachronism. The partner on whom Walt bestowed his amazing technique was Edward Carpenter, then 33. At 80 Carpenter taught it to Gavin Arthur, then just over 20, explaining to him that it was founded on karezza (sic; Italian carezza?), and that the emission of semen (as a material substance) was to be discouraged because it would put an end to ecstasy (a spiritual state). Gavin also adds a detail so precise it sounds like a divination: "The old man at my side was passing his hands along my body with a delicate and extraordinary mastery. An exquisite thing, similar to the little bubbles that come up from decomposing herbs in a mud bath, caressing the body like a feather." Here we are, back to Timber Creek, where Whitman found the natural materials (water, mud, and branches) necessary to re-invigorate his own ailing, semiparalysed body, and possibly the bodies of comrades.

Out of his own delightful experience, polymorphous Gavin draws the conclusion that "there are so many possible relationships, and there is so much one loses by limiting himself to one sex or color or age." The story goes on with Gavin going to bed with Neal Cassady, the mythical sexual hero of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and ends with Allen Ginsberg finally going to bed with Cassady. At this point the story's scribe can enthusiastically proclaim the limpid and uninterrupted genealogy, "sexual, poetic, democratic, and spiritual." Using those perfectly complementary adjectives Ginsberg once more proves – had it been necessary – to have understood the best that there was in his master and to have fully developed his quadruple lesson. It is well known that Walt cultivated a lifelong interest in health, diets, and phrenology as a holistic "science." He was friends with the leading publishers in the field, Lorenzo and Orson Fowler, in whose Phrenological Cabinet he spent long hours. In the late 1850s, while working at the "Calamus" poems in view of the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860), he consulted books about male health and even wrote extensively on that subject under a pseudonym, but only in 2016 what he had written was fully recovered almost by chance. In fact, in the Summer of 2015 Zachary Turpin, a graduate student who was randomly exploring the net for fun, "came across a fleeting reference" to a series of articles on Manly Health and Training " in a digitized newspaper database and then tracked down the full text on microfilm" (Schuessler, 2016). The text had appeared in October 1858 in the weekly paper The New York Atlas under the name of one Mose Velsor of Brooklyn, a pseudonym Whitman frequently used, among several others. The seventeen installments of the series show how thoroughly he had meditated about the physical structure of the male body and the social function male bodybuilding could perform in promoting good health to the benefit of the entire nation, in peace and war. Manly Health and Training thus bridges the conceptual gap between the "Calamus" poems as an expression of a purely personal sexual desire and the transformation of this desire into a cement of national unity and strength.

The last striking feature of this story is that the body manipulation techniques invented (?) by Whitman, or learned especially from the readings he did on men's health in the late 1850s reveal an astonishing affinity to the most ancient Indian practices of medicine and body & mind care (yoga, ayurveda) but also to tantric practices equally ancient and refined, that around the early 1960s crossed the Pacific Ocean from Asia to the California shores, planting roots in the San Francisco Bay Area and down to Big Sur, a Beat and hippy sanctuary facing the Ocean, dedicated to meditation and sexual and psychic liberation. The Esalen Institute is the most significant and enduring outcome of that culture, and its "Body Electric" therapeutic practice could be taken for a Whitmanian advertisement. Through Esalen passed Aldous Huxley, Gregory Bateson, Alan Watts, Paul Goodman, but also Wilhelm Reich, fleeing from Nazi-fascist Europe and most entitled to write both The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933) and The Sexual Revolution (1936), to which Michel Foucault would bow. In the Sixties all these ferments will reach the students at the University of California, Berkeley, and from there the rest of the world. A large Whitmanian heritage indeed.

Bibliographical References

Allen, Gay Wilson, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman, Macmillan, New York 1955.

Anderson, Quentin, The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History, Knopf, New York 1971.

Belasco, Susan, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price (eds.), Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Essays, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2007.

Bucke, Richard M., Walt Whitman, David McKay, Philadelphia 1883.

Camboni, Marina (ed.), Utopia in the Present Tense: Walt Whitman and the Language of the New World, Il Calamo, Roma, 1994.

Carpenter, Edward, "Letter to Walt Whitman from Trinity College," Cambridge, July 12, 1874, in Traubel, Volume 1, May 15,1888,158-61.

--, Days with Walt Whitman, George Allen, London 1906.

Chimenti, Francesco, Note di letteratura americana, Tipografia Fratelli Pansini, Bari 1894.

Corona, Mario, Foglie d'erba 1855, translation, introduction, and notes, Marsilio, Venezia 1996.

--, Foglie d'erba 1891-92, translated and edited by Mario Corona, with an Introduction, a Chronology, and Notes to the texts. Bibliography by Caterina Bernardini, Mondadori, Milano 2017.

--, Prima del viaggio. Per una lettura di Moby-Dick, Pitagora, Bologna 1984.

--, Un Rinascimento impossibile. Letteratura, politica e sessualità nell'opera di Francis Otto Matthiessen, ombre corte, Verona 2007.

Erkkila, Betsy. "Molinoff, Katherine." In J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, Garland Publishing, New York 1998.

Erkkila, Betsy (ed.), Walt Whitman's Songs of Male Intimacy and Love: "Live Oak, with Moss" and "Calamus", University of Iowa Press, Iowa City 2011.

Folsom, Ed and Kenneth M. Price, "Schoolteachings Years" in "Walt Whitman," The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price.

--, Re-Scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Chapter 3, "The First and Second Editions of Leaves of Grass"; Chapter 6, "Reconstructing Leaves of Grass, Restructuring a Life," The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price.

Genoways, Ted (ed.), Walt Whitman, The Correspondence. Volume 7, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City 2004.

Ginsberg, Allen (ed.), "Reproduction of Arthur Gavin's testimony of 1967," Gay Sunshine Journal, Winter 1978, Number 35.

Gosse, Edmund, "Walt Whitman", in Critical Kit-Kats, Heinemann, London 1896.

James, Henry, "[Review of Drum-Taps]", The Nation, November 1865.

Johnston, John and J.W. Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890-1891, Allen & Unwin, London 1917.

Kaplan, Justin, Walt Whitman: A Life, Simon & Schuster, New York 1980.

Lee, Benjamin, "Whitman's Aging Body", The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, 1999.

LeMaster R. and Donald D. Kummings (eds.), Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, Garland, New York, 1998.

Loving, Jerome, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself, University of California Press, Berkeley 1999.

Marki, Ivan, "Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition," in LeMaster, Kummings, 1998.

Miller, Edwin Haviland (ed.), Walt Whitman: The Correspondence (1876-1892, volumes 3-5), 1961-77, in The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, 22 volumes, New York University Press, New York 1961-84.

-- (ed.), Selected Letters of Walt Whitman, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City 1990.

Molinoff, Katherine, Walt Whitman at Southold, C.W. Post College of Long Island University, Brookville, N.Y., 1966.

--, Whitman's Teaching at Smithtown, 1837–38, Comet, Brooklyn, N.Y.,1942.

Norton, Charles Eliot, "[Review of the 1855 edition]", Putnam's Magazine, September 1855.

Price, Kenneth M. (ed.), Walt Whitman: The Contemporary Reviews, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1996.

--, To Walt Whitman, America, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2004.

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

Rossetti, William Michael (ed.), Poems by Walt Whitman, John Camden Hotten, London 1868.

Schuessler, Jennifer, "Found: Walt Whitman's Guide to 'Manly Health,'" The New York Times, 29 April 2016.

Thomas, M. Wynn, "A Study of Whitman's Late Poetry," Walt Whitman Review, 27, March 1981, 3-14.

Traubel, Horace, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 1 (March 28 - July 14, 1888), Small, Maynard & Company, Boston, 1906; May 15, 1888, 158-61. Volume 2 (July 16, 1888 - October 31, 1888), Mitchell Kennerley, New York, 1915; September 8, 1888, 286.

--, "Walt Whitman as Both Radical and Conservative", in New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art (July 12, 1902).

Velsor, Mose (aka Walt Whitman), Manly Health and Training (1858), Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Special Double Issue, Volume 33, Numbers 3-4, Winter-Spring 2016. With an Introduction by Zachary Turpin.

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