I’ll be your beard, Walt Whitman!Posted: June 4, 2011
I would like to preface this post with 2 (two) items:
1. Sorry it’s been so long since we’ve posted. We’ve had a lot of real-life shit going on. A lot of moving in & moving out of our respective apartments to do. And at the end of move-in/-out day, your number one priority is usually not to write a pithy li’l essay about historical sex. BUT GUESS THE FUCK WHAT. We’re back, our priorities are just where they should fucking be, and you’re about to reap the rewards. You’re welcome.
2. As you may have noticed, roughly 83% of our posts are about people or events or places that we just fucking adore and always have. This will be one of those posts. I’m an English major of the American nineteenth century persuasion, and the following is sort of my jam. Get over it. My throat is already a little tight.
OKAY. Walter Whitman. Uncle Walt. That’s what I call him in my head. And I will probably call him that for the rest of this post. The bard of the American experience. He of the legendary beard and the namesake of that bridge connecting Philly to south Jersey. Probably the best American poet ever to live. That’s a bold fucking statement, and I meant every word of it. Here’s another bold-ass statement: I don’t even like poetry that’s not Walt Whitman. You’re shocked, I know. I love my Uncle Walt so, so much. Because he’s not just MY Uncle Walt, he’s OUR Uncle Walt. We Americans fucking share this treasure of metaphysical verse.
So if America is a metaphorical family, and we’ve already established Walt as our eccentric, bearded, single uncle…I think you know where I’m going with this.
Walt Whitman is America’s super intellectual, super gay uncle.
Actually, scholars think he was either gay or bi, but there’s really no way to know. It’s not like he was snapping daguerrotypes of his sexploits. “Don’t worry baby, just wanna see how hot we look! But stay still, the exposure takes 20 minutes.” So before we get into this I want to say that it’s really hard to prove who or what someone was doing in the heat of the night through historical evidence. But dammit, I’ll try!
And one more disclaimer: in no way am I trying to suggest that being gay is scandalous. I’m just trying to say that in the 1840s-50s, a public male figure would probably definitely want to keep his homosexuality under wraps so as to avoid a giant shitstorm. Remember that sodomy was a crime punishable by jailtime and often hanging. So to review – being gay: not scandalous. Being gay in a time when you could lose everything including your motherfucking life if your sexual orientation became public: scandalous.
First, let’s contextualize (my favorite pastime). It’s the mid-nineteenth century. Shit’s getting all kinds of fucked up with the whole slavery issue. People are getting caned in the Senate, James Buchanan, God bless him, understandably is having a real fucking hard time keeping shit together, John Brown is orchestrating suicide missions in the name of the North. It’s just a rough time to be American. You’ve got so many feelings. And you just don’t know what to do with them.
Unless you’re a genial Long Islander with legs for days, a pair of misty-ass baby blues, and you go by Walt Whitman. Because then you fucking write beautiful, inspiring, transcendental, metaphysical, what-do-those-words-even-mean-ical verse all over the place. Verse that’s political but also relateable and celebratory. I’m getting a little boner.
And (Northern) people were stepping all up in his shit. Important people. Famous intellectual people, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and my literary heartthrob, Henry David Thoreau. They all agreed that Uncle Walt was really on to something with his emotional, expressive, glorious writing, because people just really weren’t doing that. Poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were getting all kinds of popular for fucking pansy-ass poems about Revolution-era blacksmiths and Founding Fathers while Uncle Walt quietly wrote these amazingly personal and bold poems. Sort of how Ke$ha is to Arcade Fire, to use the parlance of our times. People know Arcade Fire, but more people know, thoughtlessly support, and throw money at Ke$ha.
Okay, so most of the people who think Uncle Walt was gay think so because 1) his poetry was really sexy in a time when you didn’t do that shit and 2) he had a longtime male BFF to whom he wrote steamy letters and was totally devoted.
STOP. I know what you’re thinking. “But MRG, from my extensive reading of the canon Uncle Walt’s poetic voice was just so VIRILE, so PATRIOTIC, so AMERICAN! How could he possibly have been gay?” I know that’s not what you were thinking but indulge me.
So boop ba doop, it’s 1866, the war is finally over. But it’s the Reconstruction and people have no fucking idea how to deal with what’s happened. It’s an uncertain time. And much as before, feelings are popping up like lilacs in the dooryard (see what I fucking did???!?!) So Walt is feeling a little lonely, a little old, a little in need of some zest. And let me ask you this, dear readers. What’s fucking zestier than a 21-year-old man in uniform?
Walt met Peter Doyle, a sexy little bus conductor, on a rainy night in DC. Walt stumbled on, a little rainwater dripping from the end of his Gandalf beard, a wet blanket wrapped around his shoulders. They looked longingly at each other and promptly made out. I mean I just made that part up, but Peter later said this about the night he met the love of his life:
“I thought I would go and talk to him. Something in me made me do it. He used to say there was something in me had the same effect on him…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 mean FUCK. I don’t know about you but I’m about to ride public transit all day every day.
And this romance had all the makings of a sequel to Romeo & Juliet. Walt was a staunch supporter of the North, his brother had been a Union soldier, and dear Uncle himself worked as an army nurse throughout the war. Peter was a Confederate soldier. Plus they were both dudes. FUCKING STAR-CROSSED STATUS.
Walt and Peter were really fucking in love. Their relationship also had a serious effect on Walt’s writing, mostly because Pete WAS FUCKING THERE when Abe Lincoln got shot, an event that really yucked Walt’s yum for a long time. Using Pete’s description of that event, Walt wrote several poems about Honest Abe who was his hero. And I like to think Uncle Walt had a big ol’ crush on Abe and his death hit hard. Sort of like how I’m not over Heath Ledger yet.
ANYWAY, the most popular of the Lincoln poems is “O Captain! My Captain!,” which aside from inspiring one of the most fucking gut wrenching scenes in film history, was almost definitely also about young Pete, in my professional/totally unsubstantiated opinion.
Wait, MRG. I read that shit in junior year English class. No way that’s about a gay!
SHUT YOUR GODDAMN MOUTH. BECAUSE……
The poem is ostensibly about a captain trying to steer a ship through a fucking monsoon. The Captain is Abe, the ship is America, the storm is slavery/the South/mo money mo problems, blah blah blah you get it. But I bet you didn’t fucking know that Peter Doyle was Irish, and that his family came to the good ol’ US of A by boat through a vicious-ass storm on Good Friday in 1852. Abe Lincoln was shot on Good Friday in 1865. COINCIDENCE? OR SORT OF ADORABLE BEAUTIFUL POETIC DECLARATION OF LOVE & ESTEEM?
I mean I could go on. Their letters to one another are lovely. After a tiff, Walt wrote “I never dreamed that you made so much of having me with you, nor that you should feel so downcast at losing me.” And later he promised Pete “a good smacking kiss, many of them – taking in return many, many from my dear son – good loving ones too.”
Their relationship lasted for decades, and when Walt had a stroke in 1876 and moved to Camden to live with his bro, Pete subsequently and probably not coincidentally became a brakeman on the Pennsylvania railroad (if you’re geography challenged like LHB is, PA and NJ are neighbors). He visited the Whitmans all the time. And then Walt had another stroke in 1888 and lived four more years, during which time his relationship with dear Pete fizzled. When he died in 1892, Walt thought Pete had already died because he hadn’t heard from him in so long. Fuck.
Later, in the aforementioned interview, Pete gave us this fucking gem of a statement. I’m going to go cry while you read it:
“I have Walt’s raglan here. Now and then I put it on, lay down… Then he is with me again… I do not ever for a minute lose the old man. He is always nearby…in a crisis, I ask myself, ‘What would Walt do?’ –and whatever I decide Walt would do, that I do.”
Okay I’m back. I want to know what Walt would do if he was crying like a child alone in his room because the story he’s relating on his humor blog about historical sex is so fucking lovely. That’s what I would like to know.
Anyway, aside from this beautiful, terribly sad, long romance, Walt had about a dozen other well-documented liasons with persons of the male persuasion. Including the biggest big gay in the nineteenth century, Oscar Wilde, who wrote “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips,” to the second biggest big gay of the nineteenth century, George Cecil Ives. So Uncle Walt was getting his fo sho in a time when the getting was dangerous and difficult. That sounds gross. I mean the actual boning probably wasn’t dangerous or difficult, just the finding someone to bone part.
And once again, I have come to a graceful ending. Anyway, pick up a copy of Leaves of Grass, preferably the Deathbed edition, and fly your rainbow flag high. And celebrate the gayest, manliest, beardedest poet in history.