- Romantic Whitman
In case you haven’t heard or missed the Whitman episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Walt Whitman was gay. Yes, it is true. Whitman enjoyed romantic relationships with a number of young working-class men such as Fred Vaughan, Peter Doyle, Harry Stafford, and Bill Duckett. Some of these attachments were short-lived, others lasted over years, and numerous love letters record the affections exchanged between Whitman and his male lovers. There are, for example, letters in which Whitman tries to comfort a lover:
My darling, if you are not well when I come back I will get a good room . . . and we will live together. . . . I think of you very often. My love for you is indestructible. 1
Whitman’s boyfriends also left a record; Doyle, a street-car conductor, provides an account of the first time he met Whitman: “We felt to each other at once. . . . it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go in and talk to him. Something in me made me do it and something in him drew me that way. . . . 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.” 2 And, of course, there are the poems in Leaves of Grass. [End Page 670]
Thus, it seems preposterous that twentieth-century educational institutions, teachers, and scholars would deny or downplay Whitman’s sexuality or its relationship to his writings. Yet the NEH refuses to fund a Whitman conference in Philadelphia because the NEH thinks it doesn’t really matter that Whitman was gay, the Walt Whitman Birthplace Museum sidesteps the issue of Whitman’s homosexuality, and numerous critics have tried to ignore what seems obvious: Whitman had passionate, physical, loving relationships with men. 3
Given the sometimes shameful history of Whitman studies, it is no wonder that a gay critic like Gary Schmidgall would want to write Walt Whitman: A Gay Life. The book devotes itself to an examination of “the gay Whitman” (xxviii) and argues that “Whitman’s sexuality was the paramount influence upon his oeuvre” (xxix). Although cautious readers or scholars might balk at this isolation of sexuality apart from other aspects of Whitman’s life, Schmidgall is absolutely correct about the need for less dismissive examinations of Whitman and sexuality.
In the opening essay, “Walt & Marietta,” Schmidgall tells us that Whitman was an opera queen. In attempting to answer the longstanding critical question—how did Whitman transform himself from the hack journalist of the 1840s to the 1855 poet-prophet whose Leaves of Grass changed the history of poetry?—Schmidgall suggests the explanation lies in the erotic inspiration Whitman took in listening to Italian opera singer Marietta Alboni. Her voice played a catalytic role in Whitman’s transformation, in “his emergence from the closet of [literary] mediocrity—and the Closet of sexuality” (15). Such a surprising claim does leave one wondering: Did men-loving men “come out” in the 1850s? Is “the Closet” the right metaphor to describe the masking of sexual desires in the mid-nineteenth century? Did Whitman after 1855 suddenly reveal aspects of his sexual identity that he had previously hidden? Can coming out of the closet really make one a better writer? Although he does not quite answer these questions, Schmidgall does provide an entertaining and thorough account of the similarities between the Italian contralto and the American bard: their egotism, their emphasis on the voice, their transgressive and democratizing gender blending, their carefully crafted impression of simplicity and nonchalance.
In chapters near the end of the book, Schmidgall examines Whitman’s affinities with two other nineteenth-century figures, Horace Traubel and Oscar Wilde. Traubel plays a key role in Whitman’s gay life, not because of any physically sexual relationship, but because of Whitman’s “strong, [End Page 671] emotional attachment” (226) to the young man and Traubel’s reciprocating devotion. This devotion is lovingly...