Most scholars have debated over the years about Walt Whitman’s sexual orientation. Many have called him the greatest gay free verse writer of all time. Historians have said over and over that Walt Whitman wrote about male lovers in many of his poems and that many of the poems indicated a timeless romantic relationship with men throughout his career. Due to his controversial sexuality, in a great number of his poems he is often believed to have been gay, based on interpretation of his poetry.
According to the author Alan Helms who wrote an article called “Whitman’s “Live Oak with Moss” stated the fowling information: Almost forty years ago, while working on Whitman’s manuscripts for the third edition of Leaves of Grass, Fredson Bowers discovered that twelve of the poems had originally formed a sequence entitled “Live Oak with Moss,” which tells the story of Whitman’s unhappy love affair with a man. The author Helms declared that Walt Whitman “in his past works of poetry have include the topic of same sex involvement. According to Alan Helms, “Live Oak with Moss”, is indeed a story about Walt Whitman’s love affair with a man who he is very fond of, but yet his lover ends up abandoning him. However, critics have not taken upon themselves to explore this documentation further.
Furthermore, the author Helms noted that throughout Whitman’s 45 poems which include “Live Oak” are written in a manner that is suggestive to the fact that he includes a great deal of poems based on his sexuality.
Throughout his poetry, Whitman wrote themes about the Civil war, politics, slavery, patriotism, but he also wrote about themes pertaining to his love affairs, heartbreak and his experience with men. It has also been noted throughout history that Oscar Wilder’s famous recollection of Walt Whitman was when Walt kissed him; he stated: “The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips.”According to the author Rictor Norton, in 1925, it had been discovered that the original hand-written manuscript of the poem called “Once I Pass’d Through A Populous City” in which Whitman had reversed the sex of the man to a woman in order for it to look presentable to the public. The original poem stated the following:
Once I Pass’d Through A Populous City
Once I pass’d through a populous city imprinting my brain
for future use with its shows, architecture, customs,
Yet now of all that city I remember only a man I casually
met there who detained me for love of me,
Day by day and night by night we were together — all else
has long been forgotten by me,
I remember I saw only that man who passionately clung to
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again he holds me by the hand, I must not go,
see him close beside me with silent lips sad and
The author Norton stated that the original poem perhaps is Whitman first homosexual experience in which he did not fully understand the implications of him being with a man. Needless to say, the writer goes on to give an account of Whitman coming out in a confessional poem in which Walt Whitman stated:
I share the midnight orgies of young men . . .
I pick out some low person for my dearest friend,
He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate, he shall be condemned by others for deeds done,
I will play a part no longer, why should I exile myself from my companions?
Furthermore, the writer Rictor Norton noted that Whitman also wrote notebooks about his sexual encounters with men from different ages and backgrounds the notebook listed stated the following information:
Whitman’s notebooks of this period are filled with at least 150 such entries and descriptions of bus drivers, ferry-boat men, and other “rude, illiterate” men that he met — picked up is really the only accurate word for it — in the streets of Manhattan, and “slept with,” often keeping notes of their home addresses. Excerpts from his Notebooks have been collected in Charley Shively’s Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman’s Working Class Camerados (Gay Sunshine Press, 1987):
- Peter — large, strong-boned young fellow, driver. . . . I liked his refreshing wickedness, as it would be called by the orthodox.
- George Fitch — Yankee boy — Driver . . . Good looking, tall, curly haired, black-eyed fellow
- Saturday night Mike Ellis — wandering at the corner of Lexington av. & 32d st. — took him home to 150 37th street, — 4th story back room — bitter cold night
- Wm Culver, boy in bath, aged 18
- Dan’l Spencer . . . somewhat feminine . . . slept with me Sept 3d
- Theodore M Carr — came to the house with me
- James Sloan (night of Sept 18 ’62) 23rd year of age — plain homely, American
- John McNelly night Oct 7 young man, drunk, walk’d up Fulton& High st. home
- David Wilson — night of Oct. 11 ’62, walking up from Middagh — slept with me
- Horace Ostrander Oct. 22 ’62 — about 28 yr’s of age — slept with him Dec 4th ’62
- October 9, 1863, Jerry Taylor, (NJ.) of 2d dist reg’t slept with me last night weather soft, cool enough, warm enough, heavenly.
The author Rictor Norton also make references to the fact that Walt Whitman in 1866 met Peter Doyle, a nineteen-year-old bus conductor in Washington D.C. Peter Doyle stated the following words: “We were familiar at once — I put my hand on his knee — we understood.” It was this statement that has critics arguing over what Whitman really meant. In addition to this statement, Norton noted that Doyle was also quoted as saying:
I never knew a case of Walt’s being bothered up by a woman. In fact, he had nothing special to do with any woman except Mrs. O’Connor and Mrs. Burroughs [his landlady and housekeeper]. His disposition was different. Woman in that sense never came into his head. Walt was too clean; he hated anything which was not clean. No trace of any kind of dissipation in him. I ought to know about him those years — we were awful close together.
If what Peter Doyle has said is true, then the rumor of Walt Whitman having 6 legitimate children would be false. In my research, I have not come across an article that specifically eluded to the fact that he was ever romantically involved with a woman. It has not proven to be a fact. I have read many articles that pointed out that Walt Whitman kissed and went to bed with several men throughout his lifetime. Some report that he did not try to hide the fact that he was gay, while others state that he was afraid to come out of the closet. I do believe that Walt Whitman was in fact gay, however, you must consider the time frame of the nineteenth century in which homosexuality was viewed as being a taboo and the consequence of a man publicly acknowledging in the open that he is gay was not heard of in that timeframe, as it is in today’s world. In essence, the nineteenth century prevented him from telling the world that the great American poet was in fact gay, and perhaps by incorporating homosexuality into his poetry was the only way he could express himself.
As I was finishing my research, I came across two more poems in which I also found two video clips called: “We Two Boys Together” and “When I Heard at the Close of the Day”. The videos are on YouTube and I thought you might enjoy them, so they are hyperlinked in this blog.
WE TWO BOYS TOGETHER CLINGING
We two boys together clinging
One the other never leaving
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning, sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming, air breathing, water drinking, on the turf or the sea-beach
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray.
When I heard at the Close of the Day
With all the information that I have gathered in my research, this has led me to believe that America’s beloved poet was, in fact, gay.