Walt Whitman (1819-1892) biography written by Mitchell Santine Gould.
As Reverend Troy Perry recently pointed out, “Yes, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass is beloved by all people and speaks to all people -- but his work resonates especially deeply with LGBT people.”[i]
Helen Price was the daughter of one Whitman’s dearest confidantes, Abby Hills Price. Helen wrote, “His religious sentiment… pervades and dominates his life.”[ii] Prior to World War I, citizens of many nations considered Walt Whitman their spiritual leader. This includes such British luminaries as Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula).[iii] By 1900, Canadian psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke was predicting a new age of peaceable, loving humanity, heralded by the “cosmic consciousness” expressed in Whitman’s poetry.[iv] Likewise, Edward Carpenter suggested that gay people (as typified by Whitman) represented a new stage of human evolution.[v] Perhaps the most influential popularizer in the generation following Whitman’s death in 1892 was William James, who promoted a “religion of healthy-mindedness” in The Varieties of Religious Experience.[vi]
On May 31, 1819, Whitman was born, quite appropriately, about halfway between the Long Island whaling port of Cold Spring Harbor and the capitol of Quaker radicalism, Jericho. He was the son of Walter Whitman, a moody carpenter who struggled with alcohol but was deeply interested in workingmen’s rights and the future of democracy.[vii] His mother, Louisa, was a loving, humorous woman with a seafaring ancestry on the Williams side and a Dutch Quaker heritage on the Van Velsor side.[viii] When Walt was about four, his family moved to Brooklyn to capitalize on the village’s frenzied growth, and thus dawned the “long foreground” of Whitman’s epic, Leaves of Grass.
“The west end of Long Island, New York and Brooklyn, were largely Hollandic,” Whitman explained at the end of his life, “to an extent people can hardly now realize. That element has since been swept away by immigration. Perhaps no one understands that old race as I do… Broad, solid, practical, materialistic, but with emotional fires burning within — their women, too, as much as the men."[ix] For instance, although Louisa was worried about what people would think after they heard about Leaves of Grass [x], she nevertheless confessed her own episode of same-sex desire for an Indian maiden [xi], tolerated the “smutty oaths and jests” of Whitman’s gay circle [xii], and allowed Walt’s lover Fred Vaughan to board with the family in 1856 [xiii].
During Whitman’s childhood, Brooklyn’s civic life was influenced by the tolerant Dutch, and by Quakers out of proportion to their numbers [xiv]. (When Whitman published Leaves of Grass, the pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church wanted “more,” and wanted Walt to acknowledge the influence of the faith through his mother‘s ancestry! [xv] The town’s Quakers were relatively insular, passionately devoted to their intimate friends, financially successful, socially liberal, and philanthropic (their neighbors could also consider them funny or “queer”). It seems to have been easy to run afoul of Quaker elders, however, and to be “read out” of Meeting. Important Quakers such as James Fennimore Cooper’s father William [xvi] and the great Brooklyn abolitionist Isaac Hopper [xvii] were excommunicated, but doggedly retained the peculiar dress, speech, and ideals of Quakerism for years afterwards. This is important to note, because of the striking similarity to Whitman’s lifelong references to Quakerism (he was never formally a member of the faith). Isaac Hopper, who maintained a ministry to prostitutes, was lampooned in Charles Briggs’s Trippings of Tom Pepper as the kind of man who would take a cross-dressing male prostitute into his own home without a trace of judgmentalism [xviii].
One of the village’s early Quaker founders, Samuel Jackson, kept a “bachelor’s hall” until his death in 1832. He was joined in Brooklyn by another wealthy bachelor with “many queer ways,” Cornelius Heeney, who remained a Catholic but adopted Quaker dress, customs, and attitudes. In 1820, one humorist, a poet named Julia, alerted the Long Island Star about a “strange anomaly” that caused too many fellows to prefer "ale," "seegars," and even "terrapins" (turtle soup) over "female charms." [xix]
During Whitman’s youth, wealthy merchants and sea captains from maritime Massachusetts began to settle in Brooklyn, establishing a second liberal faith, Unitarianism. Augustus Graham, the elder of Brooklyn’s most wealthy and influential gay couple--the so-called “Brothers Graham”--joined this church [xx]. Like Jackson and Heeney, he and his camerado John generously funded many of the city’s most important charities. Either Walt or his father briefly served as a librarian in the Mechanics Library which they founded; and Whitman wrote profiles of the gay couple for the Brooklyn Daily Advertiser. There is also evidence that some of Brooklyn’s Unitarian ministers were gay, such as the Fourierist reformers William Henry Channing and Samuel Longfellow. Whitman said that Longfellow was an ardent admirer of the “Greek” elements in Leaves of Grass, but that Unitarians were too concerned with “respectability” to help him defend his sexual poems [xxi].
About the time Whitman’s family arrived, some Massachusetts Unitarians were migrating to New York, because it was swiftly becoming the nation’s pre-eminent seaport. We now know that male sexuality was a commonplace on long voyages during the Age of Sail, and that homophobia did not infiltrate maritime culture until the end of Whitman’s life, when steam propulsion collapsed the duration of voyages to a matter of weeks [xxii]. At that point, there was no longer any economic incentive for tolerating sexual contact aboard ship. Brooklyn’s early Quakers and Unitarians grew wealthy because their liberal faith did not lead them to condemn sailors. They could be trusted as merchant representatives and sea captains who would not interfere with the realities of mariner culture, but who would rather nurture and defend mariners against hostile Christians. The high tension among Boston’s Methodists over “Father Taylor’s” ministry, and the crucial role of Unitarian support at Boston’s Seamen‘s Bethel, illustrates this point [xxiii].
Throughout his long poetic career, Whitman returned, in Leaves of Grass, to this triangle of themes first expressed in the original “Song of Myself”--his “sailor, lover or quaker” affinities. Leaves of Grass represented a second generation of Boston Transcendentalism. In a certain sense the poet inherited not only Ralph Waldo Emerson’s role as poet, but also the role of spiritual defender for sailors and their comrades first embodied by “Father” Edward Thompson Taylor, “the sailor’s apostle.” Whitman’s most blatant treatment of the “sailor, lover or quaker” theme is his epic 1869 poem, “A Passage to India,” couched as it is in Quaker plain-speech:
...on waves of extasy to sail,
mid the wafting winds (thou
pressing me to thee, I thee
to me, O soul),
Caroling free — singing
our song of God,
Chanting our chant of pleasant
With laugh and many a kiss,
(Let others deprecate, let
others weep for sin, remorse,
O soul thou pleasest me, I thee.
Ah more than any priest O soul
we too believe in God,
But with the mystery of God
we dare not dally.
In 1852, Whitman wrote, “At this moment, New York is the most radical city in America.” [xxiv] Brooklyn was at various times home to Fourierist reformers such as Channing, Longfellow, Isaac Hopper’s dear friend Lydia Maria Child, and the Quaker philanthropist Marcus Spring. It was also a hotbed for mystical movements such as phrenology, mesmerism, homeopathy, free love, and spiritualism. As a boy, Whitman had adored the radical feminist and socialist Fanny Wright. (Wright had dedicated a book to Jeremy Bentham, whose voluminous writings in defense of gay sexuality were suppressed until late in the 20th century. ) As a young man, Whitman became for a short while a prominent voice in Democratic and Free Soil politics. During the 1850s, he was deeply involved in spiritualism, a mystical movement that, along with female suffrage, was mercilessly ridiculed for its appeal to cross-dressers and sodomites--at least in the encoded burlesque of a satire such as Lucy Boston [xxv]. Whitman challenged the common belief that only sissies made good mediums for contacting the spirits of the dead, but he never succeed as a spiritualist medium [xxvi] However, he added the heady ingredients of Swedenborgist, spiritualist, and Fourierist imagery to the religious bouillabaisse of his poems, producing a breathtaking narrative that spans the “midnight orgies of young men” and the “journeywork of the stars.” [xxvii]
Within a few months after the publication of Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s staunch ally, Henry Clapp, was exposed in a scandalous expose of New York’s Free Love League. (Henry Clapp, like the lesbian minister Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, was a member of the Nantucket Quaker Coffin family, which included suffragist Lucretia Mott.) By the time Leaves of Grass was published, either Clapp or a former Quakeress named Mary Gove Nichols had engineered the Quaker doctrine of “God within” or “the inner light” into a defense of individual conscience in the conduct of sexual relationships. Henry Clapp served as right-hand man to the architect of American Fourierism, Albert Brisbane. Both Fourier socialism and the spiritualist movement had great appeal to radical Quakers, and both were scandalously linked in the public eye with the licentiousness of Free Love [xxviii].
Undeterred by the sex panic instigated by the 1855 New York Times expose, in 1858, Whitman and Clapp met with the most radical offshoot of Hicksite Quakerism, the Friends of Human Progress. Whitman covered its Rutland, Vermont meeting for the Brooklyn Daily Times [xxix] The third edition of the Leaves, published two years later, introduced the “Calamus” poems, probably modeled after Shakespeare’s cycles of love sonnets. In this edition, Whitman revised his earliest poems to include Quaker plain-speech. In addition, he suggested that he was inaugurating the “new City of Friends”--a not-so-veiled comparison between the Quaker capitol, Philadelphia, and Whitman’s “city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth,“ where “Nothing was greater… than the quality of robust love.”
After the Civil War, Whitman’s poetic gift generally decayed. Only in “Passage to India” does he attempt to recapture the inimitable transcendence of the early work. Other poems individually rival the best of modern poetry, but they are sprinkled sparsely throughout a sprawling, flatulent repertoire. By this time, Whitman’s real ministry had largely forsaken the medium of the printed page for a kind of celebrity status as a role model, a humanitarian, and an icon. At the end of his life, while tinkering aimlessly with Leaves of Grass, Whitman was actually engaged in the production of a second revolutionary book, a miracle of real-time autobiography in several volumes transcribed by his young comrade Horace Traubel, entitled With Walt Whitman in Camden.
During the Gay Liberation era of the 1960s, Allan Ginsburg appointed himself heir to Whitman’s poetic legacy, but the only thing the two poets had in common was their sexual orientation and a certain notoriety. The actual conservator of Whitman’s legacy in our early struggle for justice was Jack Nichols, who tirelessly and powerfully invoked Whitman’s spiritual testimonies again and again throughout his long and visionary career [xxx].
July 4th, 2005, marks 150 years of Leaves of Grass. Celebrate yourself. [xxxi]
i “Rev. Perry on Leaves of Grass.” http://generalpicture.typepad.com/leavesofgrass/2004/11/rev_perry_on_le.html.
ii Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman, a Life. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), 231.
iii Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay American History, rev. ed. (New York: Meridian, 1992).
iv Lozynsky, Artem. Richard Maurice Bucke, Medical Mystic. (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1977).
v “We can see...the probability of the intermediate man or woman becoming a forward force in human evolution.... he would necessarily create a new sphere of some kind for himself... His mind turned inwards on himself would be forced to tackle the problem of his own nature, and afterwards the problem of the world and of outer nature. He would become one of the first thinkers, dreamers, discoverers.” Carpenter, Edward. Intermediate Types, 59.
vi James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902.
vii Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Working Class. 1788-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984)
viii “Genealogy.” Walt Whitman: an Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 1998), 809.
ix In 1891, Whitman told his visitors from Bolton, England, that after all these decades, the place of his birth was still worthy of “long study, and the folks there too—queer folks with strong individualities; quite a good many spiritualists there.” Johnston, John. Visits to Walt Whitman, 1917, 134-135.
x Schmidgall, Gary. Walt Whitman: a Gay Life. (New York: Dutton, 1997), 169.
xi “The Sleepers.”
xii “Song of the Broad-Axe.”
xiii Shively, Charley. Calamus Lovers (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1987), 38.
xiv Stiles, Henry Reed. A History of the City of Brooklyn [3 volumes], 1869.
xv Kaplan, 231.
xvi Taylor, Alan. William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Knopf, 1995).
xvii Child, Lydia Maria. Isaac Hopper: A True Life, (London, 1853)
xviii Gould, Mitchell Santine. “Isaac Hopper = Friend Goodwill.” http://generalpicture.typepad.com/leavesofgrass/2004/10/isaac_hopper_fr.html
xix “Early Brooklyn was heterosexually-challenged.” http://generalpicture.typepad.com/leavesofgrass/2004/11/early_brooklyn_.html.
“Brooklyn's “Queer' Catholic-Quaker bachelor.” http://generalpicture.typepad.com/leavesofgrass/2004/11/cornelius_heeny.html
“A Child Went Forth... in Brooklyn.”
xx “Augustus Graham.” http://www.lgbtran.org/Profile.asp?A=G&ID=58
xxi Schmidgall, xxiv.
xxii Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay/Lesbian Almanac, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983).
xxiii “The Sailor’s Apostle” [Parts 1, 2, 3]. http://generalpicture.typepad.com/leavesofgrass/2004/11/the_sailors_apo.html
xxiv Whitman letter to New Hampshire Senator John Parker Hale, August 14, 1852.
xxv Gould, Mitchell Santine. http://www.LeavesofGrass.Org.
xxvi Gould, Mitchell Santine. http://www.LeavesofGrass.Org. Buescher, John. http://www.spirithistory.org.
xxvii "from the blade of grass... to the stars revolving" http://generalpicture.typepad.com/leavesofgrass/2004/10/from_the_blade_.html
xxviii "Something" about Henry Clapp
"A deep and a dark mystery lies shrouded"
"Clapp and Brisbane have themselves to thank"
"Free love" = "God within"
xxix Gould, Mitchell Santine. http://www.LeavesofGrass.Org.
xxx “Jack Nichols” http://www.lgbtran.org/Profile.asp?A=N&ID=74
xxxi General Picture's “Celebrate yourself” blog. http://generalpicture.typepad.com/
Biography Date: December, 2004