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literature

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Whitman, Walt (1819-1892)  
 
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Recent theory has argued against the existence of a "natural" or "essential" homosexuality, pointing out, correctly, that the social meanings of sexual acts vary from one culture to another. But Whitman's portrayal of his emotional life is based on the acknowledgment of a fundamental self, shaped by experience, that is not to be denied.

In his loneliness, Whitman asks "Is there even one other like me?" The question is posed in a moment of suffering and loss; for the isolation is all the greater when there is no one to share the pain.

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His response can only be one of rendering public the troubled self, as in the fifteenth poem, "O drops of me!" Here the poet recognizes the connection between pain and freedom, recognizes that the suffering of acknowledgment may lead to a reduction of repression.

The imagery of the poem joins blood and semen (as frequently in nineteenth-century thought), and sets up a paradox that the "wounds" of the body "free" the blood from its prison.

It must of course be remembered that Whitman is writing amid a moral purity campaign that condemns masturbation as severely as homosexuality. These drops of blood or semen offer the candor of self-revelation, of "confession" (Whitman is thus placed in the discourse of confession as self-creation and subjectification, in Foucualt's terms).

These painful drops are not incidentals, nor are they confined to certain moments only, they "stain every page"; but they also "saturate" and "glow," as the sense of shame is driven out.

Although Whitman's symbol of a new love, the calamus, can be found only in the forest pond, the realization of its consequences extends far beyond that sheltered site.

The nineteenth poem, "Mind you the timid models of the rest," deals with the result of the acknowledgment of a new identity that enables him to question the "majority."

Whitman portrays himself here as a simple man, a workman with "swarthy and unrefined face," "white wool, unclipt upon [his] neck," a man, he says, "without charm." Yet he receives and returns the kisses of another man, a Manhattanese, a product of the new social freedom of the city in the mid-nineteenth century.

Whitman insists on the public nature of their affection, of a kiss at a streetcorner or "in the public room." Whitman's demand for social space is still not granted in America, but he made a major contribution to the claim upon it.

What is more, he does not situate that claim for open affection, for a part in the large social world, upon toleration of a minority, but indeed upon its specifically American quality. If America is to be the home of the free, to be the new society divorced from its European origins, then it must find a place for such "natural" affection.

Whitman's claim for homosexual space is thus conducted in the same spirit as the abolitionist or women's rights campaigns of his time: It is a call to fulfill the opportunity of the revolution. The two men in Whitman's poem "observe that salute of American comrades," the kiss that replaces the bowed head.

The Civil War

The Civil War made such claims for an American identity difficult to sustain. Whitman, who had been involved with a Free-Soil newspaper much earlier, was at first an ardent supporter of the Union, but the experience of suffering and the repeated fratricide soon cast a darker shadow over his work.

Although he devoted himself personally to caring for the wounded, his poems sought a way of integrating his affection for men into an art that needed to reflect the sense of loss.

There was, of course, a natural form available to him--the elegy--which had often served to mourn the dead beloved and which offered a "safe" way of expressing love for another man, now that he was dead. (Tennyson's "In Memoriam" was published in 1850, offering a contemporary example, but the model of Milton's "Lycidas" was also there.)

Some of the "Drum Taps" poems were sentimental, such as that Victorian narrative, "Come up from the fields father." Others were more successful in integrating Whitman's concerns, notably "Vigil strange I kept on the field one night."

Here the exchange of looks precedes the battle, so that the speaker returns to find the "dear comrade" "in death so cold." This personal loss is absorbed into a ritual of mourning, in which the two act out a consummation of their love. The comrade is then buried, as the "boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding.)"

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