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Whitman, Walt (1819-1892)  
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  

The poem traces the night spent together and the morning that brings the poet new life in the ability to care for the dead soldier and an acceptance of death, enacted in the loving burial.

Whitman's mission in the "Drum Taps" poems, as in his life, becomes caring for the sick and wounded, bringing them loving affection and asking for love in return. The letters that he later received over many years from soldiers he had met testify movingly to the power of that friendship.

The dream of a united America, and the search for a personal friend, give way in the later poems to a desire for fulfillment in death. The "cries of anguish" of the battlefield give rise to a tempered optimism and a pervasive affection that does not depend on personal sexual identity.

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"

The many losses of the Civil War were echoed in the loss of President Lincoln. Whitman's elegy for Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," expresses the national sense of loss in terms of personal love.

The lilac, sign of early spring, becomes a token of affection, replacing the calamus of the earlier poems without losing many of its associations. The poet's flowery offering to the coffin of Lincoln becomes an offering to all coffins, to all those dead in the war.

The poem seeks adequate forms of mourning, ways to integrate the solitary voice of the griever into the national sense of loss and the universal, mythic sense of renewal through death. Consolation can be found in the peace to which the dead have passed and in the world of nature.

The poem's dominant symbols come together, preserving the memory of his comrades, "the dead I loved so well," now brought together "in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim" (11. 203-206).

Whitman's Audience and Influence

Whitman's work quickly established a sense of gay community among his readers. Writers such as Bayard Taylor, Bram Stoker, and Charles Warren Stoddard wrote to express their gratitude and received encouragement from Whitman.

An 1868 edition of poems in England brought him many new readers. Among them were socialists such as Edward Carpenter, who in repeated essays and Whitman-like poems sought to continue Whitman's heritage in its radical implications for the reorganization of society and sexuality.

It was this radical Whitman, mediated through Carpenter, who reached E. M. Forster, leading him to create his memorable bathing scene in A Room with a View (1908) and to respond to Whitman's "Passage to India" (1871), a late poem seeking a completion of the spiritual mission in the embrace of the "Comrade perfect," with his novel A Passage to India (1924).

Later gay poets have also responded to Whitman, notably Hart Crane, who tried in The Bridge (1930) to create a modernist myth of America, and Beats such as Allen Ginsberg who were dubious about Whitman's vision, even as they adopted his free verse and his apparent authorization of a freedom of subject matter and an openness about homosexuality.

For many of these readers, what remained essential about Whitman was his search for an adequate language and form. Like twentieth-century French feminists, Whitman made his poetics an integral part of his politics.

His long, loose, inclusive lines were inherently democratic and capable of giving expression to the realities of homosexual life. Instead of the sentence of fixed form, structure, and meaning, he offers a polymorphous field of pleasure and a political program that demands a reconsideration of the American dream and its potential.

Robert K. Martin

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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Nineteenth Century

Although sometimes coded as romantic friendship, both gay male and lesbian attractions are reflected in nineteenth-century American poetry and fiction, including works by such major figures as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson.

literature >> Overview:  Bisexual Literature

Although Western culture's reliance upon binary systems of classification and identification has meant the practical erasure of bisexuality, as such, from literary and cultural analysis, bisexual experiences appear in many literary works from ancient times to the present.

literature >> Overview:  Censorship

Governments, publishers, editors, and even gay writers themselves have censored gay content in literature from the Renaissance to the present.

literature >> Overview:  Elegy

A poetic response to the death of a greatly loved person, the elegy has had since classical times a homoerotic component.

literature >> Overview:  Poetry: Gay Male

The gay tradition in literature from ancient times to the present is primarily a tradition not of prose but of verse.

literature >> Overview:  Sports Literature: Gay Male

The male athlete has been an important gay icon in several cultures from ancient times to the present.

literature >> Overview:  Travel Literature

Travel has afforded gays and lesbians both freedom from the restraints of their own cultures and the erotic stimulus of exotic sexual customs and partners.

literature >> Overview:  War Literature

From ancient times, homoerotic writing has been a notable part of the literature of war.

literature >> Arvin, Newton

One of the most gifted critics of American literature of the mid-twentieth century, Newton Arvin is today most remembered as a lover and mentor of Truman Capote and as the central figure in a 1960 scandal at Smith College.

literature >> Carpenter, Edward

Edward Carpenter, a champion of both women's and homosexuals' liberation, was one of the great socialist visionaries of England at the turn of the twentieth century.

literature >> Corn, Alfred

An intelligent observer and chronicler, and a master of poetic technique, Alfred Corn has been praised as one of his generation's finest poets and included in a line of gay visionary poets.

literature >> Crane, Hart

A successor to Walt Whitman, Hart Crane found spiritual transcendence in homoerotic desire.

literature >> Doty, Mark

Author of several volumes of poetry and memoirs, Mark Doty has helped bring the AIDS narrative and the experiences of gay men to a wider audience through resonant prose and a richly stylized poetic voice.

literature >> Forster, E. M.

One of the finest English novelists of the twentieth century and a tireless defender of humane values, Forster deserves a special place in the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

literature >> Foucault, Michel

One of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, Foucault has had an enormous influence on our understanding of the lesbian and gay literary heritage and the cultural forces surrounding it.

literature >> Ginsberg, Allen

The forthrightly gay Allen Ginsberg is probably the best-known American poet to emerge in the post-World War II period.

arts >> Indiana, Robert

Robert Indiana, best known as the creator of the LOVE series of paintings and sculptures, is an openly gay American artist who has incorporated autobiographical and gay themes within his work.

literature >> Milton, John

While Milton accepted the biblical condemnation of sodomy, some of his works suggest that his attitude toward same-sex relations was enlightened for his age.

literature >> Moss, Howard

Howard Moss, one of the leading figures of American letters in the latter half of the twentieth century, is the author of a significant body of elegant, erudite, and urbane work, especially poetry. 

literature >> Oliver, Mary

Although Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver has not been an outspoken lesbian activist, her poetry is deeply resonant with contemporary lesbian consciousness, and many lesbians claimed her as one of their own before she publicly came out.

literature >> Paglia, Camille

The frequently outrageous cultural commentary and caustic criticism of Camille Paglia have made her both famous and controversial.

literature >> Rorem, Ned

The American composer Ned Rorem has achieved literary prominence by publishing a series of diaries that include candid descriptions of homosexual love affairs and relationships.

arts >> Rorem, Ned

American composer Ned Rorem is one of the most accomplished and prolific composers of art songs in the world, but his musical and literary endeavors extend far beyond this specialized field.

literature >> Stoddard, Charles Warren

A pioneering California writer, Charles Warren Stoddard is best known for his homoerotic tales collected as South-Sea Idyls and The Island of Tranquil Delights.

literature >> Symonds, John Addington

John Addington Symonds was the most daring innovator in the history of nineteenth-century British homosexual writing and consciousness.

literature >> Tennyson, Alfred Lord

Although he was sexually attracted to women, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote poetry suffused with homoeroticism, including the most beautiful homoerotic elegy in the English language.

arts >> Teske, Edmund

American photographer Edmund Teske created a distinct and inventive body of work that embraced multiple styles and subjects, from somber urban vistas to intimate, often eroticized, portraits.

literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. New York: New York University Press, 1985.

_____. The Solitary Singer. A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Arvin, Newton. Whitman. New York: Macmillan, 1938.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Bowers, Fredson. Whitman's Manuscripts. Leaves of Grass (1860). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Fone, Byrne R. S. Masculine Landscapes. Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman. A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman's Poetry of the Body. Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.

_____, ed. The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman. The Life after the Life. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

Miller, Edwin H. Walt Whitman's Poetry. A Psychological Journey. Boston: Beacon, 1968.

_____. Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself". A Mosaic of Interpretations. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to Leaves of Grass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman. Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Schmidgall, Gary. Walt Whitman: A Gay Life. New York: Dutton, 1997.

Shively, Charley, ed. Calamus Leaves. Walt Whitman's Working Class Camerados. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1987.

_____. Drum Beats. Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1989.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic, 1984.


    Citation Information
    Author: Martin, Robert K.  
    Entry Title: Whitman, Walt  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 17, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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