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Whitman, Walt (1819-1892)  
 
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Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.

Born in West Hills, Long Island, Whitman was the first author of working-class origins to reach prominence in the United States. Although he was in many ways a disciple of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, he lacked Emerson's financial assurance and Harvard education.

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Whitman was a product of the unsettled and mobile life of the poor and largely self-taught. In his early years, he worked variously as a carpenter, printer, and country schoolteacher.

Whitman's Early Publications

His first published work was completely undistinguished--mediocre formal verse and moral reform tracts, including the temperance novel Franklin Evans (1842).

One of Whitman's earliest publications was the short story "The Child's Champion" (1841), later reprinted as "The Child and the Profligate." The twelve-year-old Charles is dragged into a tavern and an attempt is made to force him to drink. Charles, who has sworn a temperance oath to his mother, resists and is saved by Lankton, a dissipated but prosperous client, who takes Charles into his bed and a union blessed by a hovering angel.

Whitman's later revisions play down the homosexual associations of this tale, creating a second bed and changing "close knit love" to "friendship." The story highlights several of the concerns that would run throughout Whitman's career, including the affiliation to moral reform, which was, in the American 1840s, an integral part of political reform.

But we may also note the willingness to censor himself and the insistence on love between males that is in terms of age and class difference but that is cast in realistic terms that violate the tradition of idealized Greek love.

At the same time the moral purity tract allowed, as it always does, for a disguised presentation of a transgressive subtext: By situating the love story between men in the context of a warning about the dangers of drink, Whitman not only enables the publication of his material, but indeed identifies homosexuality not with vice but against it.

Whitman's Journey to New Orleans

In 1841, Whitman went to New York, working first as a printer and then as a writer for the Aurora, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and other papers. In 1848, Whitman traveled to New Orleans, a journey that was to mark a turning point in his life.

Although Whitman was working for the Crescent, he found time to explore the city and record its impressions. Whitman came directly into contact with slavery and with a culture vastly different from that of New York.

There has been much discussion of Whitman's experiences during the New Orleans visit, fed in particular by Whitman's boast to John Addington Symonds at the end of his life that he had sired six children and had "one living southern grand-child."

More concrete evidence may be found in the fact that "Once I pass'd through a populous city," a poem recalling New Orleans, originally read "of all that city I remember only the man who wandered with me, there, for love of me" before Whitman's emendation in the manuscript to "I remember only a woman I casually met there who detain'd me for love of me."

Despite such evidence, the story of a heterosexual New Orleans romance has had a long life, thanks to its power to "normalize" the national poet.

Whatever happened in Louisiana, it had an important impact on Whitman's conception of male love. Although not, apparently, written until 1859, the sequence "live Oak with Moss," which was later dispersed in the "Calamus" section of Leaves of Grass, is obviously indebted to the New Orleans trip. The second of the poems in the original sequence specifically identifies Louisiana as its site.

The twig that the poet breaks off is "twined around [with] a little moss," bringing him to thoughts of isolation and love. More directly, the twig "remains to me a curious token--it makes me think of manly love" and of his own inability to live "without a friend, a lover, near."

What seems to have prompted Whitman's return to this material was a rupture with a lover, probably Fred Vaughan. The "Calamus" poems record both the joy of their relationship and Whitman's despair at its loss.

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Walt Whitman (left) with Peter Doyle.
  
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