September 24, 2013

“Whitman And Wilde Almost Certainly Had Sex”


Walt Whitman.

The Toast‘s Mallory Ortberg wrote last week on the potential hookup between Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde during Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour of the U.S. (On a side note, let’s hope that “Literary Trysts It Gives Me Great Joy to Think About” becomes a regular feature at The Toast.) Ortberg sets out with a distinction of readers, of which I am pretty unabashedly the first type:

You are either the kind of person to whom this matters a great deal, or the kind of person to whom it matters not at all. To the latter I say: yours is the narrow road and the straight, and I extend to you a hearty and fulsome handshake, as well as my sincerest wishes for your continued good health. To the former I say: Want to hear about the time Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde (probably) hooked up??

Of course you do. You’re my kind of person. Why do we ever talk about anything else? Let’s never do that again.

Following the publication of Whitman’s “Calamus” poem group in the third edition of Leaves of Grass in 1860, Whitman had become more or less a secret icon of “manly attachment,” as he called it in “In Paths Untrodden,” the section’s first poem. “I proceed for all who are or have been young men,” Whitman went on in the same piece, “To tell the secret of my nights and days, / To celebrate the need of comrades.”

Basically, Ortberg writes, Wilde had an opportunity to meet Whitman through their mutual acquaintance, the publisher John Marshall Stoddart. She quotes Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, which reports,

Oscar was suitably humble in the presence of Whitman, greeting him with the words, “I have come to you as one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle.” The contrast between the two poets could not have been more marked. Oscar was young, tall, slender, and clean shaven. Whitman was in his early sixties, but looked much older. He was shorter than Oscar and wore a long, bushy white beard. Oscar was highly educated, cultivated and still in his languid Aesthetic phase. Whitman was self-taught, and robustly masculine in manner.

(A pause here for Ortberg’s comment—“Could his meaning be more clear? ‘Hello, Daddy,’ says the young dandy as he lightly crosses the threshold”—as well as for an image of the thirty-year-old Walt as something of a dandy himself.)

[…] Whitman opened a bottle of elderberry wine and he and Oscar drank it all before Whitman suggested they go upstairs to his “den” on the third floor where, he told Oscar, “We could be on ‘thee and thou’ terms.”

And Ortberg again records my exact thoughts: “ASDF;LKAJSDF;ALKSJDF, as the saying goes.” “This is a gift,” she later points out. “History has reached out to you specifically and given you a gift. The gift is the knowledge that Oscar Wilde once put his hand on Walt Whitman’s knee and then they drank elderberry wine together; the gift is that the next day a reporter turned up and Whitman expounded at length on his big, splendid boy. […] The night is long, and the night is full of terrors, but Walt Whitman once drank wine with Oscar Wilde in his third-story den, where they talked of love.”

Wilde was not the only writer of his era to find inspiration in Whitman’s “Calamus” poems. John Addington Symonds, a poet and critic of the Victorian era, wrote in his Memoirs, which were not published until after his death due to the revelations of “male love” within, that he “found the affirmation of religion and contentment in love” by reading Whitman’s poems. In his book Walt Whitman: A Study, he credited Whitman with recording “an intense, jealous, throbbing, sensitive, expectant love of man for man.”

However, Whitman was personally secretive about his sexual preferences. His famously caustic letter denying the love of men to Symonds himself testified to six children from various mothers as well as a robust heterosexual drive. Whitman and Symonds corresponded for years after that; in his book Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, Michael Robertson notes that “no one tried harder to discern the truth of Whitman’s sexual nature than John Addington Symonds.” As Robertson later relates:

Housebound in Camden, Whitman liked to fish out old Symonds letters from the piles of papers littering his room and have [his caretaker] Horance Traubel read them aloud. “He is always driving at me[…]: is that what Calamus means?” Whitman said of Symonds. “It always makes me a little testy to be catechized about the Leaves.”

Perhaps Whitman’s denial was not vehement so much for the implication of male desire as for the assumption of closed-off potential. After all, as Robertson wrote, “Walt Whitman […] was not a minority but a kosmos. In depicting himself he was depicting you, any reader, every reader—the germs of adhesive love in all people.”

Because it is impossible to know for sure, I will go ahead and pretend that there was definitely a Walt/Oscar hookup, and that it ended up something like this excerpt from Whitman’s “When I Heard at the Close of Day” (another of the “Calamus” group):

I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me whispering to
congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast—and that night I was happy.

Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.