So this week I’m abandoning the prompt altogether, I’m rebellious like that. Instead I’m going to write about something that has been bothering me for a while now and that has been particularly present due to another paper I’m writing. Specifically I’m hoping to address the question “is Whitman a gay icon?’
I’m currently writing a paper for another class on “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather. If you haven’t read it (look at me explaining things to English majors) the very brief summary is that it’s about a gay kid, like I said, brief. So in my research obviously a lot of the articles are discussing things about gay culture in the 1800’s and whether Cather was attempting to gloss over her own sexuality by writing about men.
One of the articles, in discussing the ways in which homosexuality was broached in writing, mentioned Whitman as being “sufficiently frank” about his sexuality. It then went on to say that “homosexuals saw exciting possibilities in Whitman’s pioneering effort.” The article accredited Whitman with being the father of catamite poetry, the poetry of man on man love. The mention of it was short, and merely used to contrast Cather’s secretiveness about her own sexuality but it struck a chord with me.
Several times Whitman has been mentioned as a gay icon, a champion of the homosexual community, for example in the article I posted earlier about the statue in Russia, there was mention of Whitman representing the homosexual community. I wonder, if Whitman was alive today if he would appreciate being used as a representative for the community.
I spend a fair amount of time talking to my friends about how Whitman was gay and then reading them bits of Calamus or Children of Adam while giggling profusely, but I tend to garner amusement from it on a personal level, like Walt and I are sharing a private in-joke. I’ve never used him as an example to cite famous gay artists or to name well known gay people, it just hasn’t occurred to me to think of him in that way.
However, I had to start wondering why. There are plenty of other actors, artists, etc. who I consider gay icons even though they don’t necessarily consider themselves that way, so why is Whitman, the man who wrote some of the most homoerotic poetry of the 1800’s, not a gay icon in my mind.
Part of the reason, I think, is because Whitman never really thought of male/male love as different from male/female love. In all his thoughts about love it was always as a bonding force, it was never something which seperated people out as couples, or singled them out as those with love and those without, it was always a matter of the glue which held the nation together. He loved the nation just as much as he loved Peter Doyle. He loved the soldiers, not only because they were in need of his care, but because they were members of the brotherhood of his country.
Whitman obviously had personal feelings for men, just reading his letter to Peter Doyle and looking at their “wedding photo” was enough to cement that in my mind (not that I doubted), but his poetry seems to make it clear that love, for him, transcended anything as mundane as gender and became a concept, the concept that would unite a nation.
In this way I think Whitman could never be a gay icon, because he didn’t ever consider his relations as a matter of two men, but as a union between body and spirit. This past may be a little bit speculative fiction but that’s never stopped me talking about Walt before.Uncategorized