Walt Whitman never could have known gay communities would cherish his prophetic poems. The American philosopher and writer never could have known gay communities would even exist. We’ll save you the gory details of Whitman’s life, for most of you have already studied him in high school.
If you’re not familiar with Whitman’s life, here’s the gist. Born on Long Island in 1819 to a Quaker family, Whitman came of age in Brooklyn. Determined to make a name for himself – and money for his family – a young Whitman took odd jobs assisting lawyers and other high profile professionals. Such a life didn’t suit him, however, and Whitman broke away into the world of publishing.
In 1831, the then twelve-year old Whitman started as an apprentice at a printing press. This move helped him land jobs at the Long Island Democrat and, eventually, as a journalist in New York City proper.
Whitman published his first collection, Leaves of Grass in 1855, six years before the start of the Civil War. During the war, Whitman went into the field to boost morale. Unfortunately, the adventure exhausted him and Whitman retreated to Colorado, where he continued his poetic pursuits. The writer’s life took a political turn in 1865, when he became a clerk at Washington’s Indian Affairs Department. He lived in our nation’s capital until his death in 1892.
So, what’s so important about Whitman? Not only does he count as one of the most famous American poets to address homosexuality, but he believed homosexuality – which he called “adhesive love” – to be integral to the formation of a stable democracy. He wrote:
Intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man – which, hard to define, underlies the lessons and ideals of the profound saviours of every land and age, and which seems to promise, when thoroughly developed, cultivated, and recognized in manners and literature, the most substantial hope and safety of the future of these states will then be fully expressed.
It is to the development, identification and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love [i.e. heterosexual love; the terms homosexual and heterosexual had not yet been coined] hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it) that I look for the counter-balance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy and for the spiritualization thereof. Many will say it is a dream and will not follow my inferences: but I confidentially expect a time when there will be seen running through it like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown, not only giving tone to individual character and making it unprecedentedly emotional, muscular, heroic and refined, but having the deepest relation to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain and incapable of perpetuating itself.
It’s for this reason that Whitman became the unofficial poet of the early gay rights movement.
In honor of gay history month, we’ve included three of Whitman’s gayest essays: “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Once I Pass’d Through A Populous City” and “In The Paths Untrodden”.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me.
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose . . .
I was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word.
Once I pass’d through a populous city imprinting my brain for future use with its shows, architecture, customs, tradition,
Yet now of all that city I remember only a man I casually met there who detained me for love of me,
Day by day and night by night we were together – all else has long been forgotten by me,
I remember I saw only that man who passionately clung to me,
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again he holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see him close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous.
In paths untrodden,
In the growth by margins of pond-waters,
Escaped from the life that exhibits itself,
From all the standards hitherto published, from the pleasures, profits, conformities,
Which too long I was offering to feed my soul,
Clear to me now standards not yet published, clear to me that my soul,
That the soul of the man I speak for rejoices in comrades,
Here by myself away from the clank of the world,
Tallying and talk’d to here by tongues aromatic,
No longer abashed, (for in this secluded spot I can respond as I would not dare elsewhere.)
Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself, yet contains all the rest,
Resolv’d to sing no songs to-day but those of manly attachment,
Projecting them along that substantial life,
Bequeathing hence types of athletic love,
Afternoon this delicious Ninth-month in my forty-first year,
I proceed for all who are or have been young men,
To tell the secret of my nights and days,
To celebrate the need of comrades.