In the late 1850s, Walt Whitman composed a sequence of twelve
sonnet-like love poems. He took care with
this powerful sequence, inscribing fair copy versions of the poems into a
notebook. (These manuscripts are far less messy than his typical
poetry drafts.) Whitman never published the sequence as such. Instead, he
tore the individual leaves out of the notebook, revised
some of the poems, and altered their order when he published the
much longer forty-five-poem "Calamus" cluster in the 1860
edition of Leaves of Grass. These changes made a once fairly
clear narrative far less clear.
may have concluded that the poems, frank in their treatment of male-male
love, were too risky, revealing, or compromising.
Despite the daring and originality of Whitman's achievement, critics have
been slow to appreciate it. Whitman himself didn't help much: he said
next to nothing about the sequence in later years, and if a love affair
lay behind the sequence (as is commonly thought), he commented on it
only obliquely. In fact, the existence of the sequence was utterly
unknown to scholars until 1953 when Fredson Bowers discovered it while
working with the Valentine manuscripts now at the University of
Virginia. For various reasons, including the reluctance of
scholars at that time to discuss same-sex love, Bowers's discovery was left
largely ignored and its implications unexplored.
We can't know with certainty about Whitman's
romantic life in the late 1850s, though some evidence points to a strong
attachment and troubled relationship with Fred Vaughan, a
horse-car driver and a frequenter of Pfaff's beer hall, where Whitman and
other young men formed friendships and intense bonds of affection and
As Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and other cultural historians have noted,
however, it is a tricky matter to draw
inferences from nineteenth-century discourses of intimacy. The coded
expressions and indirections of love talk are not easy to decipher, and
expressions of fervent attachment may or may not imply the same level of
sexual intimacy as such an expression would imply in our own time. It is
good to remember that we inescapably read Whitman from a post-Freudian,
perspective, a perspective that is simultaneously distorting and
To find satisfactory language with which to
discuss Whitman's love poetry is difficult: one would like to
the squeamishness of euphemisms and the inaccuracy of anachronism.
In "Whitman's 'Live Oak with Moss'" (an essay reproduced on this site) Alan
Helms talks about Whitman as a man who had "come out as
America's first self-identified 'homosexual.'" He then suggests that we
ought to "at last begin
where Whitman himself began," implying that he will be sensitive to
Whitman's historical context. Although Helms puts the term
homosexual in quotation marks, suggesting that he uses the word
advisedly, he doesn't explicitly talk about the paradox (not to say
anachronistic impossibility) of Whitman becoming a "self-identified
'homosexual'" a decade before the word homosexual was coined by
the German-Hungarian journalist Karl Maria Kertbeny in a letter written to
the sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. (The earliest known usage of
homosexual in a U.S. text was in the Chicago Medical
Recorder, May 1892).
Nor does Helms comment on the problems of thinking of "coming out" as a
transhistorical phenomenon and not as something that is very much culturally
and temporally conditioned.
In many ways Whitman's culture was not
like that of the modern day U.S. His culture was far more accepting of
open displays of same-sex affection. Moreover, male-male love, though
not encouraged, had not been pathologized as it would be later in the
nineteenth century. In similar fashion
one has to question Hershel Parker's description of the sequence as a
"gay manifesto" not only because the meaning of the sequence was obscured
trumpeted by Whitman, but also because "gay" is a term as
anachronistic as "homosexual" to describe Whitman in the 1850s. The poet
himself developed a rich terminology to describe love between men, and we do
well to follow his lead in opting for terms such as "manly
love," "calamus love," "adhesiveness" and the like. These terms do not
prohibit one from concluding that Whitman engaged in genital sexuality
with his lover, but neither do they require that conclusion. The terms
themselves retain an insistent mystery, a feature Whitman prized highly
in his love poetry.
As Steven Olsen-Smith and Hershel Parker point out in "'Live Oak, with
Moss' and 'Calamus': Textual Inhibitions in Whitman Criticism," the
tendency in Whitman criticism has been to speak inexactly about clusters
and even individual poems. Critics frequently refer to, say, "Out of the
Endlessly Rocking" or "Calamus" without specifying which edition is
sometimes with the implication that the remark holds for all versions of
a poem or cluster.
Given Whitman's current status as icon of gay America, and given the
imprecision with which critics have typically referred to Whitman texts, an explosive mix was brewing.
In 1992, Alan Helms published his "Live with Oak Moss," in The
Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman, edited by Robert K. Martin.
Helms articulated his editorial policy as follows: "I give the 'Live Oak'
their first published form--that is, as they appeared in the third
of Grass in l860 in the form Whitman approved for publication. I've
removed them from "Calamus" and restored them to Whitman's original
order" (187). Helms's editing of the sequence received blistering
criticism in 1996 from Hershel Parker in his essay (also included on
"The Real 'Live Oak, with Moss': Straight Talk about Whitman's 'Gay
Manifesto.'" Parker points out that Helms had put forward a combination
different than Whitman had ever compiled (the revised 1860 versions of
the "Live Oak" poem in the original sequence's order). Parker notes that
"there is nothing merely 'academic' about the distinction between
a correct text and an incorrect text of this Whitman sequence" (159).
Parker insists that Helms has misinterpreted Whitman by reading a
spurious text and that he himself rather than Helms offers the "genuine" or
"real" "Live Oak, with Moss." As it happens, I think Parker gets the
better of the textual editing argument, though his language is
unnecessarily harsh. Parker offers a careful transcription of Whitman's
text, a closer approximation to what
the poet originally inscribed in "Live Oak," though Parker, curiously,
invokes a language of authenticity that is typically reserved
only for tangible objects (such as the physical manuscripts
themselves now housed in the University of Virginia Special
Collections). On this site,
one can view digital reproductions of Whitman's individual manuscript
leaves. And while these are even closer approximations to Whitman's
original manuscripts than Parker's "real" or "genuine"
"Live Oak," they are not, of course, identical with those material
can see why see why the stakes are high: as Helms points out, it is
possible to argue that "Live Oak" as opposed to the fuzzier "Calamus" is
the "only sustained treatment of homosexual love in all of his poetry."
How those documents are edited, taught, and interpreted are matters of
considerable academic and social importance.