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. Whitman 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 love. 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, post-Stonewall perspective, a perspective that is simultaneously distorting and illuminating.

To find satisfactory language with which to discuss Whitman's love poetry is difficult: one would like to avoid both 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 rather than 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 Cradle Endlessly Rocking" or "Calamus" without specifying which edition is meant and 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' poems in their first published form--that is, as they appeared in the third Leaves of Grass in l860 in the form Whitman approved for publication. I've simply 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 this site) "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 the "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 objects.

One 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.