Title: The Real "Live Oak, with Moss": Straight Talk about Whitman’s "Gay Manifesto"
Author: Hershel Parker
Print Source: Nineteenth-Century Literature 51 (September 1996), pp. 145-60. Reproduced with permission.
More than four decades ago, while working with the Valentine Collection of
Walt Whitman manuscripts then owned by Clifton Waller Barrett (now in the University
of Virginia), Fredson Bowers discovered that within two years or so of the publication
of the second (1856) edition of Leaves of Grass the poet had composed
a previously unknown twelve-poem sequence. Around early 1859 Whitman copied
the sequence neatly into a notebook under the title "Live Oak, with Moss."’
The notebook subsequently was taken apart, and the existence of the sequence
remained unknown until Bowers followed the clues provided by Whitman’s capital
roman numerals on the twelve poems and pieced together the torn leaves. The
twelve poems themselves were all known in revised versions Whitman had printed
(shuffled out of sequence) in the new forty-five poem "Calamus" section
of the 186o Leaves of Grass. Long before Bowers’s discovery, two of the
twelve "Live Oak, with Moss" poems ("I saw in Louisiana a live-oak
growing" and "When I heard at the close of the day") in their
revised "Calamus" texts had become among the best-known of all of
The "Live Oak" sequence, of which Bowers became the earliest known
reader, is a first-person narrative. The speaker is a poet who previously had
seen himself as the singer of songs for "The States" 0. 43), like
Whitman in parts of the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass and
in his early notes and poems meant for a third edition. The sequence traces
the course of a man’s love for another man, their happiness together, and the
aftermath of their relationship, which proves to be only a love affair, not
the lifelong union the speaker had hoped for. The plot (and actual wording)
of the original sequence is still unfamiliar enough to justify a succinct summary
In the first "Live Oak" poem ("Not the heat flames up and consumes")
the poet, through extravagant comparisons of forces in nature to his own forces,
celebrates the intensity of his search for his "life-long lover" 0-
5). In the second ("I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing") the poet
praises self-sufficiency but concludes with the confession that he knows very
well that he could never be like the live-oak, which utters "joyous leaves
all its life, without a friend, a lover, near" (1. 15)- In the third ("When
I heard at the close of the day") the poet locates happiness not in fame,
carousal, or accomplishments but in the anticipation of the arrival of his friend,
his lover, and then in the reality of watching his friend sleeping by his side.
The five-line fourth poem ("This moment as I sit alone") announces
the poet’s thought (part hope, part belief) that there are other men like him
all over the world, like him yearning and pensive, men with whom he could be
happy. In the fifth ("Long I thought that knowledge alone would suffice
me") the speaker repudiates his former ambitions as the poet who had struck
up "the songs of the New World" 0. 36). Now he announces: "I
am indifferent to my own songs" (1. 44); it is enough that he is to be
with the man he loves. The five-line poem VI poses the question: "What
think you I have taken my pen to record?" 0- 46) and answers that it is
the parting of two men on a pier: "The one to remain hung on the other’s
neck and passionately kissed him-while the one to depart tightly prest the one
to remain in his arms" 0- 50). Poem VII ("You bards of ages hence!")
tells the way the poet wants to be remembered by future poets: not as one who
"prophesied of The States" 0- 52) but as a lover, one "who ever,
as he sauntered the streets, curved with his arm the manly shoulder of his friend-while
the curving arm of his friend rested upon him also" (1. 61).
No rupture between the lovers is described, but poem VIII ("Hours continuing
long, sore and heavy-hearted") records the aftermath of abandonment: "he,
the one I cannot content myself without-soon I saw him content himself without
me" (1. 65). Then the poet asks if he is the only one to feel such longings:
"Is there even one other like me—distracted his friend, his lover, lost
to him?" (1. 69). The ninth poem ("I dreamed in a dream of a city
where all the men were like brothers"), consisting of only four lines,
harkens back to poem IV, but here, in a different, self-consoling mood, the
poet dreams of "the city of robust friends" where nothing is greater
"than manly love" 0- 77). The three-line poem X ("0 you whom
I often and silently come where you are") is a silent address to a new
man whom he visits: "Little you know the subtle electric fire that for
your sake is playing within me" (I. 81). In the four-line poem XI ("Earth!
Though you look so impassive, ample and spheric there") the poet loves
a man ("For an athlete loves me,-and I him" [I. 84])--presumably the
same man as in poem X. Making an analogy between himself and the impassive earth
ready to break forth in eruption, the poet warns that he contains something
in him that he "dare not tell ... in words-not even in these songs"
(1. 85): fierce and terrible urges (like volcanic or other pressures inside
the earth) that may prove hurtful, apparently when enacted in sex. The last
poem ("To the young man, many things to absorb, to engraft, to develop")
announces that the poet has much to teach the young man who would be his student
(not necessarily the same person as the new man of poem X or the athlete of
poem XI), but he acknowledges that he can teach only those predisposed to hear
his message: "If he be not silently selected by lovers, and do not silently
select lovers-of what use were it for him to seek to become eleve of mine?"
(1. 87). With that question the sequence ends.
What I tersely summarize here was, as Bowers first recognized, a direct, coherent,
powerful literary work.3 "Live Oak" was also extraordinarily daring,
since the sequence explicitly traced states of mind (and mind-body) during a
homosexual love affair and its aftermath. As Alan Helms suggests, Whitman may
have decided that "the sequence revealed too much."4 Although he lived
another three decades and more after copying "Live Oak, with Moss"
into a notebook, Whitman never published it intact, as part of Leaves of
Grass or elsewhere. Instead he salvaged the "Live Oak" sequence by including
versions of all twelve poems among the new forty-five poem "Calamus" cluster
in the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860)--but only after taking
the sequence apart, shuffling it, and revising each of the twelve poems. In
"Calamus" the first "Live Oak" poem became Number 14, the second became 20,
the third became 11, the fourth became 23, the fifth became 8, the sixth became
32, the seventh became 10, the eighth became 9, the ninth became 34, the tenth
became 43, the eleventh became 36, and the last became 42. Only the seventh
and eight remained contiguous--but in the reverse order, so that the lines that
had led into the eight poem now led into a poem not in the "Live Oak" sequence
at all. Whitman could tell himself that he had succeeded in getting the twelve
"Live Oak" poems into print--however altered by order, by distance from each
other, by new juxtapositions with other poems, and by minor revisions, most
of it probably incidental to the salvage operation.
There matters stood until Bowers discovered the sequence and printed it in
1953 in the annual he founded and edited, Studies in
few errors occurred in the 1953 text, but Bowers silently corrected them in
his Whitman's Manuscripts: 'Leaves of Grass' (1860): A Parallel
(1955). Because his purpose in this book was to allow readers to study previously
unpublished Whitman manuscript poems against parallel text of those poems as
first printed in the 1860 Leaves of Grass, Bowers printed the "live Oak"
poems facing their "Calamus" versions, not in their original "Live Oak" order.
In 1955, that is, Bowers reprinted the individual poems in corrected texts,
but scattered, not as a sequence.
With Bowers’s work the printing of "Live Oak, with Moss" stopped
for four decades. No one seems to have put the sequence into an anthology of
poetry or general literature until 1994, when I included it in the first
volume of the Fourth Edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature,
where I described it as "what would now be termed a gay manifesto"
(p. 2097n). "Live Oak, with Moss" seems to have gone unreprinted
as a sequence between 1953 and 1994-with one significant but misleading exception.
Along with his essay in Robert K. Martin’s The Continuing Presence of Walt
Whitman, Alan Helms printed a sequence of twelve poems that he called "Live
Oak with Moss" (without the comma). These poems, as 1will explain, are
far from identical to the sequence Whitman called "Live Oak, with Moss,"
first printed (with only a few errors) by Bowers in his 1953 article in
in Bibliography, reprinted in a corrected text but in the greatly differing
"Calamus" arrangement in his Whitman's Manuscripts
of print), and now available-the texts corrected and Whitman’s arrangement restored-in
the Fourth Edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature.’
From our vantage point it might seem that Bowers’s publication of an unknown
homoerotic poetic sequence should have stirred up a good deal of interpretive
and even textual commentary, but academic critics were very slow to come to
terms with "Live Oak, with Moss." The neglect of the sequence owes
something to the fact that Studies in Bibliography, while the most important
American bibliographical annual, was, after all, a highly specialized scholarly
journal, and Whitman’s Manuscripts was a technical university press book
(one where the individual poems were printed, but not the sequence). Studies
in Bibliography and Whitman’s Manuscripts were available in all the
best libraries but not necessarily in many of the new postwar four-year and
two-year colleges. Even teachers who had ready access to both publications could
not easily use the "Live Oak" sequence in the classroom, since this
was a decade or so before photocopying machines became fixtures in every library
and departmental office. Teacher-critics could count other blessings, such as
the entire 1892 Leaves of Grass in print in various paperback editions.
A little later (1959), teachers were given the boon of Malcolm Cowley’s edition
of the 1855 Leaves of Grass and in 1 964 James E. Miller, Jr.’s "Song
of Myself": Origin, Growth, Meaning, immensely useful for its parallel
texts of the 1855 and 1892 "Song of Myself."7 By that time the "Live
Oak" sequence may have seemed like old news to many teacher-critics, not
worth rushing to make use of just because photocopying was available. But in
the 1960s, as in the 1950s, there was another, compelling reason for not talking
and writing about "Live Oak, with Moss": the frankly homosexual subject
matter, in those distant decades, was one that many teacher-critics found extremely
awkward if not downright threatening, whether in the classroom or in learned
Whatever the concatenation of reasons, "Live Oak, with Moss" was printed by
Bowers as a sequence in 1953 and out of sequence in 1955, only to be neglected.
Of the few scholars and critics who wrote about "Live Oak, with Moss" between
Bowers and the 1990s, the earliest and most notable was Gay Wilson Allen, whom
Bowers had consulted before he first published the sequence. In his long-standard
biography The Solitary Singer Allen was patently uneasy about the subject
of homosexuality, sure that poem VIII in the "Live Oak" sequence was
"written out of shame and remorse" and happy to find that the poet’s
ability "to transcend his personal suffering" gave the (much needed)
"redeeming feature" to the "poems motivated by unsatisfied homoerotic
yearnings."’ Yet despite his edginess about homoerotic yearnings (unsatisfied
or satisfied), Allen accurately noted that the "Live Oak, with Moss"
sequence told a story and carried "a clearer meaning" (p. 222) than
did the forty-five poems published as "Calamus" in 1860 (among which,
revised and reordered, were the "Live Oak" poems). So few other critics
followed up on Allen’s brief comments that Helms in his recent study was entirely
justified in his summary of response to "Live Oak, with Moss": "No
one has discussed it at length, and the few who have remarked on it merely point
out that it gave rise to the ‘Calamus’ sequence and leave it at that" (p.
An oddity of the decades of near silence on "Live Oak, with Moss"
is that those few critics who did mention it, looking back at it from
the familiar achieved reality of the "Calamus" cluster in the third
or a later edition of Leaves of Grass, tended to treat the sequence almost
as if it had not quite existed. In 1985 David Cavitch wrote that at an early
stage in the composition of the "Calamus" poems Whitman had "toyed
with arranging twelve of them into a cluster resembling an Elizabethan sonnet
sequence."9 Whitman did not "toy" with arranging the poems into
a sequence, he did arrange them in such a sequence. Furthermore, he did
not "toy" with so arranging twelve of the forty-five poems of "Calamus":
he actually arranged the original twelve poems in a sequence, very likely after
some of the other thirty-three that went into "Calumus" were composed
but before there was a "Calamus" section-which seems to have been
conceived, later, as a way of salvaging the "Live Oak" poems. Still
more recently Robert K. Martin said that "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak
Growing" "was apparently intended to be the second poem" of the
"Live Oak, with Moss" sequence." "I Saw in Louisiana"
was the second poem of the "Live Oak, with Moss" sequence-it
was not "apparently intended" to be so. The point is simple but consequential:
because Whitman never printed the sequence, and because Bowers’s 1953 text was
not widely available, critics treated "Live Oak, with Moss" as if
it never quite had a tangible existence. "Live Oak, with Moss" was
almost hypothetical, according to the critics, hardly more than a figment
of Whitman’s imagination. By contrast, "Calamus"-whatever that consisted
of in 1860 or in later editions-most often was seen as tangible, coherent,
The first full attempt to read "Live Oak, with Moss" was Helms’s
essay in Martin’s The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman (the
one that contained the text of the no-comma "Live Oak with Moss").
Like Gay Wilson Allen, Helms emphasized the directness of the "Live Oak"
Only in "Live Oak" do we get a clear story of a love affair with
a man, along with a story of a coming out that affects Whitman’s other poetry
in this period and even changes the course of his life. In understanding
what it meant to Whitman to love a man and to come out as America’s first
self-identified "homosexual," in seeing how that affects the best
poetry of his third edition, and in making sense of his subsequent career,
we might at last begin where Whitman himself began. (p. 186)
Having said this, Helms disconcertingly failed to begin "where Whitman
Judging from his comments, Helms may have thought he was printing and reading
the veritable twelve poems that had made up what Whitman had entitled "Live
Oak, with Moss":
A reader unfamiliar with the sequence should turn to it now, at the end
of this essay. As with the other poems I quote, I give the "Live Oak"
poems in their first published form-that is, as they appeared in the third
Leaves of Grass in 1860 in the form Whitman approved for publication.
I've simply removed them from "Calamus" and restored them to Whitman's original
order. (p. 187)
Helms was wrong: no reader (whether "unfamiliar" or familiar with
"Live Oak, with Moss") could find that sequence reprinted at the
end of Helms’s essay. In a textual decision that may have long-term and severely
deleterious consequences for textual scholarship and criticism on Whitman, Helms
did not print and did not explicate "Live Oak, with Moss." Instead,
reprinted (accurately) and what he read were the altered texts of the poems
numbered 14, 2 0, 11, 2 3, 8, 3 2, 10, 9, 34, 43, 36, and 42 in the I 860 "Calamus"
cluster, which he put together in the order of the "Live Oak" sequence.
In any true textual arithmetic, these poems extracted from "Calamus"
and strung together do not add up to "Live Oak, with Moss."
If Helms had realized that his choice of copy-text was controversial, he could
have attempted to justify it. He could have speculated, for instance, that Whitman
had made his revisions poems for some missing version of "Live Oak, with
Moss" subsequent to the surviving text, before he reordered and revised
the poems for inclusion in "Calamus." Helms made no such argument.
Nor did he defend his choice against the predictable challenge that the
revisions had been made when Whitman separated the "Live Oak, with Moss"
poems so he could try them out in various positions among other poems and perhaps
alter them to fit a little better in positions adjacent to other poems, either
in lost trial arrangements or in the final arrangement of the 1860
sequence. Helms neither justified his choice nor defended it, unless he thought
the statement that Whitman had "approved" the text of "Calamus"
was sufficient textual justification. Nothing suggests that Helms thought to
collate the texts of the twelve "Live Oak" poems against the texts
he took from the 1860 "Calamus" section. Helms quoted from Whitman’s
Manuscripts (where "Live Oak" is not printed as a sequence), but
he only alluded to Bowers’s article in Studies in Bibliography (without
mentioning the year). Saying this sounds very odd indeed, but for all one
can tell from his essay, Helms may never have read the genuine "Live Oak,
Having meticulously but unthinkingly created "Live Oak with Moss,"
Helms was struck down by swift, ruthless poetic justice, for he suffered miserably
in reading his spurious sequence. "What a sad journey the sequence takes
us on" (p. 191), he lamented after exposing what he found-a "narrative
of homophobic oppression" (p. 190). At the outset of his wretched
through the twelve poems as reprinted from the 1860 "Calamus" Helms
endured the "feverish" tone of the first poem: "Whitman starts
off his sequence in a high-pitched, rhapsodic key that recalls how agitated
he could become when he was in love" (p. 187) - In that poem ("Not
heat flames up and consumes") the theme at least was "clear"
to Helms-it was "consuming love" (p. 188). But consuming love of what,
he dizzily puzzled: "a man? men? love? friendship? the reader/lover of
the earlier poetry?" (p. 188). Looking sternly at the end of the poem,
where the Soul was wafted "in all directions, O love, for friendship, for
you," Helms faced up to a dismaying conclusion: "Whitman is having
trouble imagining his reader" (p. 188). Not only was Whitman delivering
a discouraging message, he was unable to decide what reader he wanted to deliver
In the third poem ("When I heard at the close of the day"), so apparently
cheerful, Helms found lurking a perturbing "transgression" that had
driven the poet to his "retreat" into "conventional homosexual
fantasy" in the fourth poem ("This moment as I sit alone") (pp.
189, 188). Poem V ("Long I thought that knowledge alone") was particularly
painful for Helms to read: "Whitman must renounce his former poetry,
and his confused view of the matter results in an ambivalent, bombastic poem
in which he sounds more like a man addressing Congress than one celebrating
his lover. A deep tension appears in Whitman between pride in his new self and
a resistance to that self which absorbs him and provokes his blistering defiance"
(p. 189). In poem VII ("You bards of ages hence!") "tension breaks
out again," for "Whitman is learning that in a homophobic society,
homosexual lovers require" a privacy too hard to achieve (p. 189). In poem
VIII ("Hours continuing long"), Helms sees Whitman as describing the
"sense of shame and isolation" in which he stifles his feelings, enacting
"the centuries-old response" to hostile "cultural judgement"
(p. 190). The society wins: "By shaming Whitman, by isolating him,
disastrous for a writer-by silencing him, homophobia wins the determining agon
of ‘Live Oak.’ From here to the end, it controls the sequence" (p. 190).
In the twelfth poem, according to Helms, "the whole weight of his homophobic
culture finally descends on Whitman, exacting silence and with it the end of
the sequence. There is literally nowhere for Whitman the lover and writer to
go from this point on" (p. 192). For Helms "Live Oak with Moss"
was "a deeply troubled sequence, mostly about the confusion, pain, and
fear that surround the fact of men loving men" (p. 192)--deeply troubled,"
and deeply troubling.
My summary at the outset of this article delineates a coherent, frank, confident,
and even ebullient poetic narrative (despite the temporary desolation described
in poem VIII and unsatisfied yearnings described elsewhere). Anyone who compares
that summary with Helms’s account of his "sad journey" might conclude
that Helms and I are strangely different travelers, seeing from astonishingly
divergent vantage points, but it would be a waste of time to account for our
divergent readings in terms of differences in race, age, education, temperament,
or any other factors. The reason our accounts differ so drastically is that
we are describing journeys over radically different terrain, one of us reading
the real "Live Oak, with Moss," the other reading the no-comma text
constructed from "Calamus."
Gay Wilson Allen had said that Whitman made only "slight revisions"
of the "Live Oak" poems before arriving at the texts printed in "Calamus"
(The Solitary Singer, P. 222). The variants were in fact more numerous
than Allen’s phrasing suggested. Still, it was not the gross number of variants
but rather a few particular variants that affected Helms’s reading of the poems.
The source of Helms’s misery in reading his no-comma "Live Oak with Moss"
is obvious once one begins checking his interpretation against the original
text. Helms’s confusion over whom Whitman is addressing in the first poem derives
directly from the text of the poem as revised and placed in "Calamus." In the
real "Live Oak, with Moss" the line that so confuses Helms reads "wafted
in all directions, for friendship, for love" (I. 6)-"for love,"
not for a nebulous "you." (This is not to say that the "you"
is necessarily nebulous when it is encountered in the fourteenth poem in the
1860 "Calamus.") Poem I is indeed confusing in the no-comma "Live
Oak with Moss" but not in the original sequence, where Whitman had experienced
no trouble in imagining his reader.
Furthermore, nothing in the words of the third poem (either in the original
form or in the text Helms took from "Calamus") refers to or even hints at sexual
"transgression." Poem III ends, in both the original "Live Oak" sequence and
in poem 11 of "Calamus," with the speaker saying, "And that night I was happy"--not
that he was happy despite having transgressed some sexual law. What Helms read
as "transgression" derives from this passage in the ninth poem as reprinted
from "Calamus": "I dreamed in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks
of the whole of the rest of the earth/I dreamed that was the new City of Friends"
(Helms, p. 204). Helms transported his reading of this passage back into the
third poem, where he, not Whitman, characterized the speaker's sexual experience
with another man as a transgression. The line in poem IX about "the attacks
of the whole of the reset of the earth" proved to be the crucial evidence (indeed,
the only internal evidence) for Helm's reading of the "Live Oak" sequence as
dominated by "homophobic oppression." That line, I emphasize, does not occur
in "Live Oak, with Moss." It is in poem 34 of "Calamus," but it is not
in the ninth poem of "Live Oak, with Moss."
Helms had observed that Whitman published the poems only after "he first reordered
them in such a way that he obliterated the narrative they contain" (pp. 186-87),
but it seems not to have occurred to Helms that in revising the poems, however
slightly, Whitman had thereby "obliterated" the possibility that anyone might
accurately reconstruct "Live Oak, with Moss" from "Calamus."
Helms’s placing of the revised poems in the order of the original "Live
Oak" poems did restore something akin to the original narrative that had
been "obliterated the text of the poem as revised and placed in "Calamus."
erated" in "Calamus"-the factitious no-comma text can be read,
still, as the story of a thwarted love affair. But the phrasing, especially
in poem IX, seems insidiously to have led Helms to believe that "Live Oak"
was about homophobic oppression. Nothing in his essay suggests that Helms assembled
his texts as he did because he was determined, from the outset, to find that
theme. It may have been through sheer textual haplessness that he took a sequence
that should have been liberating and explicated it as a sequence about victimization
and oppression. Such were the miserable, and apparently unwitting, consequences
of not beginning where a critic should with completed "Live Oak, with Moss."
I belabor the point in the interests of clarity: Helms’s commentary on what
he calls "Live Oak with Moss" (without the comma) is not commentary
on the sequence that was later dismembered and revised to become part of "Calamus";
instead, it is commentary on a reconstituted version of the sequence consisting
of what had previously been dismembered(and altered) to become part of "Calamus."
The choice of copy-text matters-matters profoundly—to every reader of The
Continuing Presence who is told that "Live Oak with Moss" is about
"homophobic oppression" instead of being allowed to discover that
"Live Oak, with Moss" is an ultimately triumphant account of the poet’s
accepting his homosexuality and surviving a thwarted love affair. (Now, Helms
quite reasonably could have speculated that Whitman did not publish the sequence
because he felt the weight of homophobic oppression in his society, but that
is not what he argued: he argued that homophobic oppression" had
won "the determining agon of ‘Live Oak.‘")
Far from being a routine article in a run-of-the-mill journal, Helms’s essay
was showcased in The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman—"the most
aggressive gathering of essays ever published" on "Whitman’s homosexuality,
his homotextuality, and his influence on gay writers," according to the
incisive, polemical dust-jacket copy, where Robert K. Martin is quite properly
identified as "a pioneer in gay studies." This paragraph from the
dust jacket embodies Martin’s aspirations for the book:
The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman seeks to be an intervention
and not merely a reflection; it is intended to illuminate a response that
continues to take place, a constant invention and reinvention, a writing
and rewriting that echo Whitman’s own text of Leaves of Grass. Whitman
remains an originating force. Once read, he will not go away.
Once they were published in such a conspicuous, even momentous collection,
Helms’s essay and his text of "Live Oak with Moss" will not easily
"go away," either, but will continue to be read by practitioners and
students of queer theory and gay criticism and by anyone interested in homosexuality
in American literature, as well as by other students of Whitman.
Martin was no more alert to mundane issues of copy-text than Helms, or else
he would have warned his contributor that he was reading and reprinting the
poems in their revised forms. Instead of advising Helms of his error or at least
apprising his readers of something problematic in the essay, Martin innocently
vouched that what Helms printed and explicated was indeed the original sequence:
"The process of revision that has worked to make Whitman ‘safe’ for the
classroom ... began with Whitman himself, as Alan Helms shows in his moving
commentary on ‘Live Oak with Moss,’ a sequence that was later dismembered to
become part of ‘Calamus.’"12 In fact, Martin was wrongly pushing the safe-making
process backward to the writing of "Live Oak, with Moss" rather than
locating it in the subsequent preparation of the "Calamus" cluster.
Since lie designed the collection as an "intervention" in the reputa-
of Whitman, for Martin to relocate that process of defensiveness and disguise
was to participate, however unwittingly, in the appropriating of the poem by
In the section on Whitman in American Literary Scholarship 1992, the
annual review begun under the sponsorship of the American Literature Section
of the Modern Language Association, Gary Lee Stonurn compounded the damage Helms
and Martin had done:
Alan Helms’s "Whitman’s ‘Live Oak with Moss"’ . . . conveniently
reprints and comments in detail on the original 12-poem sequence that became
"Calamus." Helms is especially interesting oil stylistic politics-Whitman’s
difficulties writing freshly about homosexual love in the shadow of Shakespeare’s
sonnets, and also on the more frequently discussed question of the cost
to Whitman in broaching such a theme at all. 13
The overtrusting Stonum was deceived, of course, for what Helms reprinted and
commented upon was not "the original 12-poern sequence." What
with Martin’s endorsement and Stonum’s affidavit in American Literary Scholarship
1992, the world has been guaranteed that Whitman’s original "Live Oak,
with Moss" sequence is conveniently and faithfully printed in The Continuing
Presence of Walt Whitman. But it is not.
There is nothing merely "academic" about the distinction between
a correct text and an incorrect text of this Whitman sequence, about trying
to rectify the damage being done by the no-comma "Live Oak with Moss."
The text of "Live Oak, with Moss" matters because so many Americans
(and so many readers worldwide) look to Whitman not only for aesthetic pleasure
but for guidance in living a sane and hopeful life. Helms puts clearly one specific
social significance of the sequence: "Whitman’s sense of shame and isolation
will be painfully familiar to most lesbians and gay men as a part of the process
of coming out. ‘Is there even one other like me?’ is a question that gay men
and lesbians have asked themselves by the millions" (p. 190). Now,
gay liberation and after tile rise of queer theory, when sexually pondering
and yearning young men and women ask what Whitman asked in poem VIII
there even one other like me?" [1. 69]), they are apt, in this country
at least, to seek the answer in Whitman’s poetry, for any high school student
now knows to turn to Whitman as a poet-prophet of homosexuality. Given the immense
difficulties that gay teenagers sometimes face in coming to terms with their
sexuality, it would be tragic if even one young person among "millions"
found the shame-drenched answer in the nocomma "Live Oak with Moss"
instead of finding the frank, resolute answer that Whitman wrote and that Bowers
printed in "Live Oak, with Moss." It would be tragic if a single teacher
treated the no-comma "Live Oak with Moss" as a document dealing with
"homophobic oppression" instead of acknowledging the real "Live
Oak, with Moss" as a brave sexual manifesto. Once a spurious text gains
currency and receives powerful endorsements, correcting it is always hellishly
difficult. Whatever the cost, Whitman scholars and critics simply have to join
hands to straighten out this kink in Whitman criticism: Whitman matters too
much to let "Live Oak with Moss" drive out "Live Oak, with Moss."
1 See Fredson Bowers, introduction to Whitman's Manuscripts:
"Leaves of Grass" (186o): A Parallel Text, ed. Bowers (Chicago: Univ.
of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 1.
2 Walt Whitman, "Live-Oak, with Moss," in The Norton Anthology
of American Literature, 4th ed., ed. Nina Baym, et al., 2 vols. (New
York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1994), I, 2097-2101. All subsequent quotations
from "Live-Oak, with Moss" refer to this edition.
3 See Bowers, introduction, p. lxvi.
4 Alan Helms, "Whitman's 'Live Oak with Moss,"' in The Continuing
Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life after the Life, ed. Robert K. Martin
(Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1992), p. 186.
5 "Whitman's Manuscripts for the Original 'Calamus' Poems," Studies
in Bibliography: Papers of the Bibliographical Society of the University of
Virginia, 6 (1953 [for 1954]), 257-65.
6 Lamentably, in the first printing of the Fourth Edition of the
Norton Anthology of American Literature a technical glitch with a wrap-around
word-processing command resulted in words being run together at several points
in the poem-not a splendid start for the anthologizing of the sequence, particularly
since the run-together words occurred in many desk-copies sent to faculty members,
who use the Norton anthology in their teaching of Whitman.
7 See Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," ed. Malcolm Cowley
(New York: Penguin,1959); and James G. Miller, Jr., ed., "Song of Myself":
Origin, Growth, Meaning (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1964).
8 The Solitary Singer. A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman,
rev. ed. (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1967), p. 225.
9 My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1985),p. 131.
10 "Whitman and the Politics of Identity," in Walt Whitman: The
Centennial Essays, ed. Ed Folsom (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1994),
11 Helms does not indicate whether he took his texts from Bowers’s
Whitman’s Manuscripts, from a copy of’ the 1860 edition, or from another source,
such as Roy Harvey Pearce’s facsimile edition of the 1860 Leaves of Grass (Ithaca,
N.Y: Great Seal Books, 1961).
12 Martin, introduction to The Continuing Presence of Walt
13 "Whitman and Dickinson," in American Literary Scholarship:
An Annual, 1992, ed. David J. Nordloh (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1994),