Why was the poet happy and gay?

For the 200th birthday of "Edelurnings" Walt Whitman

The American poet Walt Whitman is considered to be one of the founders of modern American poetry and one of the most influential US poets of the 19th century. Many people felt addressed in a positive way by his texts - many saw parallels in his texts with the Bible or with ancient poets. His texts about friendships and love between men are an integral part of his work.

Since the 1890s at the latest, it has been publicly discussed whether these lyrically formulated male friendships should also be interpreted as homosexual. There was also speculation about whether Whitman himself might be homosexual. The arguments about it say a lot - about Whitman, his work, the respective authors and ultimately also about the time from which the texts were created.

I would like to first introduce Whitman's work and then give some examples of how he and his work have been discussed.

The collection of poems "Leaves of Grass"

Whitman's collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, deserves particular interest. During his professional life he has constantly expanded and rewritten this collection, with the booklet growing from the first edition in 1855 with twelve poems to the last edition of 1892 to over 400 poems. Today, "Leaves of Grass" in the translation by Wilhelm Schölermann (1904) is available online both as a reprint of the original and in a new version and invites all interested parties to read it. It's worth it, because this collection is packed with sexuality and has therefore been the subject of controversy.


Lines of text from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass"

Even with love between men the air burns here: "I am [in love] with men. [] I can eat and sleep with them" (p. 52). "Adorning me to give myself to the first best who wants me" (p. 53). There is a desire to "touch someone else's body with my body. [] It squeezes the last drop that has been retained from my heart's udder" (p. 70). "On the night before the battle some [soldiers] come to me and I do not disappoint them. [] My face rubs against the hunter's face when he lies down alone in his blanket" (p. 100). "Pleasantly, sexually, with the original generating power of the loins [] offer myself" (p. 116). "I love the loose lust, the midnight orgy of young men" (p. 118).

At the end of the book there is a comment by Whitman: "The blades of grass are a song of sexual love. Most of it could be left out if these passages were suppressed" (p. 181).

Male love in "Calamus"

The collection of poems "Calamus" (1904, pp. 130-141) appeared within "Leaves of Grass", which once again particularly celebrates and promotes love among men and camaraderie. For many critics, it is the clearest expression of Whitman's ideas about gay love. At least in Schölermann's translation, its homosexual clarity falls behind the other texts. After a salutation like "Oh beloved and very similar" (p. 135), texts follow like about the "excitement about someone I love" (p. 136).


Lines of text from Walt Whitman's "Calamus"

The gay anthology "Calamus" (1988) was published by Bruno Gmünder Verlag and its title is based on Whitman's work. The subtitle "Male homosexuality in 20th century literature" is quite inappropriate for a 19th-century author and apparently also the reason why Whitman - apart from an appealing "preface" - is not mentioned.

Whitman's life with Peter Doyle

Whitman's close male friendships with the 27-year-old tram conductor Peter Doyle are well documented in a published correspondence. The biographer Henry Bryan Binns describes their first meeting in 1907 as follows: It was "on a stormy night, perhaps in the winter of 1864/1865, when Peter was about eighteen years old. Walt [was] the only passenger in the car. Peter felt cold and felt." lonely. [He stepped] into the car and, following a sudden movement, put his hand on Walt's knee. Walt was pleased; they seemed to understand each other at once; and instead of getting off at his destination, he drove that night out of friendship times four miles. " In the developing friendship with Whitman "the brotherly and fatherly qualities were equally strong".


Walt Whitman (l.) And his friend Peter Doyle (r.) In 1865

Peter Doyle later commented directly on this 13-year friendship: "I have never heard of a case that Walt had thought about a woman. [] I must know how things were with him in those years - us were terribly familiar with each other. " The sexologist Albert Moll quotes from this biography in "Famous Homosexuals" (1910, p. 47) and also goes into the "disgusting photo" in which Doyle - in Moll's opinion - "looks like the typical homosexual prostitute".

John A. Symonds: Whitman says homosexuality is "condemnable"


John A. Symonds with a handwritten dedication for Walt Whitman (1889)

The English writer and homosexual activist John Addington Symonds questioned Whitman in a letter about homosexuality in his work and cites his answer of August 19, 1890 in his book "Das konträre Sex feeling" (Leipzig: 1896, p. 19-21, here p. 20). Whitman: "That the Calamus section ever allowed the possibility of such a [homosexual] construction as the one mentioned is terrible. I hope the pages themselves will never be arbitrarily accepted in connection with such a construction and not in my time name at least the presumed and desired possibility of pathological relationships, which I reject and consider condemnable. "

According to this letter, it must be assumed that Walt Whitman's lyrical "I" is clearly distinguishable from Walt Whitman himself. It is also possible that Whitman makes a protective claim here in order not to expose himself to criticism, or that he did not want to see his idealized concept of male love connected with the medical-pathological category of homosexuality.

Havelock Ellis later commented on Whitman's possible homosexuality in his book "Studies in the Psychology of Sex" (1927, Volume 2, pp. 41-45, pp. 64-65).

Wilhelm Schölermann: "Forbidden, but unproven relationships"

The above-mentioned art historian and writer Wilhelm Schölermann was one of the first authors to deal with Whitman's possible homosexuality. In his book "Walt Whitman. Grashalme" (1904), Schölermann pointed out that Whitman was said to have had "unauthorized but unproven relationships" with young people with whom he had been in personal or correspondence for years, as with Peter Doyle.

Schölermann criticized the fact that in certain circles it had become almost only "fashion" to be able to 'establish' a homosexual disposition in every important man with a "tasteless curiosity for sensation" (p. VII). In the case of Whitman, according to Schölermann, there is no reason to "go into this chapter of erotic aberration; but neither does one need to be anxious about it." Anyone who finds a male body beautiful does not have to feel it sexually (p. VIII), but neither does he want to give a speech of justification (p. IX). Schölermann convinces at least with calm and serenity.

Eduard Bertz: Whitman is a "noble uranium"

The writer and translator Eduard Bertz was active as a journalist in various fields and campaigned for social democracy, homosexual organization and cycling. Basically, it is to be welcomed if someone is interested in the sexual orientation of celebrities in an emancipatory context and in doing so collects relevant statements and material.


The writer and translator Eduard Bertz

In the "Yearbook for Sexual Intermediate Levels" (1905, pp. 153-287), however, Bertz tries hard to prove on more than 130 pages that Walt Whitman is homosexual and a "noble Uranian". Even more disconcerting than Bertz's "demonstration" with the crowbar is that he also pathologizes: Was Whitman hereditary? Did he have a lesbian mother? Is his aversion to women, his vanity, his walk, and his expression typical of a homosexual?

Bertz uses the term "stigmata" to mean physical and psychological peculiarities that were ascribed to homosexual men. Such a pathologizing reason is irritating because the article appeared in a publication of the homosexual movement and thus in an emancipatory context. Taking into account such "stigmata" was, however, part of the sexual science discourse around Magnus Hirschfeld, the WhK and the "Yearbook for Sexual Intermediate Levels", and many were convinced of its usefulness in relation to homosexual emancipation.

Ten years later Bertz still got the backing of Magnus Hirschfeld for this article, who in his main work "The Homosexuality of Man and Woman" (1914) not only referred to Whitman several times, but also recognized Bertz's position in the interim dispute with Johannes Schlaf 'and even accused sleep of using a "cover-up method" (p. 672).

Johannes Schlaf: No, there is no evidence of this

The playwright, narrator and translator Johannes Schlaf translated Whitman's "Blades of Grass" and is considered the founder of the Whitman cult in Germany. As an open-minded contemporary, like Bertz, he had signed the petition to abolish Section 175. However, he could not leave Bertz's statements about Whitman as it was and wrote with "Walt Whitman. Homosexual?" (Minden: Bruns, 1906) a clear reply directed against Bertz, which was ultimately also directed against the WhK.


John's sleep

In his criticism he remains objective and fair; its polemical and sometimes irritable tone makes the text an exciting contemporary document. For Schlaf, Bertz based his argument on his own judgment and the reports of others, "which just fit his business" (p. 9). All of Whitman's sex stories are "word for word wrong" (p. 45). Sleep clearly makes fun of many of the conclusions: Just because a boy likes to play with other boys does Bertz turn it into a "friendship with a basic gender character" (p. 51). Sleep would be criticized if he had a homophobic position or if he wanted to provide unconditional proof of Whitman's heterosexuality. His criticism, however, is aimed only at a biased pseudoscience: "More than once I have resisted such intrusive, ill-advised scientificness [which] from a [] biased point of view alleges that Whitman is homosexual (p. 71).

Arthur Moeller van den Bruck: Whitman's "Prophet's Skull"

In order to illustrate the different sides from which a poet like Whitman can be appropriated, I would like to refer to the folk-nationalist publicist Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, who wrote Oscar Wilde in his book "Die Zeitgenossen" (1906, pp. 254-255) compares to Walt Whitman. Both men "originally arose from the same tribe", which can mean the Anglo-Saxon area and / or indirectly homosexuality. Then it becomes blatantly racist: "You only have to compare the heads of both to see the whole difference."

What are meant are Whitman's "prophet's skull" and Wilde's "ornamental face". There is also a moral separation between the feminine dandy Oscar Wilde, who lives out his homosexuality, and the masculine Walt Whitman, whose appearance today could be described as "straight acting". "It was not just an ocean that separated them, but all the degeneration that humanity is capable of." It is a poisoned compliment for the masculine Whitman at Wilde's expense and from a political direction that Whitman would not have been happy about. He was also a proud American, but regardless of his origin, skin color or social class.

Gustav Landauer: Whitman's "Feelings of Comradeship"

From a completely different political direction, the socialist writer Gustav Landauer was also interested in the two authors Wilde and Whitman, who seem to be connected by linguistic space and alliteration alone. Landauer combines the rejection of the presumption of Whitman's homosexuality in his edition of "Grashalme" (1985, p. 423, first published in 1907) with a criticism of sexology: "It is a futile effort by fashionable pseudoscience to find anything perverse or pathological in these feelings of camaraderie to even want to find something degenerate. [] Whitman had a special sense of feeling, from this to infer a special disposition of his nature, it is left to those who are at an intermediate stage of science. "


Gustav Landauer

This comment about "intermediate stages" aims at the theory of the sexual intermediate stages by Magnus Hirschfeld, which also makes it clear which scientist he is criticizing and that it refers indirectly to the Bertz essay mentioned above two years earlier. The homosexual movement has made itself recognizably vulnerable.

Karl Knortz: Whitman is an "Edelurning"

The title of the book by the German-American writer Karl Knortz arouses hopes for an emancipation pamphlet: "Walt Whitman and his imitators. A contribution to the literature of the Edelurninge" (1911). After all, "Urning" is an emancipatory term and an Edelurning is even a model homosexual. The beginning also reads well: The Calamus poems are "dedicated to the love of men" (p. 34). Whitman called his friends "lovers" and "was physically attracted to them" (p. 35). Whitman's friend "Doyle felt irresistibly drawn to him. No groom in love can write more tenderly to his chosen one than Whitman to his bosom friend" (p 40). Knortz refers to men like Michelangelo (p. 88), Shakespeare, Winckelmann (p. 89) and August Graf von Platen (p. 90) who stood in a homosexual tradition and were important ways of identifying homosexuals.


Karl Knortz's book cover about Whitman and other "Edelurnings"

However, according to Knortz, Whitman's love for men was, in contrast to antiquity, "free of any hint of unnatural sexual intercourse" (p. 35). Unfortunately, this makes it clear that Knortz only defended feelings of friendship, not homosexuality. "The Greeks differentiated between a pure and an impure male love" (p. 38), and the latter "included sexual abuse. If you want to accuse Whitman of homosexuality with all the violence, you can already discover passages in the Calamus songs that go along with it could use "(p. 39). Knortz now condemns not only same-sex sex, but also the kisses between Whitman and his friend Doyle as "an aberration of taste, at least according to the American view" (p. 41).

Knortz understands an "edelurning" only as homosexuals without "a pathological expression of the sexual instinct" (p. 91) and without "excesses" (= lived out homosexuality, p. 95), because the characteristic feature of an urning is not its unnatural sensuality (P. 92), but rather "gentleness, good-naturedness, enthusiasm" and "philanthropy" (p. 103), whereby he at least states that a Urning is born that way (p. 96) and that "his homosexual instinct is ineradicable" be (p. 97). Knortz only accepts homosexuality without sexuality - this was not a contradiction for everyone.

Whitman is the most important US author for the early gay movement

The cover of Marita Keilson-Lauritz's dissertation "The story of one's own history" (1997) on the early homosexual movement shows a picture by Walt Whitman, which is dealt with in detail in the book on around 50 pages. Whitman's poetry belongs to the so-called "homosexual canon", i.e. the texts that were received as homosexual by the homosexual readership. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, around 20 "great dead" like Walt Whitman and 130 contemporaries formed this gay canon (p. 70). According to Keilson-Lauritz, Walt Whitman was the most important US author in this canon and was only surpassed by Oscar Wilde in the entire Anglo-Saxon region in his importance for homosexual men (p. 152).

This gay canon not only documented history, but also legitimized the homosexual present. "The line of ancestors becomes an argument with which one demands one's own right to love about the cultural property", says the author (p. 294). In the form in which Walt Whitman stands "pars pro toto for a (utopian) whole" (p. 295), even the first beginnings of a gay literary history can be recognized (p. 296). Because the reception always depends on the available texts and the translations (p. 306), the author points out that some of Whitman's poems were heterosexualized during the translation (p.319). The author devotes a large amount of space to the dispute between Eduard Bertz and Johannes Schlaf, who were actually on the same page as petition signatories for the abolition of paragraph 175 (pp. 299-303).

Later Explanations: Whitman "forgot" about his inclination

There are simultaneous and later attempts to explain the clear divergence between Whitman's poetry and Whitman's letter to Symonds. According to Albert Moll in his work "Famous Homosexuals" (1910, pp. 45-48), Havelock Ellis said that Whitman "from the asexual old man's point of view thought differently about his youthful passion than from the contrary sexual of his manhood". Bertz, on the other hand, assumes that Whitman was referring to homosexual acts and not homosexual feelings in his letter (which doesn't make matters any better). I find the reasoning also mentioned here rather absurd: "Perhaps he later [] forgot his earlier homosexual tendencies and feelings" (p. 46).

John Lauritsen and David Thorstad also deal with the contradiction in "The early homosexual movement 1864-1935" (1984, pp. 74-77). They point to the British gay activist Edward Carpenter, who suspected that Whitman was afraid of being the target of the entire American press.

"The Circle" and the "Love of Comrades"

From the security of neutral Switzerland, the monthly gay magazine "Der Kreis" was published from 1943 to 1967. In "Kreis" and its predecessor magazines since 1932, poems by Walt Whitman have been printed around 20 times in German, English and French.

On closer inspection, Whitman's poems fit in very well: the early gay movement had finally discovered male-male friendship as a suitable metaphor for homosexuality, which included poems that most gays interpreted as gay and most Americans as companionship poems. Due to this reading (and the expired copyright), a print was legally unproblematic.


Whitman poem and, for 1962, a daring drawing in the gay magazine "Der Kreis"

In retrospect, it is to be assessed positively if Whitman's poems were able to offer consolation to gays in difficult times. Essays that dealt with Whitman's texts and his sexuality, however, did not appear in the "Kreis". The print of a poem in 1962 (volume 7, p. 36) was even combined with a drawing of an almost naked man who was lying on a bed and looked at the reader and seemed to offer himself. At that time, more was not possible with a gay magazine that wanted or had to present itself as a bourgeois, serious cultural magazine.

"The Dead Poets Club": "O Captain! My Captain!"

References to Walt Whitman can be found in more than 60, mainly American, films and series, which in their entirety convey an idea of ​​his importance in our day and age. The best known is probably the coming-of-age film "The Dead Poets Club" (USA, 1989). It is about a conservative boarding school in which the students have great respect for their English teacher John Keating (D: Robin Williams), because he uses unconventional methods to promote their individuality and encourage them to think freely. Keating refers to Walt Whitman when he encouraged his students to write and recite their own poems.


The famous final scene from the film "The Dead Poets Club"

"The Dead Poets Club" became one of his most important films for actor Robin Williams. After Williams' death in August 2014, the Whitman quote "O Captain! My Captain!" - together with the emotionally moving final scene of the film, in which the students stand on the tables - to a worldwide symbol for the respect for and the mourning for the popular actor.

"Kill your Darlings": Allen Ginsberg is "Whitman junior"

References to Walt Whitman can also be found in several explicitly gay US films, such as "Stonewall" (1995), "Two of Us" (2000), "Stadt, Land, Kuss" (2001), "L.I.E." (2001) and "Test" (2013). Two films with references to Walt Whitman refer to Allen Ginsberg, who with his poetry can be seen as Whitman's spiritual successor. In addition to "Howl" (2010), this is the film "Kill your Darlings" (2013). Both deal with the university days of the first members of the later "Beat Generation" and their relationships with one another.

In "Kill your Darlings" (the gay) Allen Ginsberg (D: Daniel Radcliffe) emphasizes in front of his literature professor that Whitman hated rhyme and metrical verse, and is therefore later referred to as "Whitman junior". The parallel between these two poets is not just about meter, for homosexuality also forms an invisible bond here. Anyone who, as a viewer, does not know the gay reception of Walt Whitman cannot establish this parallel himself, as with the (homosexual) Herman Melville, who is also quoted. Like Whitman, Ginsberg had the courage to write poetry and love, contrary to the conventions of the time. The fact that Ginsberg went his own way with poetry and, like his role model, did without rhyme and meter, is only one aspect of it.

What remains?

The earlier Whitman reception was not straightforward. Two authors describe him as a noble Urning, but oppose each other because one defends his homosexuality (Bertz) and the other condemns it (Knortz). It rarely happens that I criticize the homosexual movement and take the side of the opposition (Schlaf) and it is also irritating when not only the political right (Moeller van den Bruck), but also the political left (Landauer) a homosexual Whitman and did not want to introduce a corresponding lyric. It is hinted at that gays on the one hand want Whitman's texts to be unambiguous. On the other hand, gays also benefited from the fact that his poems could optionally be understood as heterosexual and homosexual friendship poems ("Der Kreis"), because they were less vulnerable.

The modern assessment is different: "Today's science [] assumes that he has expressed his true feelings in his works and that his public statements were shaped by his homophobic environment" (Wikipedia). However, this assessment does not take into account the fact that seals are also expressions shaped by the environment. The big difference, however, is that literary utterances are more transfigured and therefore less vulnerable and an author can more easily hide behind a lyric self.

Actually, I think it's secondary whether Whitman was homosexual or not. I would be happy if he had a fulfilling love life with Peter Doyle, but I don't want to just suck Walt Whitman with this article. Perhaps he was really only interested in intense male friendships, but every author has to live with the fact that the effect is decoupled from his intentions and that the readership has their own ideas about his texts.

His poems have evoked patriotic and friendly feelings, among other things. They encouraged people to love people, regardless of ethnic origin or social class. He has made many homosexual readers feel that their feelings are legitimate. They could draw strength, comfort, and confidence from his words. The fact that he addressed people in different ways is not a disadvantage, but an advantage. Having awakened positive feelings in millions of readers is an achievement to be honored.

Dear reader, are you living in 2019 and interested in Walt Whitman? How connected can you feel to an author who was born 200 years ago? Walt Whitman himself wrote the following lines to you in 1859 (quoted here from "Calamus" 1985, p. 7): "Me, forty years old [], To someone who will live in a hundred or more years [] if you read this , I, who was visible, have long been invisible, And you, dense, visible, are now realizing my verses, looking for me, Imagine how happy you would be if I could be with you and become your companion It was as if it were I'm with you. (Don't be sure I'm not with you now). "

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