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From the Walt Whitman Archive: Sex and Sexuality

Walt Whitman

Portrait of Whitman from Leaves of Grass

I remember the first time I read “Leaves of Grass.”  Who doesn’t?  I was greatly affected by Whitman’s evocative language and ideas.  Being one with nature.  Every atom of you as well belongs to me.  Good stuff.  In looking through the Whitman Archives, I read several articles about the sexual imagery in his work, as well as his own sexuality.  Was he gay, or was he straight?  It hadn’t really occurred to me to question, when reading his poems.  But many scholars did.  And then I read one scholar who said the culture was quite different in the middle of the 19th Century, and the ideas of “gay” and “straight” weren’t quite as clearly defined as we make them now, and that many men had very strong love affairs with other men, whether or not there was a physical component.  This particular essay, which I share with you now, suggests that, when speaking of Whitman, the words “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” and “bi-sexual” have no meaning; Whitman was “omni-sexual.”  He loved all things and all people equally:  men, women, the earth, and all of nature.

In A Sudden Light, I wanted to elevate the affair between Harry and Ben to this level, yet remind us of the limitations placed upon love by society and convention.

 


From The Walt Whitman Archive: “Sex and Sexuality,” an essay by James E. Miller, Jr.

Themes of sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very beginning and have shaped the course of the book’s reception. The first edition in 1855 contained what were to be called “Song of Myself,” “The Sleepers,” and “I Sing the Body Electric,” which are “about” sexuality (though of course not exclusively) throughout. From the very beginning, Whitman wove together themes of “manly love” and “sexual love,” with great emphasis on intensely passionate attraction and interaction, as well as bodily contact (touch, embrace) in both. Simultaneously in sounding these themes, he equated the body with the soul, and defined sexual experience as essentially spiritual experience. He very early adopted two phrenological terms to discriminate between the two relationships: “amativeness” for man-woman love and “adhesiveness” for “manly love.” Although Whitman did not in the 1855 Preface call direct attention to this element in his work, in one of his anonymous reviews of his book (“Walt Whitman and His Poems,” 1855) he wrote of himself and the 1855 Leaves : “The body, he teaches, is beautiful. Sex is also beautiful. . . . Sex will not be put aside; it is a great ordination of the universe. He works the muscle of the male and the teeming fibre of the female throughout his writings, as wholesome realities, impure only by deliberate intention and effort” (Poetry and Prose 535).

Whitman added other sex poems to his book in 1856, including “Poem of Procreation” (now “A Woman Waits for Me”) and “Bunch Poem” (“Spontaneous Me”). At the end of the volume he included, without permission, Emerson’s letter praising the 1855 Leaves (its “great power,” and “free and brave thought”), and alongside it he published his own letter in reply. He may have been misled by the nature of Emerson’s praise to emphasize the centrality of his themes of adhesiveness and amativeness: “As to manly friendship, everywhere observed in The States, there is not the first breath of it to be observed in print. I say the body of a man or woman, the main matter, is so far quite unexpressed in poems; but the body is to be expressed, and sex is” (Poetry and Prose 529).

Read the whole essay here.

 

 

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