THE HOMOSEXUAL THEME IN WALT WHITMAN'S POETRY
The Attitude Towards Whitman's Poetry Throughout The 20th Century
"Considered by many to be the greatest of all American poets, Walt Whitman celebrated the freedom and dignity of the individual and sang the praises of democracy and the brotherhood of men"
(Encyclopedia Britannica the 7th volume)
Whitman's conception of love was no doubt a shock for his contemporaries. He was the first person in America, who dared, although intimating, not being straightforward, to touch this theme publicly. Due to this fact his influence on the following development of the idea of homosexuality shouldn't be underestimated.
The attitude towards Whitman's poetry, reflected in criticism, was usually dictated by the social conception of homosexual relationships. In this short observation of this change of criticism throughout a century, I would concentrate only on writers, who tried to analyze Whitman's idea and form their own perception of it, as the view point of his opponents remained fixed.
The early works on Whitman's poetry (1900th - 1930th) were mainly characterized by an attempt to "desexualize" Calamus. The main source their writers appealed to was the letter to Symonds, still the evasion from the analysis of the poetry itself is obvious. For instance, Leon Bazalgette in his book "Walt Whitman: The Man and his Work" (1920) devotes to Calamus only one sentence: "In the fourth part [of the 1860 Leaves of Grass], Calamus, he published his thirst for impassioned comradeship, of the close affection of man to man, which tormented him to the verge of sorrow, and was indeed in him insatiable". This endeavor to "advocate" Whitman was caused by a wish to make his works socially admissible that led to substitution of "what was meant by what was desirable to be meant".
In the 1930s-erly40s a new trend appeared. As homosexual love became although unwelcome, but recognized fact, critics came to acknowledging the nature of Whitman's sexuality, still minimizing its importance. Claiming that "sexuality to any conscious degree is an abnormal element in the friendship of men" and "there was an element of such perversity in Whitman's gospel of "manly attachment"¹ they tended to consider this fact related to the political views of the writer: " what really interests us in Whitman is that, unlike the vast majority of inverts, even those creatively gifted, he chose to translate and sublimate his strange, anomalous emotional experience into a political, a constructive, a democratic program."²
The post-war period (1945 - 1970th) added to this way of interpreting Whitman one interesting feature - an attempt to mysticize and pathologize it, by making "sex a symbol of divinity or the potency of nature"³
The modern period (1970th - nowadays) brought some significant innovations in interpreting Whitman, actually turning it upside down. The idea of love that led to intimacy was suddenly changed into the concept of intimacy that created a feeling of spiritual unity: "indeed, intimacy between same-sex friends bore the imprimatur of such then-influential ideas as romantic friendship and phrenology."
It is obvious that today's critics reflect the growing acceptance of homosexual love by the society. If at the beginning of the 20th century people ignored the nature of Whitman's sexuality, in the end too much attention is paid to it. For instance, Betsy Erkkila in an attempt to offer support to lesbian and gay teenagers deals with Whitman's sexual orientation. A poetic hymn to love is changed into a hymn of sex that is certainly connected with social values nowadays.
In conclusion I would like to say, that interpreting literature taking into account mostly the needs of the society is supposed to be the greatest mistake. The general idea of Calamus - love for the people and intimacy, as a manifestation of this love - wasn't taken as an inseparable unity that resulted in the loss of the essence.