Nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman was a free-ass motherfucker, and today is his birthday. You may be familiar with Whitman as part of the transcendentalism unit in your high school English class, although your teacher probably didn’t cover the poet’s colorful sex life or contributions to LGBTQ culture. For a long time, American historians and literature scholars hesitated to describe Whitman as gay or queer, but our community has claimed him as family since the at least the 1960s. He has been called the “prophet of gay liberation,” and the title seems to fit now more than ever.
Whitman’s rumpled fisherman aesthetic may be out of style, but his politics and ethics feel very much of the moment.
Structurally, the poet’s work was modern in that it eschewed traditional rhyme and meter schemes in favor of epic, breathless “free verse.” The long lines of his poetry sometimes feel meant to be belted out on stage; they are lyrical, declarative and dramatic. You can imagine Whitman standing at the hull of a riverboat, yelling out verses like “I ascend from the moon…I ascend from the night” or “Unclench your floodgates! you are too much for me,” from under his floppy hat.
The language in Whitman’s most famous poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, stands out as especially revolutionary and forward thinking. In antebellum writing, sexuality was often euphemized, approached in clinical, medical terms, or omitted altogether. But Whitman’s poems brimmed with unabashed, earthy eroticism. Thematically, he emphasized individualism and the self, romantic and sexual fluidity, and a sense of pride in what makes human beings connected to one another.
Americans were not really supposed to be obsessed with ourselves until the 1970s, but Whitman was ahead of the game by over one hundred years. “Who could there be more wonderful than myself,” he wondered. “I celebrate myself…welcome is every organ and attribute of me.” You could call it narcissism, but confident, body-positive bravado might be more on target. Whitman discussed his lips, his thighs, and his flesh, in ways that other writers seldom did in the nineteenth century: “I dote on myself…there is that lot of me, and all so luscious,” he wrote.
He even name checked himself in his own verse, something more common among contemporary rappers than antebellum poets. “I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as nature,” he announced in a poem about a liaison with a sex worker. In “Song of Myself,” he identified as “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos/Disorderly fleshy and sensual.” Such elevation of self, of course, is one of the signature sensibilities of the millennial generation, but we may not have gotten here without Whitman and the other writers he influenced. Significantly, his work also refused the narrative of self-loathing that would later become a hallmark of queer writing. “I exist as I am, and that is enough,” he proclaimed. (To rephrase it in present day Tumblr parlance: I am valid.)
At the same time that he sung the virtues of self-focused individualism, Whitman also prioritized collective consciousness and empathy. “Whoever degrades another degrades me,” he wrote. “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels…I myself become the wounded person.” In other words, he internalized the pain of fellow humans and saw all of us as taking on each other’s suffering. Whitman’s work also extolled the values of democracy, equality, and interconnectedness. He recognized the humanity of slaves, Native Americans, and all manner of working people, including prostitutes.
Whitman was also a gender egalitarian. “I am the poet of the woman the same as a man/And I say it is great to be a woman as to be a man,” reads one of his most quoted lines. Whitman described relating to women and men, physically and emotionally, in similar fashions (as “comrades and lovers”), which was radical during a time in which the popular understanding of gender was based on starkly binary definitions. Some scholars see this as a version of early feminism, while others wonder if it was a way for Whitman to express his potentially all-inclusive sexual and romantic attractions.
On that note, Whitman’s other major contribution to queer culture was his insistence that identity and behavior are complicated, unpredictable, and sometimes in defiance of logic and cohesion. The famous lines: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes,” were written in 1855, but they resonate long after – this is basically the exact concept behind the “Me/Also Me” memes. The underlying message is that, as humans, we can be more than one thing at the same time. We can embody multiple genders or none at all; we can create new ways of describing the nuances of our experiences and desires; and we can even change our minds about any of it whenever we want, without feeling trapped in one box or another. This is in part thanks to the liberating words of Whitman, who never offered an easy description of his own sexuality but frolicked freely throughout New York’s gay bohemian scene, and composed detailed lists of male lovers in his personal journals.
The poet was probably one of those people who would scoff at the idea of trying to restrict oneself to a single, simplistic label, and then toss his long white beard over his shoulder. “What is man anyhow?” he asked. “What am I? and what are you?” This interrogation of identity is exactly what the LGBTQ community continues to grapple with today. Whitman taught us how to think about ourselves while holding compassion for our brothers and sisters.