Bi Book Club: Leaves of Grass

By Jennie Roberson

July 22, 2019



Photo credit: istock/Andyborodaty

Welcome back, reader! Well, it’s time to roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. I don’t know about you, but the warm weather and a good book read in some dewy grass always does my soul just right. And it seems that’s how Walt Whitman (#Bi2, #OneofUs) felt as well.

Often in this column, I find myself writing about books that are focused on bi characters, but I thought it might be nice to throwback to one of the most revered pieces of American literature and review Whitman’s classic — his first edition of epic poems, Leaves of Grass (1855).

I heard from the rumor mill Whitman’s sexuality has been debated about as long as he has been published, based on some homoerotic themes throughout these seminal free verse poems. To be perfectly honest, though, while I had seen bits and pieces of these poems throughout the last twenty years, I never actually read them in their entirety.

Sepia tone image of an older Walt with a large beard, hand on his chin contemplating and looking at something out of frame.

I did find inspiration from the snatches of lines that changed my life, though. Inspired by my English teacher’s showing of Dead Poet’s Society (he wanted to be Mr. Keating so badly), I became intimately familiar with the line: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.” I loved it so much that I vowed to myself I would yawp myself whenever I climbed a new hiking trail. And I have. And often they’re some of the happiest moments of my life.

Sometimes I even rope my friends into the matter (and they love it):

I yawped on the Salisbury Crags in the heart of Edinburgh — some local Scots were so impressed they gave me advice on where to go to do it next, which led to one of the most beautiful days of my life on Loch Lomond. I even yawped on a date with a woman — and she kissed me right after. It was one of the best kisses of my life.

So when I was asked to review this classic by a bi author, I jumped all over the opportunity to do it.

Before I get into the queer meat of this poetic sandwich, I think some social context is crucial to understand both Whitman’s daring, and his far-reaching influence. Perhaps more than any other book I have read for the Bi Book Club, Leaves of Grass has universal themes but is also decidedly a product of its time. Whitman started off writing LoG as a response to Emerson’s call in his essay The Poet for America to foster a poet that was entirely its own, extolling both its virtues and vices. Whitman took the call seriously and as a young man began to work on the verses — eventually self-publishing on the Fourth of July, 1855. This makes sense the more familiar we are with the themes of Transcendentalism, whose ideas are all over the collection. And Transcendentalism itself stemmed from Romanticism, whose golden boy Keats can be felt in both the structure and urgency of the poem’s ideas.

Leaves’ publishing was met with great controversy upon its release, mostly for its free and accepting attitudes towards both sex and the material body. Whitman, an OG troll, liked to use this notoriety to further the success of the work, using the publicity to encourage new editions. At one point, he even included a reprint of a bad review of the collection in the collection. Talk about a mocking retweet!

Though the pearl-clutchers of the day were up in arms about the poems' frank takes on sexuality, both Whitman and his work were not without their fans or influence. Oscar Wilde famously met and probably had a sordid encounter with Whitman, famously bragging: “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips." And Bram Stoker also had a massive, erm, fascination with the author. But beyond all of these infatuations, Whitman’s touch can still be felt in modern literature. This was one of the first major publications in free verse, freeing both poet and citizens to explore thought and creation in different, liberating form.

(Side note: The title itself is a pun! Publishers at the time referred to writings of minor significance as “grass”, and leaves is another term for pages. Bis: loving puns since forever.)

On a personal note, too, I think it’s crucial to note that Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass at thirty-six, with a daguerreotype of his strapping young figure on the cover. As someone who is struggling to make her first publication at the same age, I understand his urgency as well as his desire to put his face next to work.

Opening pages of leaves of grass with walk sketched on the side page.

And I think it’s important to remember this is an impulsive young man behind these words. Often history re-casts Whitman as the “sweaty-toothed old man” of portraits later in his life. But this was the passionate, freewheeling young man behind these ideas — not a venerated figure, but a thriving young man in the prime of his life (even though Whitman spent the rest of his life revising the work).

All right, all right, now that I’ve established the dashing young'un, maybe I should see what this bi author got up to in his masterwork. For brevity’s sake, I will be focusing on the poems “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric”.

I never gave much thought to Whitman’s sexuality throughout the years. I had always been taught, and informed, that he was gay. But the themes in both of these poems are very clearly bi. Even if some authors like to argue that the “I” narrator is a collective, or Whitman speaking on behalf of America, it doesn’t come across as more than a young poet rhapsodizing on the glories of the different genders. A lot.

In fact, as I went through my reading, I decided to dog-ear any potential bi stanzas. The whole collection is maybe a hundred pages. Look at how many times I dog-eared it on the first pass:

A close up of a book on its side. The first couple pages are spread open.

Doubt that they were bi, or their frequency? Here’s a smattering of samples:

“Every kind for itself and its own … for me mine male and female …
for me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,
For me the sweetheart and the old maid …. For me mothers and the mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears …”
“And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.”

“I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,
And tighten her all night to my thighs and lips.”

“When he went with his five sons and many grandsons to hunt or fish you would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang,
You would wish long and long to be with him …. You would wish to sit by him in the boat that you and he might touch each other.”

“This is the female form,
A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot,
It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction,
I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor … all falls aside by myself and it.”

And to be quite frank, that’s before I even get into some of the more sordid verses. I have to leave you still wanting to read the poems, after all. Some of the lurid phrases still took me by surprise, even 150 years later. I can understand why critics of the time labeled the poems as obscene for the standards of the time (there is a stanza that is clearly all about describing an orgasm). Nevertheless, these are gorgeous and transcendent poems, full of thought and clarity which are worthy of perusal and reflection.

Whitman was dogged with rumors of homosexuality throughout his life due to these stanzas. Whitman was cagey about these proclamations, often noting his “sweethearts” of the past as well as claiming he had six illegitimate children (which was never corroborated). In a way, I feel sorry for Whitman that he could not live his full truth out in the open beyond his poetry. But the term “bisexual” did not even exist for another forty years, even in scientific circles. But it’s still clear from records that Whitman lived the life he wanted, despite the critics. And really, he had the last laugh — most people know his name, while the names of his critics are mostly left to wither in the sands of time.

Whitman and his Leaves clearly read to me as bi. He celebrated the body in all its forms — he celebrated it all. As he says himself, “I am large... I contain multitudes”. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

I hope we continue to celebrate his yawp over the rooftops of the world for generations to come.

Several books stacked on top of each other and white flowers sitting on top.
Unsplash/Aliis Sinisalu


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