Queer erasure and Walt Whitman

There is an interesting quality found in the education surrounding marginalized groups, both in the manner of how it is taught and if it is taught at all. Often times, history neglects to mention these groups outside the circumstances of their most successful liberation movements, leading to misguided beliefs as to the presence and existence of these groups outside of history. This is an issue all to prevalent in queer history as shown in education, as even when queer authors or historical figures are spoken of their queerness often goes unmentioned. This reality can be explored through the teaching of authors such as Walt Whitman, who’s work is famously queer in his use of metaphor and subject material, but despite this the mention of it often goes neglected for several reasons which will be discussed here. In Margaret Middleton’s paper Queer Possibility, they go into the three major criticisms used to dismiss queerness in art history, and in examining those three criticisms next to Whitman’s two major works, Leaves of Grass and Live Oak, With Moss, one can find how little substance there is in the removal of queerness from Whitman’s work, as well as how little these criticisms accomplish in the world of history and art due to flaws in their very nature. The criticisms are as follows.

A young Walt Whitman

“1. the content developer believes the historical figure’s queer identity is relevant.

2. the historical figure described themselves as such.

3. there is documentation the queer figure engaged in queer behavior.”

In questions of the importance of queer relationships in Whitman’s work, one can read into the poems found in Live Oak, with Moss to find just how important those relationships were. Whitman writes “But I wondered how it could utter joyous leaves, standing alone there without its friend, its lover- -For I knew I could not,” which stands as a criticism of Transcendentalism. In reference to the idea of solitude often presented as essential in earlier transcendentalist works, Whitman’s stands contrary to that with the essential part of his philosophy being his relationship found with others. This specific idea of solitude can be found in the writing of Thoreau who wrote on the nature of solitude and its importance to introspection and self understanding. These ideas are rejected here in favor of finding oneself through the lovers and friends he keeps. Once one has found the essential nature of his relationships in Live oak, With moss, it is a simple need to find him referencing relationships with another man, which are found all over the work both in reference as a friend and a lover. Whitman states that he “engrossed” by the lands of the prairies until he discovered the people who discovered it, wherein his fascination became to “be as dauntless as any,” which can be clearly taken as a metaphor for queerness (Whitman, V). A new discovery of persons through history which discovered the spaces one has leaned to cling to functions as a perfect metaphor to the importance of acknowledging queer history. The need to look back to previous history in order to understand the modern-day spaces these communities make up is one important to anyone, but especially to queer youth who often do not receive any foundation as to whether people in their shoes have even existed.

The second question of whether a historical figure described themselves as such lends itself to an interesting analysis of the language surrounding labels of queerness. The word ‘queer’ in this sense functions as a sort of catch all for many different identities related to sexuality or gender which differ from what has historically been considered the norm. The language used for modern discussions of two men in a sexual and romantic relationship is of course, gay, however the question becomes, when did this language take shape, and how was the behavior surrounding it punished? The particular label of gay was not picked up in common language with the meaning of homosexual until “psychological writing [in the] late 1940’s,” as well as having gained traction as early as the late 1800’s. It is common knowledge that Whitman did not refer to himself as gay in his work or his lectures, however the language surrounding those identities not existing does not remove the well-known relationships between him and other men. This was addressed in a California law introduced in 2011 called the FAIR act, which advocated for teaching disabled and queer history in schools. Importantly, the two textbooks which were rejected for the new standards were ones which “failed to properly highlight the sexual orientation of people like Whitman, Emily Dickenson, Ralph Waldo Emmerson, and President James Buchanan,” which highlights an important change (Armus, NBC). Despite the historical refusal to give credence to these experiences in American history, there is a change coming in recent years correcting it.

            The third section is one which asks whether the figure “engaged in queer behavior,” which is an easily answered yes when speaking of Whitman. The important pieces to consider is how his relationship to it was changed through his being an American poet. The Cadmus chapters of Leaves of Grass function as a reordering of the poems found in Live oak, With moss, which was intended to remove the chronology of the narrative.  

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