Out of the Closet

Walt Whitman: A Gay LifeBy Gary Schmigdall.New York:Dutton, 1997.428 pp. $32.95.It is no surprise -- to gay readers, at least -- that poet Walt Whitman was as queer as the proverbial three dollar bill. His homosexuality has been repeatedly ignored, denied or obfuscated by legions of (mostly straight) critics and biographers. Now Gary Schmigdall, former opera critic and author of a recent Oscar Wilde biography, has charged into the breach to set the record less straight, so to speak. Equal parts biography and literary criticism, "Walt Whitman: A Gay Life" is often fascinating despite being quirky and uneven in spots.Schmigdall has chosen to focus almost exclusively on Whitman's sexuality and its impact on his work, including only passing references to most of the other social and political currents that shaped the poet and his writings. Other critics and biographers have dwelt upon those aspects, Schmigdall writes, "and the time now seems ripe for a systematic attempt to turn the tables on the mythic, mist-engulfed Whitman and to set in his stead the flesh-and-blood -- which is to say sexual -- Whitman." And that he does, producing a portrait of a distinctly randy man with a taste for working-class boys usually far younger than he. That sexuality pulsates through much of Whitman's poetry, which abounds in descriptions of the "play of masculine muscle," and the like. Indeed, for work written in the mid-19th century some of it seems not only homoerotic but rather amazingly homoromantic as well, as in this barroom scene: "Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching,and seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand; A long while, amid the noises of coming and going -- of drinking and oath and smutty jest,There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little,perhaps not a word."Whitman's homoerotic poetry was couched in enough ambiguity, though, that straight readers could -- and usually did -- miss the point. And that, the author argues, was precisely the poet's intent as he loaded his works with references designed to be understood by other closeted homosexuals while those outside the circle would remain clueless. Some of the most fascinating material in this regard comes from early drafts that were eventually toned down for publication. In one telling manuscript, for example, Whitman makes his intent explicit: "I celebrate that concealed but substantial life / I celebrate the need of the love of comrades."That rather overt description of the closet didn't make it into print, but this one did: "Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes ... Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright,death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones ... Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,Speaking of anything else but never of itself."Schmigdall's writing style is an odd mix, often heavy, scholarly and laden with Latin phrases, but at other times downright catty. He is at his cattiest, and most entertaining, when gleefully shredding the critics who have tried to portray Whitman as either heterosexual or asexual. After quoting one such scholar who, upon dismissing Whitman's sexuality as largely unknowable, wrote that discussion of the subject "seems to have completed and maybe even exhausted itself," Schmigdall bares his claws: "My position, then, is in part that of having come too late to the critical orgy. Discussion is 'exhausted.'Everywhere, detumescence -- and smoke curling from the postcoital cigarettes of enervated Whitman scholars." It is Schmigdall's view that despite Whitman's efforts at concealment (late in life, when asked about a possible homosexual interpretation of some of his works, he responded with the preposterous lie that he had fathered six children), much of the poet's love life can indeed be divined from his notebooks, correspondence and related references in his poetry. While it is impossible to confirm details of Whitman's sex life, the author produces a convincing assemblage of love letters to and from several men, with numerous references to nights spent in the same bed. But at times Schmigdall's enthusiasm for his subject gets the best of him. Some of what he perceives as gay references in the poems seem questionable, as does his anointment of Whitman as "our Martin Luther King [Jr.]." While there may be hints of future gay liberation in Whitman's description of dreaming of "a city where all men were like brothersxwalking hand in hand," he wasn't leading a movement; he was sending coded messages to a furtive, silent underground.Indeed, in a lengthy afterword Schmigdall effectively acknowledges that he is emotionally so close to his subject that he might be in danger of losing his critical distance. He charts at some length the parallels between his life and Whitman's, an act of honesty that comes across as both courageous and self-indulgent. To a point his recognition of these emotional connections is useful, but he would do well to spare us some of the details. Does it really help us understand Whitman to know that one of Schmigdall's lovers once gave him a blow job while they were driving on a Bay Area freeway? But despite its eccentricities, "Walt Whitman: A Gay Life" is a notable and long-needed contribution to our understanding of one of the U.S.'s great literary figures. Scholarly detumescence may never again come quite so easily.

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