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Walt Whitman and Pennsylvania's Ascent Into the Impossible

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The impossible happened a couple weeks ago when marriage for same sex couples became legal in the state of Pennsylvania. This was something I didn't expect to happen until 2020, if only because Pennsylvania can be a far more conservative state than even the most redneck bastion in the south. (Pennsylvania, after all, is still in the business of selling wine and spirits, and it doesn't look like liquor privatization here will be happening anytime soon.) An even greater surprise was the fact that Governor Tom Corbett said he would not challenge the new ruling. Corbett, a Republican, was expected to challenge any change in the definition of marriage, but like so many politicians today he recognizes that same sex marriage is here to stay.

Corbett didn't challenge the ruling because the so called "gay thing" is no longer a liberal or conservative issue. The roots of this can be traced back to the days when Barry Goldwater ran for president against Lyndon Johnson. At that time, Goldwater said that he supported civil rights for homosexuals, an absolutely revolutionary thing for any politician to say in the 1960s, but especially for a conservative Republican. Years later, when Dick Cheney ran as George W. Bush's vice presidential candidate, he made it clear during a debate that he supported same sex marriage. That announcement drew sighs of shock and disbelief from many Republican social conservatives who saw the acceptance of marriage equality as part of the liberal social agenda. The fantasy then seemed to be that Republican conservatives didn't have gay children -- or, if they did, they bound and gagged them in the family china closet.

After Cheney announced his support for marriage equality, more and more Republicans began to talk about their gay children and family members. Suddenly the idea that "the gay thing" only happened to liberal Democrats went flat like a bad tire on I-95. Sexual orientation, after all, is no respecter of political party or religious affiliation: A Baptist minister can have a gay son just as easily as a Broadway playwright can. After all, having your child "turn gay" has nothing to do with how you raise that child or what values you instill in him or her. Forget about "educating" a child to like the opposite sex; that's like training a pigeon to crawl onto your lap and meow like a cat.

While thinking of last week's marriage ruling, my thoughts turned to poet Walt Whitman, famous for his volume of poetry Leaves of Grass.

In the late 1980s, I took a tour of the Walt Whitman house in Camden, New Jersey, and got into an argument with the elderly tour guide. "Mr. Whitman was not a homosexual!" she said, angry that I had the gall to bring up the question. In an attempt to reason with her, I held up a 1982 issue of Partisan Review magazine containing the essay, "Whitman and the politics of Gay Liberation" and asked her to put the magazine inside Whitman's desk. She took the magazine out of politeness, though I'm sure she destroyed it the moment I walked out the door. She then went on to mention that Whitman's nurse, Mary Oakes Davis, had been in love with him. "Well, that may be true," I said, "But one of the fun -- or agonizing -- things about life is that many people can fall in love with us but that doesn't mean that the love has to be returned. Unrequited love is probably more common than the returned kind."

The guide then suggested that Whitman did return the love but to me this only indicated that he might have been bisexual. I was taken aback when she then quoted Whitman's infamous line to John Addington Symonds when Symonds confronted the poet on the homoerotic content of the Calamus poems in Leaves of Grass.

"... I am fain to hope that the pages themselves are not to be even mentioned for such gratuitous and quite at the time undreamed and unwished possibility of morbid influences -- which are disavowed by me and seem damnable."

Wow, spoken like Billy Sunday in a preacher's tent.

On the surface, these words seem pretty clear, even if Edward Carpenter, a contemporary of Symonds,' knew that Whitman was telling a bold face lie. Carpenter blamed Whitman's cowardice on the social atmosphere of 1891. Carpenter actually came out and said that he slept with Whitman and he gave details of the encounter to a writer named Arthur Gavin. As for the poet's off-putting letter to Symonds, Charley Shively in his book about Whitman, Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Comerados, states that "Whitman wasn't ready to join Symonds in a crusade for gay rights," although he was quick to praise Symonds' poem, Love and Death, which honored two Athenian male lovers "who sacrificed themselves in the war against Sparta."

"Comrade love," Shively continues, "was thus presented as less selfish than family love, which was concerned with procreation more than community... Whitman's problem with Symonds was that the Englishman wasn't enough of a democrat."

Whitman was being smart and discreet. He also didn't like labels. Had he come out and joined Symonds' crusade it's unlikely that his poetry would have maintained its broad based appeal.

Whitman had special male friends like ex-Confederate soldier Peter Boyle [a thin Irishman who was the poet's primary companion in Camden for 15 years]; Warren Fritzenger [the male nurse who took Whitman along the Camden waterfront in his wheelchair]; William Sydnor [a guy who drove a Pittsburgh streetcar]; David Fender--"a redhaired young man," Whitman wrote; John Ferguson, "tall and slender," and Willy Hayes, "a drummer in a marine band." There was also Walter Dean, whom Whitman met in Philadelphia's John Wanamaker's Department store (John Wanamaker, the so-called King of Merchants, banned Leaves of Grass from Wanamaker's bookstore). But I have only scratched the surface.

I left the small, Mickel Street house that day not having convinced the housekeeper that Whitman was gay, even though thousands of other visitors -- famous academicians, poets, critics, writers -- had all heard the same talk from this [otherwise gracious] elderly lady who went out of her way to insist that the old bard was as heterosexual as John Wayne. Unfortunately, I did not ask the guide if she had any comments on Oscar Wilde's famous remark when Wilde was asked by George Ives in London whether the American poet was "one of the Greek Lovers." Ives asked the big question after Wilde's visit to the poet's brother's house at 431 Stevens Street in Camden (now demolished), where Whitman lived from 1873 to 1884.

Wilde at that time told Ives, "Of course, I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips," but he didn't say any more. The "Of course" speaks volumes.

Literary history is full of stories about how Whitman dealt with women who wrote him love letters, including unflattering and shocking descriptions of Mary Davies (the woman praised by the tour guide) as a woman who preyed on widower's for their inheritances. Poet Allen Ginsberg, when I interviewed him by phone in the early 1990s, was full of Whitman lore, of how he had slept with someone who slept with someone who slept with someone who slept with Whitman, and so on and on. While I've never been a fan of sexual bragging rights, investigating a "chain link fence" like this can be fun.

If Whitman were alive and well today there's little doubt that he would have been one of the first in line at Philadelphia City Hall to apply for a marriage license. Whitman loved City Hall and I'm sure he would have made the trek via high speed line with Peter Doyle to tie the knot. I don't think the Good Gray Poet, as he was called, would have wanted a lot of congratulatory marriage fanfare either. His poetry indicates that he knows the ups and downs of relationships, so he would harbor no illusions about marriage. "Perpetual honeymoons exist only in dreams," he might even suggest. While he would have been proud of Pennsylvania's new openness, at the same time I'm sure he would urge everyone to move on and begin to concentrate on the world's real problems, which have nothing to do about how or "who" we love.