"Whitman and the Homosexual Republic", by Betsy Erkkila
Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994: 153-171
Reviewed by Nakia S. Pope
In his poem "Song of Myself" Walt Whitman holds himself up as cosmic, claiming a spiritual unity with all things. "Walt Whitman, a kosmos," he claims in line 497. There is some irony, then, in the attempts of certain critics to divide up Whitman, parceling him out into various voices. One of these voices is Whitman the public poet, the poet of democracy. Another one of these voices is Whitman the homosexual poet. Too often, Whitman's sexuality is not discussed, despite the fact that sexual metaphor and bodily language permeate "Song of Myself" and the remainder of Leaves of Grass.
Betsy Erkkila, in her essay entitled "Whitman and the Homosexual Republic," takes issue with both public readings of Whitman that avoid his sexuality and critical readings of Whitman that separate his sexuality from his politics. Erkkila is arguing against readings of Whitman that make his sexual love for men distinct from his democratic vision. Such separatist readings make it easier for those who wish to use Whitman as the poet of democracy to ignore his sexuality, doing a disservice both to Whitman and democracy itself.
Central to Erkklia's argument is her claim that the language used by Whitman to describe his sexual feelings is often the same as that used when he discussed democracy. Homosexual language, she says, was not available to Whitman. "I want to insist, that is, on the fact that the word and the category homosexual did not exist when Whitman began writing" (155). Denied a language and a legitimate form of expression for his sexuality, Whitman expressed his sexual love for men in the language of democracy. As Erkkila puts it, pointing to passages in "Song of Myself" as well as the "Calamus" poems among others, Whitman voiced his sexual feelings in the words "of comradeship, brotherhood, equality, social union, and the glories of the laborer and the common people" (155).
Erkkila attempts to avoid reducing Whitman's democratic language to merely expressing his sexuality. She does not claim that Whitman's democratic language is merely an expression of erotic desire. To do so would be to oversimplify Whitman and deny the powerful democratic message he does convey. Rather, Whitman's bodily, sexual language points toward real democracy -- a social order in which love, sex, and sexuality do not have to be repressed. Real democracy is one in which Whitman (and anyone else) can freely express his own sexuality without fear of reprisal.
Erkkila's argument is convincing, though one may be dissatisfied with her desire to show a vague interpretation. Initially, I thought her claims centered around the idea that Whitman's democratic language was merely his attempt to express his sexual love of men in a way that would be socially acceptable. Given that Whitman seemed to be almost never socially acceptable, I was prepared to disagree. Such an account, would, I thought, diminish the subtle and powerful things Whitman does say about democracy. Fortunately, this is not Erkkila's argument. Instead, she offers a reading of Whitman that, I believe strengthens his place as a democratic voice, even if it criticizes those readers who see him only in terms of a democratic poet. In her account, Whitman's identity as a poet is a fluid one. He is simultaneously the poet of sex, democracy, love, and spirituality -- all of which, it seems to me, are ingredients in a true democracy.
Our class may necessarily succumb to Erkkila's reading of Whitman and her criticism of Whitman's critics. While we discussed Whitman's spiritual and democratic vision, almost no mention was made of his sexuality, either in lecture or our electronic discussions. We may have regarded it as a non-issue, saying, in effect: "Whitman was gay. No big deal." It also occurs to me that there may have been members of the class who did or do not know about Whitman's sexuality; we may have avoided incorporating it into our discussions for fear of further stigmatizing or overemphasizing it. If we take Erkkila seriously, however, we have done both Whitman and democracy a disservice by not discussing Whitman's fluid identity. Her reading of Whitman asks us to consider sexuality and democracy simultaneously. It is a reading that is worth considering.
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