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When Wilde Met Whitman

Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman

The 19th century was fixated on manhood. Much has been written about the constraints on Victorian women but gender expectations for men were no less real, although less pronounced. The debates swarming around Wilde were personal, but they also touched on fundamental questions about what made a man a man. Poetry was a battleground for masculinity, and Wilde had entered the fray.

“What is a man anyhow?” a then little-known poet called Walt Whitman asked at mid-century. His reply came in the form of Leaves of Grass, an 1855 poetry collection that sought to establish the nobility of the American working man. Whitman’s inclusive spirit and comprehensive range made his poetry nothing short of revolutionary. When he pictured seamen and horsedrivers, gunners and fishermen, he praised their blend of “manly form” with “the poetic in outdoor people.” Likewise, he assured readers that the ripple of “masculine muscle” definitely had its place in poetry. In Whitman”s book, a working poet could be as manly as marching firemen, and wrestling wrestlers could be just as poetic. Every working man could represent what he triumphantly called “manhood balanced and florid and full!” He redefined who counted as a real man.

It wasn’t long before the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was writing to congratulate Whitman. Emerson had given much thought to these matters. Decades earlier, in his celebrated 1837 “American Scholar” speech, he had observed that society rarely regarded a man as a whole person, but reduced him to less than the sum of his parts. Now Whitman’s poetry had restored men to their whole potential. Leaves of Grass “meets the demand I am always making,” Emerson told Whitman in 1855, praising his exceptionally brave handling of his materials. Here, finally, was an American poet who embraced the totality of man, and celebrated him as a fully embodied individual. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Emerson wrote him.

For a long time, sexuality had been excluded from literature. No more. ”I say that the body of a man or woman, the main matter, is so far quite unexpressed in poems; but that the body is to be expressed, and sex is,” Whitman replied to Emerson. The place to do it, he said, was in American literature. And the way to do it was by writing the truth about men’s appetites, and rejecting the fiction known as “chivalry.” At one time, chivalry designated medieval men-at-arms, but in Wilde’s lifetime, it meant idealized gallantry, especially towards women, and a willingness to defend one’s country. To Whitman, the notion felt clankingly old-fashioned. ”Diluted deferential love, as in songs, fictions, and so forth, is enough to make a man vomit,” he thought. Replace it with a truer picture of love and human nature, Whitman said, and “this empty dish, gallantry, will then be filled with something.”

Whitman’s ideas intrigued Wilde, who looked to the older poet as a role model and possible ally. If friendship and solidarity were too much to ask, there might at least be some positive publicity to be gained from courting Whitman’s attention. By now Wilde realized that he had to advertise himself—it was a necessity if his lectures were not to be an outright failure. It was then that an enterprising young publisher named Joseph Marshall Stoddart suggested that Whitman and Wilde share an open carriage ride through wintry Philadelphia—a proposition designed to attract maximum publicity. Stoddart had bought the American rights to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas; he therefore had a personal stake in the success of Patience and, by extension, in Wilde. When he pictured the pair rolling through the City of Brotherly Love, visible to all, Stoddart must have fantasized about the stunt’s potential to make the dollars roll in.

Whitman quickly put an end to that pipe dream. ”I am an invalid—just suffering an extra bad spell & forbidden to go out nights [in] this weather,” the 62-year-old replied, vetoing the invitation. If Whitman read the Philadelphia Press a few days later, he would have noticed the aesthete fawning over him on page 2. “What poet do you most admire in American literature?” the reporter asked. “I think that Walt Whitman and Emerson have given the world more than anyone else. I do so hope to meet Mr. Whitman,” Wilde said, so delivering his billet doux in public. “I admire him intensely,” he continued.Then, gilding the lily, he added, ”Dante Rossetti, Swinburne, William Morris, and I often discuss him.” He was not above embellishing the truth, or insinuating that he might be Whitman’s heir-apparent from overseas.

Flattery has been known to open doors, and Wilde’s lifelong habit of smooth talking those he wished to persuade may eventually have unlocked Whitman’s. The key, this time, was one Wilde had not tried before: he used the press as a go-between, and it worked. The next morning, Whitman loaded a pen with black ink and shot off a quick note inviting Wilde to visit him that afternoon.

“Diluted deferential love, as in songs, fictions, and so forth, is enough to make a man vomit.”

When Wilde knocked on the door of 431 Stevens Street, a boyhood dream was about to be fulfilled. When he was 11 years old, he and his mother read Leaves of Grass together. The book was not then in wide circulation, but Speranza managed to get her hands on one of the earliest copies and made a habit of reading passages aloud to her young son.

This boyhood Whitman was probably quite different from the edition which introduced the American poet to most British readers. William Michael Rossetti’s selection of 1868 cut the book by half, excluding “every poem which could with any tolerable fairness be deemed offensive to the feelings of morals or propriety in this peculiarly nervous age.” Within a year, the sanitized Whitman had many admirers in England. Little did they know how much had been cut from the American Leaves of Grass to make the British version. ”I am a free companion,” Whitman proclaimed (and Rossetti excised). “I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself, I tighten her all night to my thighs and lips,”Whitman wrote (and Rossetti deleted). Whitman called Rossetti’s edition a “horrible dismemberment of my book.”

In the American Leaves of Grass, Whitman spoke for so many that his voice boomed like a chorus.

Walt Whitman am I, of mighty Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy and sensual, eating, drinking and breeding;. . .
Through me many long dumb voices;
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves;
Voices of prostitutes, and of deform’d persons;
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs;. . .
Through me forbidden voices;
Voices of sexes and lusts—voices veil’d, and I remove the veil; V
oices indecent, by me clarified and transfigur’d. . . .
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart;
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.

The modern ear may hear in these breathless enumerations a more-is-more exuberance. To Rossetti, such an earthy catalogue of potential conquests counted among the poems’ “deforming crudities.” The repetitions at the beginning of successive clauses (“through,” “voices”) pump Whitman’s red-blooded ideas through the poem with the insistence of a heartbeat. Such pulsating lines could not, the editor Rossetti explained, ”be placed with a sense of security in the hands of girls and youths, or read aloud to women.”

Perhaps Speranza felt she could read them aloud to her son, however. Whitman was a daring choice of reading material for mother and son. In “Song of Myself,” a poem Rossetti excluded, Whitman wrote:

I am enamoured of growing outdoors,
Of men that live among cattle, or taste of the ocean or woods,
Of the builders and steerers of ships, and the wielders
of axes and mauls, and the drivers of horses,
I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.

What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is
Me, Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me.

Speranza fostered “adult” tastes in her son, and his growing independence enabled him to explore them to the full. So long as his adventures remained intellectual and sartorial, he was happy to share them with his mother. As an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin, he would invite a friend to her salon in Merrion Square.”Come home with me,” he said, “I want to introduce you to my mother. We have founded a society for the suppression of virtue.”

Upon entering Whitman’s whitewashed chamber on 18 January 1882, Wilde noticed, first, just how small and bare the room was, and then, almost immediately, how large and majestic Whitman looked sitting in it. As a result of a paralytic stroke, he seemed much older than his years. His snow white beard spread down his neck and onto his chest. But on the frontispiece of the most recent edition of Leaves of Grass, he appeared to have stopped the clock. There, forever fixed, he still appeared as a cocky 37-year-old workman-dandy—only a few years older than Wilde was now. There was good reason to see them as poetic alter egos, since their writings were, by now, both notorious for indulging in sensuality.

On that winter’s day in 1882, Wilde was certain Whitman was “the grandest man I have ever seen. The simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life.” The younger man, eager to establish his kinship, told Whitman, ”I have come to you as to one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle.” But Whitman didn’t immediately warm to him. He was usually stand-offish before he admitted an admirer into his life. Years before, on an index-card-sized scrap of paper entitled “To a new personal admirer,” Whitman had started a list of questions he might address to a fan. ”Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal of manliness and of love?” he began. Then, he paused, scratched out the word “love,” and continued his inquiry. ”Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?” he wondered. “Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?”

“When Wilde knocked on the door of 431 Stevens Street, a boyhood dream was about to be fulfilled.”

It was no coincidence that Whitman’s list gave the impression of an interviewer preparing to give a subject a hard time. As a young journalist in the first half of the 19th century, asking questions had been the backbone of his approach. After leaving school at 11, he learned the printing trade, and by 18 he was working as a newspaper editor and journalist. Whitman’s career, from the 1830s to the late 1850s, put him at the center of the rapidly changing literary world. He belonged to the world of New York”s popular press and was practiced in interview-style reportage (as early as 1845 he wrote “A Dialogue” between a convict and “the people”). When he gave up journalism, he transferred his straightforward, vivid reporting style over to the craft of poetry. Often, his poems took the shape of a one-sided conversation, a sort of dialogue between himself and an imaginary interlocutor. Likewise, Wilde’s experience of interviewing would later mould the dialogue in his plays and criticism.

No reporters were invited to witness the meeting between Whitman and Wilde. This was a strange choice for two dandyish men who loved self-promotion, but it was a canny one: they would each give separate interviews afterwards, and double the attention they received. In the two hours they’d spent together, both said they’d had a very pleasant time. “One of the first things I said was that I should call him ‘Oscar,’“ Whitman told a reporter afterwards. “’I like that so much,’ he answered, laying his hand on my knee. He seemed to me like a great big, splendid boy.”

They had enjoyed a bottle of wine together and talked about poetry—about Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Morris, Tennyson, and Browning. The old poet had let the young aesthete hold forth on the intentions of his school of art. When Wilde asked about Whitman’s poetic theories, the old man smiled and answered amiably, like the best of mentors. He had his private doubts about Aestheticism, but he was personally encouraging to Wilde. Whitman opened up about problems he was trying to solve in his own poetry—issues that included sensuality, which he thought essential and his critics thought obscene. Years later, Wilde amplified his appreciation for Whitman’s fresh, uninhibited idea of sexuality, calling it “the relation of the sexes, conceived in a natural, simple and healthy form.” That made it sound wholesome and pink-cheeked. In his own works Wilde tried to tell the unvarnished truth, as Whitman did, when he described his poetry as “the song of Sex, and Amativeness, and even Animality.”

Turning the conversation back to Wilde, Whitman was anxious to know whether this young aesthete was going to have the courage to do something new with his poetry and his art movement. Would he dare to question the age’s pieties? What revolutions did he have in store? The white-beard urged the smooth-faced aesthete to have the courage of his opinions. ”Are not you young fellows going to shove the established idols aside?” he asked, as a goad to Wilde’s revolutionary spirit. In the newspaper articles that inevitably followed this encounter, the poets endorsed each other.Whitman bragged that “Wilde had the good sense to take a great fancy to me.” The feeling was mutual. Wilde felt he had won Whitman’s seal of approval. Years later, he told a friend, “the kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips.”


From Making Oscar Wilde. Used with permission of Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2018 by Michèle Mendelssohn.

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