Homosexuality has been viewed as unnatural and immoral throughout history. When Walt Whitman first published his 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, over a hundred years before the society even considered accepting homosexual behaviors, it included the “Calamus” sequence that describes his romance with another man. Reviewers called his poetry “obscene” and “that horrible sin not to be named among Christians’” (Schmidgall). His boss even fired him from his job as a clerk. Whitman admirably chose not to censor his poetry to fit society’s hateful ideologies as he expresses his beautiful relationship with another man. This bravery communicates a message of self-love and a sense of oneness between every person on this planet. These are essential concepts of democracy and transcendentalism. Whitman’s courageous language, use of free verse enforces a positive message to everybody, and especially to those LGBTQ+ individuals who struggle with shame and acceptance with themselves or within a society, he does that while also encouraging people to act in order to shape the government as a reflection of its people.
In Whitman’s writing, he analyzes the human experience as it is shared by everyone. In fact, the first line of “Song of Myself” is, “I celebrate myself, and sing to myself” (Whitman 1312). This line sets the scene for the entire poem as a means of loving and accepting everything and every person on earth. The idea of self-love and getting to know oneself is essential to understanding Whitman. Whitman writes of celebrating himself along with celebrating the world—celebrating ourselves and each other at the same time. This sense of self-love can be particularly difficult for those who enjoy sexual and romantic acts that society has deemed unnatural and wrong. In Whitman’s “Calamus,” he narrates a love story of him and another man— a story that he suffers for, but in today’s world is celebrated as a proclamation of the beauty of homosexual relations.
In “Calamus,” Whitman narrates falling in love and offering his hand, his life and his affection for another man. He is unapologetic and straightforward in his writing. A quote that expresses this is from section three of the “Calamus,” sequence of Leaves of Grass. He writes, “Or, if you will be thrusting me beneath your clothing, / Where I feel the throbs of your heart…/ For thus, merely touching you, is enough— it is best, / And thus touching you, would I silently slope and be / Carried eternally” (Whitman 346). He gives his lover an ultimatum: he must leave his life as he knows it behind and be dedicated to Whitman completely, or not have Whitman at all. He expresses his affection for his lover through poetry as a celebration of the sexual relations they shared. They do not end up together, but that did not stop Whitman from expressing his feelings and describing the love and beauty and oneness the relationship caused him. By including this sequence and other poems expressing homosexual ideas, Whitman encourages fluidity in gender and sexual freedom, thus encouraging political action to shape democracy how it should be.
Whitman attempts to discourage conformities throughout Leaves of Grass. Whitman expresses in “Calamus” the fluidity of gender and sexuality that society has tried to destroy; he suggests that two men kissing goodbye should be viewed as a casual occurrence. A question that Whitman purposes is why must we suppress our affection and be selective about it. Whitman writes in section five of “Calamus,” “Affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom, / Those who love each other shall be invisible, / They shall finally make America completely victorious, / in my name” (Whitman 349). In this section of “Calamus,” Whitman discusses how professionals such as lawyers are not the ones who will shape American democracy, but the common people’s love for one another. If everybody would listen to his message and attempt to be free from conformities manufactured by the material world, not only would everybody respect each other, but the country will be truly the land of the free as well.
Whitman celebrates differences among people through cataloging: a method he uses in his poetry to list extensive examples of different people and situations, encouraging the idea that every person has different idiosyncrasies, but we are all still one. In Charles Molesworth’s literary critique, “Whitman’s Political Vision,” he writes, “The joy in the individual heart was as crucial for him [Whitman] as was the rule of the democratic mass that lent to all individuals their ultimate political significance” (Molesworth). Here, Molesworth expresses how Whitman would view current affairs through the themes in his poetry. Whitman praises the American idea that the government gets its power from the people that is designed to help and protect those people.
Throughout his writing, Whitman has an underlying message of taking an active political role. In his preface to the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes, “But the genius of the United States is not best on its executives or legislators but always most in the common people” (Whitman 1298). Here Whitman praises the idea that the people give the power to the government and shape it to help them. In his writing, especially in his writing that would be viewed as scandalous during his time, Whitman promotes government engagement through living and loving freely and working to shape a system that puts no limits on anyone’s ability to live their truest life.
Molesworth, Charles. “Whitman’s Political Vision.” Summer92, Vol. 12 Issue 1, Raritan, pp 98.
Schmidgall, Gary. “Marching with Walt Whitman.” Here Publications, 2000.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass, 1860 The 150th Anniversary Facsimile Edition. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 2011, pp 349.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” The Norton Anthology American Literature: Volume A, edited by Robert S. Levine, Ninth Edition, Norton, 2017, pp. 1356.