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From Whitman to Wilde: A Cultural Perspective on Individualism at the Fin de Siècle

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What was it about Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde that compelled them

to search for new ways of coming to terms with identity and individualism?

What restless spirit imbued their souls---that pierced their identities so

deeply--- that they struggled to reach a purer understanding of the riddles

of human individualism and identity? What made them want to

celebrate, as Whitman would say, the individual soul.[1]

The nineteenth century in western civilization may be understood as an

attempt to work out the relationship between the individual and society. From

the revolutions of the late 1840s in Europe to the American Civil War at

mid-century to the Boer War at the fin-de-siecle, this century, like no other

before it, witnessed extraordinary change that seemed to some to threaten

the very foundations of western culture itself. For others, these changes

marked the path towards fulfillment of the promises of individualism.

The process of modern nation-state development in both Europe and

America---and the role of the individual in the nation-state---was still e

volving in 1819 when Walt Whitman was born in Huntington, Long Island.

As he himself later noted: "The ancestors of Walt Whitman,

on both the paternal [from England] and maternal [Dutch descent] sides,

kept a good table, sustain'd the hospitalities, decorums, and an excellent

social reputation in the county, and they were often of

mark'd individuality."[2] Individuality meant "...the pride and centripetal

isolation of a human being in himself---identity--- personalism."[3] And for

Whitman, as he says in Democratic Vistas, the growth of of the nation was

analogous to the development of the individual.

The purpose of, through many transmigrations,

and amid endless ridicules, arguments, and ostensible failures,

to illustrate, at all hazards, this doctrine or theory that man

properly train'd in sanest, highest freedom, may and must

become a law, and series of laws, unto himself, surrounding and

providing for, not only his own personal control,

but all his relations to other individuals, and to the


But Whitman's doctrine of individualism was sometimes more welcome

abroad than at home; an 1872 letter from Whitman to a Dutch reader, for

instance, noted that his work was not "....cordially accepted in the United


Just five percent of Whitman's gross income in 1885 was from American

royalties, although slightly more than half (51.4 %) was derived

from Great Britain.[6] Ironic that the American upstart poet of democracy

and individuality should be preoccupied with tracing his lineage back to Europe,

while Wilde, the Irish author and wit, traveled to the United States on a public

lecture tour in 1882 preaching his gospel of aestheticism and regeneration

through art. It was unclear whether classical liberalism, the

democratic theory espousing individualism, and the association of poets

and other artists, like Whitman and Wilde, with the doctrine of individualism,

would prevail in western life, or whether conservatism, and the cultural and

social critics of modernism, like Max Nordau and Anthony

Comstock, would ultimately triumph.

Indeed, as countries nationalized and consolidated state power the

reconciliation of the individual and society became all the more urgent.

For example, although Victor Emmanuel was crowned King of Italy in

1861, Rome was not designated as its capital until the early 1870s.

Germany did not unify until the 1870s in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian

War under the leadership of Bismarck. Wilhelm I of Prussia was

elevated by the German princes to Kaiser of the Germans on January 18, 1871.

Following her defeat in the war against Prussia, the government of Napoleon III

capitulated and was replaced by the Third Republic. And, the United States

fought a bitter and bloody conflict from 1861 to 1865 against the southern states to establish the supremacy of central authority

in the American federal system.[7]

Society itself was still experiencing widespread social displacement and

economic dislocation resulting from the process of industrialization leading to urbanization

and the weakening of traditional foundations and institutions of society as the world around

it changed. For example, overall European population growth rose from 190 million in 1800 to

about 260 million at mid-century to 460 million in 1914. By 1850 the population of London

was almost 2 million while from 1850 to 1870 the populations of Berlin and Paris

doubled in size. In 1800 the population of New York City was some 70 thousand. By

1850 New York City residents numbered around half a million.[8]

The use of steam power to drive the engine of commercial progress fueled

economic growth in the nineteenth century: in 1815, just four years before Whitman was

born, Great Britain was producing some 16 million tons of coal per annum. By 1856, the

year that the second edition of Leaves of Grass appeared, the level of British coal

production had skyrocketed to approximately 65 million tons per year. And after 1870 new

sources of power were developed as the manufacturing economy of the west continued to


The first half of the nineteenth century also witnessed remarkable progress in

communications technology. Prior to 1840, communications had to be either within sight

or within hearing distance. In 1844 the first communication was sent via telegraph from

Baltimore to Washington, D.C. The first underwater cable was laid under the English

channel by 1851 and, by 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War a transatlantic cable

was fully functional.[10]

Cultural, economic, political, social, and technological change swept through

western society during the nineteenth century. And, along with those changes, came an

evolving set of limits of civilization whose contours themselves were being remolded as

these broader cultural trends began to take root in the civilization. But one thing was

certain: the fate "...of the individual, of the nation, and of spiritual possibility" was, for

both Whitman and Wilde at least, intertwined.[11]

As Whitman says in Song of the Exposition:

With latest connections, works, the inter-transportation of the


Steam-power, the great express lines, gas, petroleum,

These triumphs of our time, the Atlantic's delicate cable,

The Pacific railroad, the Suez canal, the Mont Cenis and

Gothard and Hoosac tunnels, the Brooklyn


This earth all spann'd with iron rails, with lines of steamships

threading every sea,

Our own rondure, the current globe I bring.[12]

The international, transatlantic character of this cultural shift towards greater

individualism lent an interesting dynamic to the movement. And the conversations that

surrounded it adds another dimension of understanding to these wider changes in society.

There was the language of liberty, progress and individualism, on the one hand, and the

language of illiberality, reaction and social tradition, on the other. And central to this shifting

paradigm was the role of the individual in society. This basic question led to other questions about

identity, inclusion, equality, freedom, morality, and aesthetics. The international debate about the

nature of individualism in the West paralleled nation-building and was fueled by technological

innovations that unified space and time and eradicated distance. But while technology moved

towards the standardization of real time and the shortening of distances, facilitating the cross-seas

conversation about individuality, the world was still not united culturally and ideologically. So

ultimately, these sometimes disparate views---promoting the rights of the individual or preserving

the rights of the state over and above the individual---came into increasingly sharp relief.


Whitman and Wilde both play an important role in the development of a new language

about identity and individualism in the latter half of the nineteenth century. And the reactions

and criticisms of them---both critical and personal---occupy an equally important place in the

development of a language of repression and social activism that in some cases was based on the

evolving terminology of biological and social Darwinism. Hence, Max Nordau's conception of

degeneration. Considering a few examples of the kinds of language both the proponents and

opponents of individualism employed helps to illuminate this debate and the cultural underpinnings

that supported it. One approach is to look at Whitman as marking one point on a historical spectrum

of individualism with Wilde marking the endpoint, or limits of individualism.

Whitman and Wilde can be viewed as poles of a continuum of individualism that

was developing throughout the nineteenth century. Their voices were part of this larger

discourse about the relationship between the individual and the state. Both, no doubt, would have

preferred the poetic response. The allure of words, writing, wit motivated them. Wilde talks

about it time and again in the "Critic as Artist" or "The Soul of Man Under Socialism."

One of Whitman's projects in Leaves of Grass is to describe the individual soul. Whitman

and Wilde's representations of individualism are mediated through their identities as poet and

person provoking different responses to their conceptions of personhood and self in the latter

half of the nineteenth century. There are significant historical reasons, a cultural milieu, which

helps explain their treatment and outcome within the context of mid- to late Victorian society.

The comparison may strike one as odd; that the unacknowledged American poet

laureate, Walt Whitman, and the British social critic par excellence, Oscar Wilde, might

be analyzed side-by-side, compared and contrasted, and linked through a number of

parallelisms and contingencies. If this appears an unlikely project at first thought, on

closer examination the similarities and differences take form and shape a perspective on

nineteenth-century individualism.

From the point of view of literary historicism, enthusiasm for Whitman and Wilde

studies has been generated for a number of reasons. First, anniversaries of important

events in both authors' lives have brought various commemorations, conferences,

performances, and publications. The turn of the century, especially for Wilde scholars,

was a significant milestone in Wildean research, marking a century since his ignominious

death in 1900.The persistent desire to find similarities in both the fin-de-siecle and the

turn of the twentieth century has attracted a locus of academic interest in Wilde's life and

work. Second, queer theorists and the development of what has come to be known as Gay

& Lesbian studies has also contributed to a renewal of interest in Whitman and Wilde.

Pink partisans appropriate both authors as exemplars of homosexual achievement and

offer fresh interpretations of their work adding yet another dimension to literary

scholarship. And finally, there are no doubt anxious opponents of their work today just as

there were during their lifetimes.[13]

Good, solid, factual, well-researched biographies are extant for both authors.

Whitman studies, for example, have a distinguished academic history: from Gay Wilson

Allen doing research in the post-World War Two era to contemporary scholars like Gary

Schmidgall, David S. Reynolds, Michael Moon, and Justin Kaplan. More recent

treatments of Whitman run the gamut of literary theory from post-modernism and cultural

history to post-colonialism and deconstruction. Some researchers---like Schmidgall---

bridge both fields of expertise having written biographies of both Whitman and Wilde.

Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde met at Whitman's brother's house in Camden,

New Jersey in January, 1882.[14] Whitman moved in with his brother, the Civil War

veteran, George Whitman, in 1873 on Stevens Street in Camden to be nearer his then

failing mother, and since suffering a stroke himself while in Washington D.C. in that

same year.[15] There is some speculation that Whitman and Wilde actually met twice at the

Stevens Street house in Camden during Wilde's American tour. First, in January 1882,

and then again in May of 1882.[16] Whatever the number of visits, the two great literary

souls, despite being dissimilar in important respects, had an extraordinary number of

parallels in their lives. Their meeting is also evidence of the sort of transatlantic character

of western intellectual and literary trends. Technological developments in the nineteenth

century---like the trans-oceanic telegraph cable and steamships---made the facility of

such conversations all the more possible.

Walt Whitman was a largely self-taught American poet whose writings celebrated

the individual, the organization of the United States, spanned the limits of American class

and sex distinctions, and encapsulated in free form prose the hopes and dreams of

common Americans. Oscar Wilde, the Oxford-educated wit, playwright, novelist, poet,

and social critic, parodied the class divisions in British society, especially in his stage

dramas, while advocating a form of individualism compatible with English society,

particularly in his essays and prose writings. Both Wilde and Whitman viewed the artist,

or wordsmith, as occupying a peculiarly important place in society, and their writing

reflected this appreciation of the poet. Wilde and Whitman also wrote either about or for

children showing a concern for future generations of society and their welfare. Both

experienced life-altering events that would influence their future artistic direction, and

that delineated distinct periods in their work. Whitman and Wilde both encountered the

outer limits of individualism and the law in what amounted to, in both cases, critical

attacks on their literary works, and, particularly in Wilde's case, vicious cultural and

political attacks on their person and character. And finally, there was the tete-a-tete in

Camden. The literary equivalent of Raphael's School of Athens, the Last Supper or the

meeting of Grant and Lee at Appomattox concluding the war that so significantly

impacted Whitman.

The analysis here focuses on the cultural and historical milieu that influenced

Whitman and Wilde's thought and ideology as expressed in their writing displacing

the critical preoccupation on the poet-as-person (biographical approach) and zeroes in on

the poet-as-poet (literary-historical approach). From a philosophical point of view,

Whitman and Wilde's aesthetics were very different, although their fundamental views

concerning individualism may have been based on a similar political and theoretical

foundation.[17] Max Nordau presents the traditional critique of Whitman and Wilde. In

important ways all their works may be read as a part of a larger conversation about the

role of the individual in western society, a kind of transatlantic dialect.

The nineteenth century, as previously mentioned was a time of transformation.

The development and growth of industrial economies, the defining of the limits of

the modern nation-state, and the debate over individual rights and duties

dominated many of the cultural wars and political debates of the century. Two basic

approaches to these questions can be formulated: the conflict of civilizations

model and the cultural exchange or transactional model. These competing

theories of cultural change evoked different outlooks and worldviews, or, as the Germans

would say, weltanschauung. The divide may not be so different from past social divisions

like those between the Ancien Regime and the Regime Nouveau. But there is little doubt

that the fissure was of a cultural and political nature and the level of anxiety produced

could be palpable.

Max Nordau, author of Entartung, a treatise on the degeneration of western

civilization, represented the conflict model along with various other moralists, social

reformers, and concerned persons worried about the erosion of etiquette, manners, values,

and all sorts of other conventions of polite society. Nordau complained that "[t]his style

of decadence is the last effort of the Word (Verbe), called upon to express everything,

and pushed to the utmost extremity. We may remind ourselves, in connection with it, of

the language of the Late Roman Empire, already mottled with the greenness of


If Nordau looked to the past as the criterion from which to judge the present,

Whitman looked to the future: in Song of the Redwood-tree he says "...I too have

consciousness, identity..."[19] For Whitman, the individual "...'Soul' is a part of the

'World-Soul,'" or weltgeist. The intersection of past, present, and future was not so much

a temporal conflict as it was a crucible of Time, an exchange or temporal transaction,

incorporating the past while remaining in the present and looking forward to the future.

Fresh come, to a new world indeed,

yet long prepared,

I see the genius of the modern,

child of the real and ideal,

Clearing the ground for broad humanity,

the true America, heir of the past so grand,

To build a grander future.[20]

Wilde used characteristically wry wit to describe his rather skeptical view of the

past: "The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it. That is not the least of the tasks in

store for the critical spirit. When we have fully discovered the scientific laws that govern

life, we shall realize that the one person who has more illusions than the dreamer is the

man of action. He, indeed, knows neither the origin of his deeds nor their results. From

the field in which he thought that he had sown thorns, we have gathered our vintage, and

the fig-tree that he planted for our pleasure is as barren as the thistle, and more bitter. It is

because Humanity has never known where it was going that it has been able to find its

way."[21] The moderne represented the cutting-edge, the avant-garde, optimism, and the

hope of renewal. The Victorian represented tradition and unease over an unpredictable

and uncertain future in the waning light of a quickly receding, romanticized past.

Where Whitman was both poet and prophet of this new modernist ideal of

individualism, Wilde was more of a transitional, boundary-breaking figure personally

constrained and limited in ways that Whitman avoided. Whitman had lived through the

tumultuous American Civil War and its aftermath fought on home soil to determine the

destiny of the Union.[22] Although he did not live to see its conclusion, Wilde lived

through the beginning of the Boer War fought on foreign soil to signal the fate of the

British Empire. While perhaps in 1865 the Civil War could still be imagined as a

romantic war where the will of heroes was tested on the battlefield, the Boer War fought

on South African soil between British and Dutch colonialists generated no such illusions

in 1899. The Boer War (1899-1902) exposed the kind of weakness and vulnerability of

the empire that Nordau and his conflict theorists saw expressed in the "...insufficiently

healthy and robust military recruits amongst the population of London..."[23] He would

probably be equally quick to point out that some percentage of the blame for the

degeneracy of London's youth was directly proportional to Wilde's consorting with many

of those very young men. "Wilde obtained," Nordau notes, "...a notoriety in the whole of

the Anglo-Saxon world that his poems and dramas would never had acquired for him."[24]

He concludes his indictment of the Irish author with this observation: "Oscar Wilde

apparently admires immorality, sin and crime."[25] And Whitman's morals and his

corrupting effects on the young of New York would be similarly suspect in the

fantastically illicit mind of not only Nordau, but Anthony Comstock and his compatriots

as well.

Whitman, while not unaware of the excesses, faults, and problems of nineteenth-

century urbanism, poverty, and industrialization, nevertheless had a much more hopeful

view.[26] Cultural transaction theorists are more assimilative, or ameliorative, to use a

more Whitmanesque term. They can envision a future that incorporates the best of the

past with the best of the contemporary. Whitman catches this encapsulation in On the

Beach at Night Alone:

As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the

clef of the universes and of the future.


All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different,

or indifferent worlds,


All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,

All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe,

or any globe

All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,

This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann'd,

And shall forever span them and compactly

hold and enclose them. [27]

Whitman, Wilde, and Nordau, then, each represent a unique position in relation

to temporality. Nordau and his crowd represents longing for a romanticized, ideal past

and scorn, even contempt, for the modern. Wilde acknowledges the past, but embraces

the present in his desire to celebrate art-for-art's sake. And Whitman immerses the

past, present and future into the transcendental; that is, his notion of World-Soul, or


During the last quarter of the nineteenth century socio-economic growth was met

by numerous new sciences---the social sciences---that sought to apply the laws of

Darwin, Mendel, and other natural sciences to human society and the individual.

Consequently, there was a rise in various pseudo-sciences such as phrenology, sexology,

and eugenics. Late Victorian psychiatry and psychology, crude as they were, identified

double-consciousness, hysteria, and a myriad of other diseases of the mind. A multitude

of sexual matrices were developed to distinguish the morally immaculate from the

corrupted and perverse. And personal identity was grounded in a racialized, eugenic view

of human origins and evolution. These new discourses attempted to limit individualism

in late Victorian society on the basis of social decadence, moral probity, and cultural


Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass is a celebration of the individual in modern

society. Individualism, according to Whitman, is tied to identity and the soul. Whitman's

individualism is also expressed as an uniquely American identity. His poetry itself---like

the nation---was an experiment in freedom and democracy. In fact, his brother George

once referred to Whitman's poetry as a "language experiment."[28]

If Whitman's individualism is expressed in his poetry, then those representations

are mediated by his identity as national poet, cosmic poet, and sexual poet. Whitman's

identification with the development and manifest destiny of the nation colors his vision of

individualism and America as progressive, expansive, and generative. Wilde's position in

the highly stratified British society, an Irishman in London, a homosexual in a

heterosexual world, an effete in an elite culture, shaped his view of individualism as

regenerative, circumscribed, and punishable. While Whitman was largely successful in

casting his poetry about individualism in the language of patriotism and within the

context of nationalization, Wilde's literature becomes inextricably implicated with his

person, conduct, and the state police power leading to his eventual arrest, trial, and

imprisonment thus more nearly approximating the limits of the individual in society

and resulting in his professional and personal demise.


Whitman identified the growth of Leaves of Grass with the growth of the nation.

This sentiment was expressed by Whitman in a postcard that he attached to the 1888

Edition of Leaves of Grass that he sent to his friend, William Douglas O'Connor in

March of 1889:

I can hardly tell why, but feel very positively that if anything can

justify my revolutionary attempts & utterances, it is such ensemble

---like a great city to modern civilization & a whole combined

clustering paradoxical identity...[29]

Even in his 1856 Preface---the correspondence with Emerson---he "[calls] for identity,

for national character, and individuality."[30] The purpose of Leaves of Grass, Whitman

wrote in A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads, was " bear upon American

individuality and assist it---not only because that is a great lesson in Nature, amid all her

generalizing laws, but as a counterpoise to the leveling tendencies of Democracy."[31] He

claimed that "[a]n individual is as superb as a nation when he has the qualities which

make a superb nation."[32] This equation or juxtaposing of national identity with self-

identity is a fusion, of the individual and the nation as a unity, equality, inclusion,

democracy, and union.

In Starting From Paumanok Whitman describes an American point of view and

announces or sings for a new religion of "Love and Democracy." This "melange" of

incongruous elements: equality, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the rights of

common people.[33] These democratic principles are embodied in the poem: "O such

themes---equalities! O divine average."[34] The idea that democracy operates by the laws

of probability as in nature, and that this average or mean tempers the human bent

towards egotism and apportions the balance between the individual, self-interest, and the

social, public interest.[35] And, in Song of Myself Whitman equates his person and

citizenship with the poem and country. In that respect, Song of Myself is not just a poem

about the self, nor the nation only, but is "...through Atlantica's depths pulses/American

Europe reaching, pulses of Europe /duly returned..."[36] This international announcement

heralds democracy and individualism from the New World to the Old World. This is the

poetic call around the globe that alarmed so many poets, popes, and politicians alike.[37]

Whitman the cosmic poet spoke to those universal aspirations and transcendent

qualities of the human soul.

I have said that the soul is not more than the


And I have said that the body is not more

than the soul,

And nothing, not God, is greater to one

than one's self is,[38]

Whitman's frequent cataloging allows him to name or identify the particular individuals

who together comprise the universal whole. These individuals, en masse, form the

population from which the divine average will be drawn. "These are really the thoughts

of all men in all ages and lands," he says, "If they are not yours as much as mine they are

nothing, or next to nothing."[39] The cosmic consciousness realizes that "[a]ll truths wait in

all things, /[t]hey neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it."[40] This invitation to

action and movement towards self-fulfillment and realizing human potential defies "logic

and sermons."[41] Reason nor religion can contain the soul: "My faith is the greatest of

faiths and the least of faiths."[42] The cosmic identity is not discrete, but is a constellation

of differing, often contradictory, impulses, needs, desires, and feelings shifting across and

within categories. He concludes Song of Myself with this universal truth: "Do I

contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain


"For the great idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals," Whitman writes in

By Blue Ontario's Shore, "[w]ithout extinction is Liberty, without retrograde is

Equality."[44] The cosmic poet declares: "Underneath all, individuals, /I swear nothing is

good to me now that ignores individuals, /The American compact is altogether with

individuals,.../The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one single

individual---namely to You."[45] The cosmic reach of American democracy would

transcend the boundaries of geography, nationality, race, language, culture. The

weltschauung will be imbued with the spirit of democracy: "World of the soul, born by

the world of the real alone, led to identity, body, by it alone."[46] The materiality of the

soul gives form to identity. "It is not to diffuse you that you were born of your mother

and father, it is to identify you, /It is not that you should be undecided, but that you

should be decided."[47] The cosmic reality of a world of individuals radiating outward from

America, the promised land, was exclaimed by the poet, although it had not yet been

fully realized. The promise would be kept in the future as positive individualism, self-

directed, and assured. Until that time comes, "...the great pride of man in himself..." is a

negative individualism, nihilistic, and selfish.[48]

Whitman the sexual poet strayed beyond the literary conventions of Victorian and

nineteenth-century American propriety in speaking about human sexuality. His work in

important ways is a manifesto to disobey social mores, and especially religious strictures,

and treat sexuality as a natural part of being human.

By silence or obedience the pens of savans, poets, historians, biographers, and the rest, have long

connived at the filthy law, and books enslaved to it,

that what makes the manhood of a man, that sex,

womanhood, maternity, desires, lusty animations,

organs, acts, are unmentionable and to be ashamed

of, to be driven to skulk out of literature with whatever

belongs to them. This filthy law has to be repealed---

it stands in the way of great reforms.[49]

When Whitman first published Leaves of Grass in 1855, the language used to

identify human sexuality was still ambiguous, evolving, fluid, and polymorphic.

The categories of heterosexual and homosexual were nonexistent before the 1870s and do

not come into widespread use until the 1890s. There was other historical terminology

referring to male homosexuality and sexual freedom, but there were no direct references

to same-sex attraction, desire, and sexual activity between men. Terms like dandy, fop,

free thinker and free spirit, libertine, molly, rake, roue, and sodomite were sometimes

used, however, they could also be connoted in other ways not specifically referring to


Despite the imprecision of the language, Whitman managed to communicate his

ideas about sexuality and identity quite successfully. Especially in the first few editions

of Leaves of Grass, Whitman was clearly much more expansive than any of his American

literary predecessors. In Song of Myself he celebrates the sexuality of the body in less

than opaque terms:

Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of dimness opposite equals advance,

always substance,

and increases, always sex, Always a knit of identity, always distinction,

always a breed of life.[51]

Whitman clearly thought that desire and sexuality were primary motivating

human forces, when in A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads he says:

From another point of view "Leaves of Grass" is avowedly

the song of Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality---

though meanings that do not usually go along with those

words are behind all, and will duly emerge; and all are sought

to be lifted into a different light and atmosphere. Of this

feature, intentionally palpable in a few lines, I shall only say

the espousing principle of those lines so gives breath of life

to my whole scheme that the bulk of the pieces might as well have been left unwritten were those lines omitted. Difficult as it will be,

it has become, in my opinion, imperative to achieve a shifted

attitude from superior men and women towards the thought and fact of sexuality, as an element in character, personality, the

emotions, and a theme in literature. I am not going to argue the

question by itself; it does not stand by itself. The vitality of it

is altogether in its relations, bearings, significance---like the clef

of a symphony. At last analogy the lines I allude to, and the spirit in which they are spoken, permeate all "Leaves of Grass," and

the work must stand or fall with them, as the human body and soul must remain as an entirety.[52]

Whitman's view of sexuality as generative, natural, and vital was a refreshing

reprieve from Victorian notions of sex as shameful, prurient, and degenerate. Gay Wilson

Allen observed that Whitman believed "...that sex must be brought out of concealment

into the open in order to foster a sane, healthy attitude toward this important phase of life.

In the twentieth century this argument is readily acceptable; and one of Whitman's most

lasting achievements was his contribution toward the breaking down of prudery and

taboos against sex in literature."[53] Whitman's poems about sexuality have generally been

divided into two broad groupings: those dealing with amativeness (heterosexuality) in the

Children of Adam and the collection dealing with adhesiveness (homosexuality) in

Calamus.[54] Not everyone, however, was as enthusiastic as Whitman about his frank

openness about human sexuality. His brother, George, for example, charged that "...

'Children of Adam', were 'of the whorehouse order' and had brought him the worst kind

of notoriety..."[55] And George's criticism was not the only attack on his use of sexual

imagery as will later be shown.

Unmistakably, Whitman's poetry did self-consciously bring sunlight to the

issue of human sexuality. In Song of Myself he declares:

Through me forbidden voice,

Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil'd and I

remove the veil,

Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur'd[56]

The explicitness and directness of Whitman's sexual imagery has the effect of "...bathing

[his] songs in Sex..."[57] This kind of lusty language reverberates throughout Whitman's

verse and is metaphorically captured in these lines from Crossing Brooklyn Ferry:

What is more subtle than this which ties

me to the woman or man that looks in my face?

Which fuses me into you now, and pours

my meaning into you?[58]

Just as the ferry approaches Brooklyn in the poem, so too does the body (literally) and the

soul (figuratively) approach the body and soul of the beloved.

Additionally, Whitman's vision of human sexuality is grounded in an equality of

the sexes: male and female. In Song of the Broad-Axe he envisions an America "...where

women walk in public processions in the street the same as men, /where they enter the

public assembly and take places the same as men..."[59]

In an age where women largely were expected to belong to hearth and home, the

cult of domesticity, and where their public role in society was confined to republican

motherhood and virtue, Whitman's allusion to women joining men in public assemblies

and processions is at least progressive. And again, in the 1855 Preface, he praises "

American workmen and workwomen....the perfect equality of the female with the

male..."[60] In To A Common Prostitute he exclaims, "I am Walt Whitman, liberal and

lusty as Nature," and he defends prostitutes in You Felons On Trial In Courts: "You

prostitutes flaunting over the trottoirs or obscene in your rooms, /Who am I that I should

call you more obscene than myself?"[61]

Whitman's treatment of homosexuality is most apparent in the Calamus sequence,

although his egalitarian attitude towards sexuality in general would suggest nothing less.

What is best about this particular cluster, though, is its universal appeal and relevance to

the unique experiences of people today. The Calamus chants span the range of

challenges, emotions, issues, joys, problems, and sentiments that persons experience

in their lives from coming out to passing to loving someone of the same sex.

When I Heard At The Close Of The Day, a clearly homoerotic poem, is a reflection of the

romantic rendezvous between two male lovers at the beach.

When I wander'd alone over the beach, and undressing bathed,

laughing with the cool waters, and saw the

sun rise,

And when I thought how my dear friend my lover was on his

way coming, O then I was happy,[62]

To A Stranger is an equally compelling description of two men cruising one

another; probably, on a street in Manhattan. The plaintive opening, "Passing Stranger!

you do not know how longingly I look upon you," also suggests the public anonymity of

the encounter as well as the double entendre of the reference to passing. "I am not to

speak of you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone," is an

intriguing peek at the illicitness and secretive nature of the love–that-dare-not-speak-its-


I Hear It Charged Against Me is an eloquent defense of homosexuality

against an indictment of somehow being a danger or harm to traditional institutions, like

marriage.[64] The speaker in the poem may be the author writing in the first-person; it may

be some unknown person; or, it may be the so-called "collective 'I'." S/he is reflecting on

charges made against the speaker of seeking to destroy institutions. The speaker is being

directly implicated in the destruction of these institutions whose nature is unclear.

However, the speaker is, in reality, indifferent to them. S/he seems to be claiming

that there is nothing the speaker has in common with these institutions and, therefore,

would have no reason to want to destroy them. The speaker seems to adopt a defiant and

self-confident attitude in the last stanzas of the poem: the speech is declarative, qualified,

sweeping. S/he declares that the speaker, and only the speaker, will establish an

"institution of the dear love of comrades" in all the American cities and "fields and

woods." This "institution of the love of dear comrades" will have no "edifices or rules or

trustees or any argument." It will be self-governed (rules), self-administered (trustees),

beyond reproach (argument), and without pretense (edifice). The poem strikes one as

appealing to the new, or modern, and rejecting tradition in so far as the institutions

referred to in the poem represent the established order, social norms, and customary

cultural mores. But it is not a complete rejection of institutions because the

speaker calls for creating a new "institution of the love of dear comrades." It appears to

be a call for the construction of a new social order based on new, non-traditional or

modern values. The poem takes on added meaning when contextualized within the text: it

is in the Calamus sequence which is commonly thought of as a collection of Whitman's

homoerotic poems. Given the positioning of the poem in the text, what institutions might

the speaker be referring to here? Perhaps marriage, adoption, inheritance laws, public life,

political participation, religion, and so forth.


If the publication of the First Edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 celebrated

"...the great actual Individualism latent and potential in mankind generally...", then the

publication of Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol in 1898 marks the limits of

individualism in western civilization during the nineteenth century.[65] Wilde, as poet and

artist, was martyred on the threshold of bourgeois respectability for social transgressions

that violated late Victorian norms of traditional values. The conservative reaction against

him---as both an artist and a person---was brutal, swift, and vile.

On April 4, 1895, during the course of Wilde's trials on charges of sodomy and

gross indecency at the Central Criminal Court, Oxford, Edward Carson, lead counsel for

the villainous John Sholto Douglas, Marquess of Queensbury, against whom Wilde had

regrettably brought charges of libel, and who accused Wilde of "posing as a sodomite,"

extensively quoted from Wilde's 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray and referred to

J.-K. Huysmans' A Rebours (1884), implying that literature and writing itself were on

trial as much as any allegedly criminal act that the poet may have committed.[66]

Carson, opening the case for the defense, addressed the jury:

Gentlemen...Mr Wilde's character became known to Lord

Queensberry - the character which he had gained from his

writings, to which I will call attention in a moment; scandals

in connection with the Savoy Hotel, which you will have proved

before you before the case is over; the general character,

which a man in Mr Wilde's position must necessarily have

won for himself when he was leading the kind of life which

even he has confessed to, and it is only a small portion of

it in evidence. He had been going about with men – young men

who were not his co-equals in station, who were not his coevals

in age. He had been associating with men, who, I think it will

be proved before this case is over beyond all doubt, were well-

known as some of the most immoral characters in London. I refer

above all to Taylor – a notorious character as the police will tell

you; and I must remind you of the fact that at an early hour today

I put the question direct to Mr Wilde as to whether Taylor's

house was anything more than a mere den for introducing men

to these lads for sodomitic purposes....

As regards literature his standard was a very high one. His works

were not written for the Philistines nor for the illiterate. His works

could really only be understood by the artist and he was indifferent

as to what the ordinary individual thought of them or how the ordinary

individual might be influenced by them. He took such a high standard

of art as an artist in that box yesterday, that whenever anything corrupt

was pointed out to him in these various books he said, 'Oh, you

may put that meaning upon it, but then an artist would under-

stand it in a different sense.' In relation to his books he was a

complete artist. In relation to his books he wrote only in the language

of an artist for artists. Gentlemen of the jury, contrast that with

the position he takes up as regards these lads...[W]hen you

come to confront him with these curious associates of a man of

high art, which no one can understand but himself and the

artistic, but his case is that he has such a magnanimous, such a

noble, such a democratic soul (laughter) that he draws no social

distinctions, and it is exactly the same pleasure to him to have a

sweeping-boy from the street – if he is only interesting – to lunch

with him or to dine with him, as the best educated artist or the

greatest litterateur in the whole kingdom...

Gentlemen of the jury, I think if we rested this case alone on Mr

Wilde's literature we would have been absolutely justified

in the course we have taken.[67]

By the last quarter of the century, the reactionary voices of restriction and

intolerance were well-positioned and well-organized to denounce the vice and immorality

of the individuals whom they saw as signs of society's descent into decadence and

degeneracy. As states continued the process of centralization and nationalization, these

moral reformers, opponents of alleged vice, and the self-appointed upholders of standards

of decency sought to marry the state's police powers to their own constricting codes

of acceptable conduct, behavior, and aesthetic purity.

Case in point were the statutes used to prosecute Wilde. Great Britain, in the

aftermath of a series of various sex scandals beginning with the 1870 arrest and trial of

Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park for conspiracy to commit sodomite acts, and out of

possible concern for the licentiousness that might accompany the removal of sodomy

from the list of English capital offenses in 1861, sought to codify homosexuality as

criminal behavior. In 1885 the Criminal Law Amendment Act, or "An Act for the

provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels, and other

purposes" was enacted by Parliament to legally classify and normalize acceptable and

unacceptable forms of human sexuality in the criminal code. This legal and linguistic turn

from criminalizing an act (sodomy) to the criminalization of the actor (gross indecency)

broadened the net which law enforcement authorities and the courts could cast to arrest,

prosecute, and imprison homosexuals and other supposed degenerates who threatened the

social, racial, and cultural purity of the nation.[68]

At the end of Oscar Wilde's trials in 1895 he was convicted and sentenced to two

years hard labor as retribution to the state. After his release from prison on May 19,

1897, Wilde left England for France living under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth and

travelling around the Continent until his death on November 30, 1900.[69] While in Europe

Wilde published The Ballad of Reading Gaol in February of 1898. [70]

The Ballad of Reading Gaol is an inmate's reminiscence of another prisoner who

had been sentenced to death by hanging. The poem is a forceful and severe criticism of

the cruelty, debasement, and humiliation of prison life. The prison represents the

individual's captive, tortured soul.

We were as men who through a fen

Of filthy darkness grope:

We did not dare to breathe a prayer,

Or to give our anguish scope:

Something was dead in each of us,

And what was dead was Hope.[71]

Wilde's tenor and tone is more pessimistic, gloomy, and forlorn where Whitman's

outlook is more bright, celebratory, expansive, and optimistic. While Whitman

commemorates and honors individualism, Wilde defines the limitations of individualism:

even the death of individualism in the service of the state.

In Reading gaol by Reading town

There is a pit of shame,

And in it lies a wretched man

Eaten by teeth of flame,

In a burning winding-sheet he lies,

And his grave has got no name.[72]

Here literally is a description of an individual condemned to death by the state.

The adjudged prisoner is literally shamed and buried in a grave with no name

symbolizing the complete annihilation and destruction of the individual. The power of the

modern nation-state reigns supreme over and above the sovereign self. The

authority of the state, the power of its laws and regulations, can not be defied by the

individual. If the individual commits any transgressions against the laws of the nation,

then the guilty person will be subject to the rational, scientific dispensation of justice.

The Governor was strong upon

The Regulations Act:

The Doctor said that Death was but

A scientific fact:

And twice a day the Chaplain called,

And left a little tract.[73]

The condemned, imprisoned soul, upon which the judgement of the state has been passed,

awaits its ugly appointment with death.

Right in we went, with soul intent

On Death and Dread and Doom:

The hangman with his little bag,

Went shuffling through the gloom:

And I trembled as I groped my way

Into my numbered tomb.[74]

The anonymity of the dead individual is signified by a numbered tomb: without

face, or personality, or any hint of self. Thus the authority of the state over the individual

is total and complete. The numbered corpse marks the non-individual, subservient to the

will of the nation and whose personhood is submerged beneath the needs of the society.

The jurisdiction of the government can crush individual freedom and an occasional

demonstration of that absolute power by the state serves to deter other persons from legal

infractions: "But in the heart of everyman /Terror was lying still."[75]

Yet, despite all the weight that the government brings to bear on circumscribing

personal liberty, the nineteenth-century individual could still resist the limits imposed on

human beings to keep them organized in highly complex social units like the nation-state.

Wilde observed in "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" that "[a]fter all, even in prison, a

man can be quite free. His soul can be free. His personality can be untroubled. He can be

at peace."[76] The promises of individualism can not be broken by society as is evident,

even in Reading Gaol, as when "the soul in pain" still sees "that tent of blue which

prisoners call the sky..."[77]

Ultimately individuality exudes from the soul. If the state is unjust or oppressive,

the individual soul yet remains free. "It has been found out. I must say it was high time,

for all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and it degrades

those over whom it is exercised."[78] Imprisonment is dehumanizing and misguided,

according to Wilde in an extremely far-sighted comment, "The less punishment, the less

crime. When there is no punishment at all, crime will either cease to exist, or, if it occurs,

will be treated by physicians as a very distressing form of dementia, to be cured by care

and kindness."[79] The deep divisions in and sharp stratification of British class society

might have tolerated the individualism of a peer by excusing irrational behavior as

eccentric, but for the commoner mental health issues were criminal and, therefore,

punishable. In order for all the English, not just the aristocracy, to achieve true

individuality, Wilde believed that basic human needs are necessarily to be met. "The

State is to make what is useful," he remarked. "A man cannot always be estimated by

what he does. He may keep the law, and yet be worthless. He may break the law, and yet

be fine. He may be bad, without ever doing anything bad. He may commit a sin against

society, and yet realize through that sin his true perfection."[80]

Each person is to be, as far as possible, free of hindrances and encumbrances on

individualism that the state is capable of wielding. "There is no one type for man. There

are as many perfections as there are imperfect men. And while to the claims of charity a

man may yield and yet be free, to the claims of conformity no man may yield and remain

free at all."[81] The state of freedom; that is, equality among individuals, is successfully

accomplished when the playing field is leveled and the necessary conditions for life

are ascertained. "When each member of the community has sufficient for his wants, and

is not interfered with by his neighbor, it will not be an object of interest to him to

interfere with any one else."[82] When there are constraints and limits placed on freedom

there will be rebellion: "Wherever there is a man who exercises authority, there is a man

who resists authority."[83] In Wilde's 1877 poem, Apologia, he notes:

Many a man hath done so; sought to fence

In straitened bonds the soul that should be free,

Trodden the dusty road of common sense,

While all the forest sang liberty.[84]

For Wilde freedom from government intrusion and restrictions is necessary for

the perfection of the soul, or, to put it another way, to fulfill individual human potential.

He writes that " reaches his perfection, not through what he has, not even through

what he does, but entirely through what he is."[85] And, there are as many perfections as

there are individuals: "It does not matter what [man] is, as long as he realizes the

perfection of the soul that is within him."[86]

No doubt Walt Whitman would have, at least in part, agreed with Wilde. As he

said in an editorial for the Brooklyn Eagle:

It is only the novice in political economy who thinks it is the duty of

government to make its citizens happy. -- Government has no such office.

To protect the weak and the minority from the impositions of the strong

and the majority – to prevent any one from positively working to render

the people unhappy, (if we may so express it,) to do the labor not of an

officious inter-meddler in the affairs of men, but of a prudent watchman

who prevents outrage – these are rather the proper duties of a government.

Under the specious pretext of effecting 'the happiness of the whole community,'

nearly all wrongs and intrusions of government have been carried through.

The legislature may, and should, when such things fall in its way, lend its

potential weight to the cause of virtue and happiness...; but to

legislate in direct behalf of those objects is never available, and rarely

effects any even temporary benefit.[87]


Both Whitman and Wilde envisioned the individual poet or artist as occupying an

essential and significant role in society. Moreover, their visions of the poet are colored by

their individual projects and their poetics. Judging from the reaction to their work from

critics like Nordau, their detractors also believed that poets and authors held a

disproportionate sway over the public imagination.

Whitman saw the role of the poet as intricately interwoven with the content and

mission of his poetry. Bradley and Blodgett write that "...this poet's creative intent [was]

to improve and transform life (the poet as maker and reformer), to discern and set forth

its miraculousness (the poet as celebrator), and to sing the transcendence of human love,

envisioned as divine (the poet as lover)."[88] The first three editions of Leaves of Grass

focus on a variety of broad themes ranging from the common workingman, and time

and death, to human psychology and the imagination. In the post-1865 editions there was

a distinct poetic turn following the tumultuous impact of the Civil War. And the final

editions are being constantly reworked and rearranged culminating in the author's

definitive so-called Death-bed Edition.[89]

Early on Leaves of Grass was recognized by some as being well ahead of its time.

Emerson writes in his letter to Whitman, and commonly referred to as the Preface to the

Second Edition (1856): "I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in

it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage

of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire."[90] But not

all American writers were equally exuberant about Whitman's poetry; William Dean

Howells and Henry James were both largely unimpressed in their reviews of Drum-


Perhaps Whitman can correctly be identified as the first American poet by virtue

of the fact that his poetry breaks with traditional poetic conventions such as rhyme,

meter, and cadence. Yet in doing so, he establishes a unique American vernacular and

poetics emphasizing free form verse and an egalitarian structure that itself reflects the

identity of its author. Whitman's free form and constant rearrangements of the text of

Leaves of Grass suggests an aesthetic method, a means of individual interpretation, that

hints of a more subtle, pervasive, underlying poetic paradigm perhaps largely

unrecognized by many of his contemporaries. The changing nature, pattern, and shape of

the text through its many editions parallels the construction, deconstruction, and

reconstruction of the nation and American identity as well as the poet's own personal

identity and search for a place for the national poet in American society.

Just as one course in a lifetime of education succeeds if only because it raises

more questions than it answers, or just as the voluminous output of Leonardo da Vinci is

better judged in its full corpus rather than by only one 'unfinished' work, so Whitman's

literary achievement is better understood when viewed in its many perspectives instead of

through any single point of view. Defining Whitman's idea of individualism as positive

freedom; that is, freedom to fulfill one's potential, to satisfy one's needs and desires

underscores the problem of the critic and analyst who, because of the

referential nature of criticism, always retains its being only in relation to something

outside itself. Criticism, unlike poetry, stands without firm foundation alone. Great works

of art stand independently of everything that refers to it because they are acts of creation

spontaneously arising from the depths of the artist and subject. Wilde's doctrine of

individualism is much closer to criticism in that he defines it as a negative freedom:

freedom from something or someone which acts as some limit on personal liberty.

Jerome Loving speculates in his introduction to Leaves of Grass that "[i]t was not,

however, the allusions to physiology and sex alone that disturbed Whitman's critics but

his bold departure from the rules of conventional poetry. He broke open the standard

metered line, discarded the obligatory rhyme scheme, and freely expressed himself in the

living vernacular of American speech."[92] Whitman's Jacksonian view of equality shaped

his poetic and romantic vision of America helping to explain his penchant for catalogues

or counters used to enumerate sometimes frustratingly long lists of individuals. But

Whitman's poetic vistas of individualism and democracy were not confined to America:

it encompassed all of humanity around the globe.[93] "...[T]he poet is totally American and

America is totally representative of the divinity of men and women in countries around

the world."[94] Oscar Wilde commented in an anonymous 1889 review of November

Boughs that Whitman's poetry "...reveals to us, not indeed a soul's tragedy,

for its last note is one of joy and hope and noble and unshaken faith in all that is fine and

worthy of such faith, and puts on record with a simplicity that has in it both sweetness

and strength the record of his spiritual development and of the aim and motive both of the

manner and the matter of his work. His strange mode of expression is shown in these

pages to have been the result of deliberate and self-conscious choice."[95]

"The Poet of the Body" and "the Poet of the Soul" was not as charitably nor

cheerfully received by all, however. Charles A. Dana in a review for the New York Daily

Tribune in 1855 concluded Leaves of Grass "...cannot be especially commended either

for fragrance or form. Whatever severity of criticism they may challenge for their rude

ingenuousness, and their frequent divergence into the domain of the fantastic, the taste of

not over dainty fastidiousness will discern much of the essential spirit of poetry beneath

an uncouth and grotesque embodiment." [96]

The Seventh Edition of Leaves of Grass (1881), which contained the new clusters

Birds of Passage, By The Roadside, Sea-Drift, and Autumn Rivulets, was the target of

especially vehement criticism from some media.[97] T. W. Higginson, writing for the

Nation, described Whitman as a troglodyte:

The English poets have at their worst some thin veneering of

personal emotion; with Whitman there seems to be no gleam

of anything personal, much less of that simple, generous impulse

which makes almost every young man throw some halo of ideal

charm about the object of his adoration. Whitman's love, if such

it can be called, is the sheer animal longing of sex for sex – the

impulse of the savage, who knocks down the first woman he sees,

and drags her to his cave. On the whole, the condition of the

savage seems the more wholesome, for he simply gratifies his

brute lust and writes no resounding lines about it.[98]

Catholic World, in an early 1882 review that borders on an ad hominem, found

Enfans d'Adam particularly revolting and specious.

Walt Whitman is a more recent and more genuine outcome of

transcendentalism. Less tutored, and for that reason – education

being what it is – less perverted, he is more a creature of his

instincts, and, as it happens, not of the higher sort; ...Walt is

the "enfant terrible" of transcendentalism.....

But man is a rational animal, and not like the beasts, which have

no sense; and all effort on his part to play the beast would be

ridiculous, were it not a degradation exacting so great a

depravation of his nature. But this attempt is never made with

impunity, for man's rational nature sooner or later will surely

take revenge on him who makes, whether maliciously or

otherwise, the experiment. No, it is not a thing for laughter,

but a serious matter, when a man is led to believe that he can with impunity violate any one essential law of his rational being.

It is a more serious matter when the leaders of public opinion

encourage in a community a belief of this kind, or aid in the

spreading of literature infected with such opinions. It is a most

serious matter, considering their effect on the coming

generation; for the harvest of poisonous seeds sown in the tender

minds of this, will be reaped in the next. And until men gather

grapes from thorns and figs from thistles every intelligent,

every religious, every moral man, every sincere lover of his

race, will set his face fixedly against the teachers and upholders

of opinions so degrading to man and so pernicious in their


The Catholic World's appeal to rationalism---portraying Whitman, by contrast, as

irrational---connects this preoccupation over the loss of universal values, like reason,

with Europe and the papacy. The successor of St. Peter and the representative of God on

earth, who had presided over Europe and Latin Christendom, the Bishop of Rome, saw

only danger in rampant individualism and freedom without abandon. The Vatican's

stance towards Whitman's work, it can only be assumed, was anti-modernist, illiberal,

and condemnatory.

Nevertheless, the European press could be more cosmopolitan on balance. A

Scottish review dated March of 1882 hailed Whitman: "The Modern Poet has been found

at last. We waited long for him but now he is in the midst of us," it said. "[H]is words

have come to us across the Atlantic, and in them the first authentic message from the

New World to the Old. Need it be said that we speak of Walt Whitman?"[100] Wilde too

approvingly wrote of Whitman in his unsigned 1889 review that "...the chief value of his

work is in its prophecy...He has begun a prelude to larger themes. He is the herald of a

new era. As a man he is the precursor of a fresh type. He is a factor in the heroic and

spiritual evolution of the human being."[101]


Max Nordau saw nothing of any redeemable aesthetic or moral import, indeed,

nothing of the slightest value at all, in Whitman or Leaves of Grass. Instead he imagined

Whitman as a proponent of decadence, filth, and degeneracy slavishly beholden to base

instincts, a gluttonous appetite, and animalistic urges. Indeed, Whitman embodied

everything that was reprehensible in western civilization and was, in Nordau's mind,

partially responsible for its lamentable decline from the heinous influence that his

literature had on the depravity of the day's youth. .

...Walt Whitman ... is likewise one of the deities to whom the

degenerate and hysterical of both hemispheres have for some time

been raising altars. Lombroso ranks him expressly among 'mad

geniuses.' Mad Whitman was without doubt. But a genius? That

would be difficult to prove. He was a vagabond, a reprobate rake,

and his poems contain outbursts of erotomania so artlessly shameless

that their parallel in literature could hardly be found with the author's

name attached. For his fame he has to thank just those bestially

sensuous pieces which first drew to him the attention of all the

pruriency of America. He is morally insane, and incapable of

distinguishing between good and evil, virtue and crime.[102]

But for all Nordau's pseudoscientific pontificating about Whitman's "moral

obtuseness and morbid sentimentality [which] frequently accompanies degeneration,"

Leaves of Grass remains a literary landmark of individualism and freedom: a

foundational American document that in many ways embodies the spirit and meaning of

the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.[103]

By 1892 when the first German edition of Nordau's Degeneration was published,

individual freedom and its limits, were producing social anxiety in western civilization

due to the restraints imposed on individuals, like Wilde, in order to keep them organized

in the modern, rational, secular nation-state.

The limits of individualism reached their nadir in the same year that Whitman

died, nearly four decades after privately publishing Leaves of Grass in 1855,

and just three years before Wilde was convicted of sodomy and gross indecency at

the Old Bailey---effectively destroying his literary career and ruining his health. By 1900,

the year that Wilde died, a broken, destitute, ruined man, the gates of individualism and

independence seemed to be closing as western empires sought to extend their hegemony

over the individual by dominating increasingly larger groups of individuals in their

mad scramble to seize territories and resources, like diamonds and gold in the case of the

British entanglement with the Boers in South Africa. The British won the Boer War, but

at a terrible cost in spent human lives. The war produced some of the first concentration

camps and the mass deaths and killing of civilian men, women, and children that some

prominent British public figures such as David Lloyd George, Henry Campbell-

Bannerman, Michael Davitt, John Dillon, and Emily Hobhouse denounced and protested

as, among other things, deplorable and unjust.

Hobhouse specifically called public attention to the atrocious handling of civilian

detainees and prisoners of war in the British camps. "The British held 116,572 persons in

their concentration camps, almost all of them women and children. That was about a

fourth of the entire Boer population. After the war, an official government report

concluded that 27,927 Boers had died in the camps of starvation, typhus and exposure.

That included 26,251 women and children, of whom 22,074 were children under the age

of 16."[104] Supporters of the war hailed the British soldiers and the commanders who led

them into battle for the glory of the crown even as the empire on which the sun never set

appeared to have stumbled and faltered, teetering on the brink of degeneration and

decline. The concentration camps, like the prisons, such as Reading Gaol, represented the

objectification and negation of the individual. The limits of civilization with respect to

individualism seemed to be slowly enclosing and restricting humanity not even a half

century since the first publication of Whitman's Leaves of Grass and leaving the future of

personal liberty and individual freedom within western society on the agenda for another

century to determine.

[1] Walt Whitman (2002). Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. (Michael Moon, ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co. at 3.

[2] Walt Whitman (1982). Poetry and Prose. (Justin Kaplan, ed.). New York: The Library of America at 695; Whitman noted that he was descended from the Van Velsors (Dutch) on the maternal side, while his father's family, the Whitmans, were from England. Whitman (1982) at 691.

[3] ibid. at 958

[4] ibid. at 942.

[5] Gary Schmidgall (1982). Walt Whitman: A Gay Life . New York: Dutton at 306.

[6] ibid.

[7] Joel Colton and R.R. Palmer (1978). A History of the Modern World. (5th ed.). New York Alfred A. Knopf at 502-504; and, Marvin Perry, Myrna Chase, James R. Jacob, Margaret C. Jacob, and Theodore H. von Laue, eds. (1996). Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, & Society, Volume II: From the 1600s. (5th ed.). Princeton, NJ: Houghton Mifflin, Co. at Chapter 25.

[8] Colton & Palmer at 554; and, Perry, et. al., at Chapter 21.

[9] ibid.

[10] Perry, et. al. at 514.

[11] Whitman (2002) at xxxi.

[12] Walt Whitman (1980). Leaves of Grass. (Gay Wilson Allen, ed.). New York: Signet at 177.

[13] The White House canceled a forum about "Poetry and the American Voice" in the Winter of 2003 when some of the invited poets leaked that they might protest the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq. The symposium was to focus on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and Walt Whitman. See: Jay Parini, "A Time for Poets to Raise Their Voices," The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 14, 2003.

[14] Gary Schmidgall (1997). at 341. For a full account of this visit see also 283-288. Also see: Mary Warner Blanchard (1998). Oscar Wilde's America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press at 13-14; Justin Kaplan (1980). Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: HarperCollins at 12; Jerome Loving (1999). Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press at 410-414; and, David S. Reynolds (1996). Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books at 3, 539-540.

[15] Schmidgall (1997) at 341. George Whitman's house no longer exists, although Stevens Street is just a couple of blocks from Whitman's Mickle Street house, also in Camden, and where the poet relocated in 1884. The Mickle Street house, now a national historic landmark, was the only house Walt Whitman would ever own. He lived there from 1884 when his brother George and his family moved to Burlington, NJ until the poet's death in 1892. Whitman is buried in Harleigh Cemetery, also in Camden, NJ. Keith Carson , "Notes from Tour of the Walt Whitman House," 328 Mickle Street, Camden, NJ 08103. (March 6, 2004). Informational tour courtesy New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Parks and Forestry.

[16] Loving (1999) at 412-413; and, Schmidgall (1997) at 288.

[17] Clearly Wilde was an advocate and proponent of aestheticism, at least in his early career prior to incarceration, as articulated by Walter Pater for example. Whitman, while surely sensitive to aesthetic considerations, believed that art also had a moral purpose. Whether Wilde moved closer to Whitman's view of an ethical component in art after his incarceration is a topic for further investigation. "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" is the document where Wilde formulates his basic political ideals. Whitman's political ideology is well-defined in Democratic Vistas among other works.

[18] Max Nordau (1993). Degeneration. (George L. Mosse, ed.). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press at 299.

[19] Whitman (1980) at 181.

[20] ibid. at 183.

[21] Oscar Wilde (1991). Plays, Prose Writings and Poems. (Terry Eagleton, ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf at 21.

[22] For a thorough discussion of Whitman's experiences during the Civil War see: Roy Morris, Jr. (2000). The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press.

[23] Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds. (2000). The Fin de Siecle: A Reader in Cultural History c. 1880 – 1900. New York: Oxford University Press at xvi.

[24] Nordau (1993) at 319.

[25] ibid. at 320.

[26] In The Library of America edition of Whitman's Poetry and Prose, edited by Justin Kaplan, there is a reference to three apparently homeless and unemployed men whom Whitman perhaps caught a glimpse of through the window of his brother's Stevens Street home. He expressed surprise at the men's lack of employment The incident is mentioned in Notes Left Over, "The Tramp and Strike Questions" and is dated February, 1879. See: Walt Whitman (1982) at 1065.

[27] Whitman (1980) at 220.

[28] Walt Whitman (1998). Leaves of Grass. (Jerome Loving, ed.). New York: Oxford University Press at xvii.

[29] Whitman (2002) at xxvii.

[30] ibid. at xxxii.

[31] Whitman (1998) at xi.

[32] Whitman (1982) at 26,

[33] Whitman (1980) at 44.

[34] ibid.

[35] ibid. at 44-46.

[36] ibid. at 49

[37] Emily Dickinson wrote to a friend in 1862 that "...I never read his Book---but was told he was disgraceful." Schmidgall (1997) at 83; Pope Pius IX in 1864 condemned and alerted all Catholics to the dangers of liberality, progress, modernity, and democracy in his Syllabus of Errors. Presumably, the pope included Whitman in that category. Colton & Palmer (1978) at 475; The Philadelphia Society for the Suppression of Vice and Immorality as well as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, headed by Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, both disapproved of Leaves of Grass. Schmidgall (1997) at 323.

[38] Whitman (1980) at 94.

[39] ibid. at 62.

[40] ibid. at 72.

[41] ibid.

[42] ibid. at 87.

[43] ibid. at 96.

[44] ibid. at 278.

[45] ibid. at 282

[46] ibid. at 352.

[47] ibid. at 340.

[48] Whitman (1982) at 668.

[49] ibid. at 1334.

[50] Webster's II: New College Dictionary, 10th ed. (2001). New York: Houghton Mifflin, Co.

[51] Whitman (1980) at 51.

[52] Whitman (1982) at 669.

[53] Whitman (1980) at viii-ix.

[54] ibid. at xx; refer also to: Whitman (2002) at xxix; and, Whitman (1998) at xvi

[55] Kaplan at 11.

[56] Whitman (1980) at 68.

[57] ibid. at 109.

[58] ibid. at 148.

[59] Whitman (1980) at 168.

[60] Whitman (1982) at 8.

[61] Whitman (1980) at 305-306.

[62] ibid. at 119.

[63] ibid. at 122.

[64] ibid. at 123.

[65] Oscar Wilde (1991). Oscar Wilde: Plays, Prose Writings and Poems (Terry Eagleton, ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf at 394.

[66] Merlin Holland, ed. (2003). The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde: The First Uncensored Transcript of the Trial of Oscar Wilde v. John Douglas (Marquess of Queensberry), 1895. New York: Harper-Collins at 80-89, 96-100, 258 and 313.

[67] ibid. at 251-254.

[68] Edward Cohen, "Legislating the Norm: From Sodomy to Gross Indecency" in Ronald Butters, John M. Clum, and Michael Moon, eds. (1989). Displacing Homophobia: Gay Male Perspectives in Literature and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press at 169-205.

[69] Oscar Wilde (1988). The Picture of Dorian Gray. (Donald L. Lawler, ed.). New York: W.W. Norton at 460.

[70] ibid.

[71] Oscar Wilde (1992). The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Poems. New York: Dover at 35.

[72] ibid. at 43.

[73] ibid. at 31.

[74] ibid. at 32.

[75] ibid.

[76] Wilde (1991) at 398.

[77] Wilde ( 1992) at 26-27.

[78] Wilde (1991) at 400.

[79] ibid.

[80] ibid. at 398 and 401.

[81] ibid. 399.

[82] ibid. at 401.

[83] ibid. at 395.

[84] Wilde (1992) at 13.

[85] Wilde (1991) at 397.

[86] ibid. at 399.

[87] Walt Whitman, ed., "Duties of Government." The Brooklyn Eagle, April 4, 1846.

[88] Whitman (2002) at xxxi.

[89] ibid. at xxxi-xxxiv.

[90] ibid. at 637.

[91] ibid. at xxxiv.

[92] Whitman (1998) at ix.

[93] ibid. at xi-xii.

[94] ibid. at xii.

[95] Richard Ellmann, ed. (1969). The Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde. Chicago: University of Chicago Press at 121.

[96] Charles A. Dana, "New Publications:Leaves of Grass." New York Daily Tribune, July 23, 1855 at 3.

[97] Whitman (1980) at xix.

[98] T. W. Higginson, "Recent Poetry." Nation 33, December 15, 1881 at 476-7.

[99] (Untitled). Catholic World, February, 1882 at 719-720.

[100] "Leaves of Grass," Mace:A Weekly Record of the Glasgow Parliamentary Debating Association, March 21, 1882.

[101] Ellmann, ed. (1969) at 125.

[102] Nordau (1993) at 230-231.

[103] ibid. at 231.

[104] Mark Weber, "The Boer War Remembered." The Journal for Historical Review, Fall 1980, Vol. 1, No. 3 at 235. [website]

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If you are experiencing difficulty reading this ar... by Constance Lavender on Sunday, Jul 29, 2007 at 10:23:22 AM