Tuesday, November 24, 2015

WALT WHITMAN'S QUEERNESS AND WHY IT DOES(N'T) MATTER

Hey everybody, long time no talk!

True or False: The famous poet Walt Whitman was gay.

Anybody?

Oh, nobody knows for sure?

And it's not like we can ask him. You know, cause he's dead.

But the most important question we need to ask ourselves is: Does it really matter?


Queer theory, which we studied in Critical Theory, is a lens through which examining literature becomes way more intriguing and possibly a little bit homosexual.

Here are two ways to go about examining a text through a queer lens:

1. biographically

2. textually

More likely than not, the biographical information will be more telling in terms of a definitive answer. If there's evidence that the author was gay, which in Whitman's case there is, it will probably show up in their bio.

Biographical information is great for definitive answers when it is well supported (there is plenty of evidence), but looking to the text can be even more telling than the facts sometimes. Whitman's book of poetry Leaves of Grass is, at some points, quite blatantly homosexual.

Example from "Song of Myself":

"Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat…Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice"

Walt Whitman talking about blowjobs? Sure seems that way to me. After all, he is quoted as saying that in a nutshell that life revolves around sex. So, coupled with biographical evidence like the love letters, the case for Uncle Walt's queerness is looking pretty strong.

But to return to the question I posed earlier: Does it matter?

After everything is said and done, does it matter if Walt Whitman is gay or not?
Does his supposed preference for the male sex affect how his writing is viewed?
Or how it is read?
Or why?

In my opinion, there isn't a cut and dry answer to this question. This is simply because the concept and functionality of sexuality means something different to everyone.

For Whitman, it is quite possible that his purposed preference for men influenced his writing and vice versa.

For a straight student reading Whitman's work, perhaps "Song of Myself" sparks self-reflection on the subject of identity and nothing else.

For a gay student (who is aware of Whitman's questionable sexuality) reading "Song of Myself", maybe it provides reassurance, confidence, or comfort and reminds them that they are not alone in feeling the way that they do.

until next time,

1 comment:

  1. Great post, especially in the very clear way you tease out biographical verses textual approaches to queerness in literature. Will share with the PSU Pride group-- may get some comments from interested folks!

    ReplyDelete

 
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