Love and Walt Whitman

In August of 1863 Private Erastus Haskell of the 141st New York Volunteers died of typhoid fever in Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter his parents received a long letter from a stranger. “I was very anxious [Erastus] should be saved,” the stranger wrote,
& so were they all—he was well used by the attendants…. Many nights I sat in the hospital by his bedside…—he always liked to have me sit there, but never cared to talk—I shall never forget those nights, it was a curious & solemn scene, the sick & wounded lying around in their cots…& this dear young man close at hand…—I do not know his past life, but what I do know, & what I saw of him, he was a noble boy—I felt he was one I should get very much attached to…. 
I write you this letter, because I would do something at least in his memory—his fate was a hard one, to die so—He is one of the thousands of our unknown young American men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones…. Poor dear son, though you were not my son, I felt to love you as a son, what short time I saw you sick & dying there.
The letter was signed “Walt Whitman,” with a Brooklyn address.

Writing letters of condolence was just one of the duties that Whitman took upon himself as a Soldiers’ Missionary. Doing the rounds of the hospitals in Washington, he brought the soldiers gifts of fresh underwear, fruit, ice cream, tobacco, postage stamps. He also chatted to them, consoled them, kissed and embraced them, and if they had to die tried to ease their dying. “I never before had my feelings so thoroughly and (so far) permanently absorbed, to the very roots, as by these huge swarms of dear, wounded, sick, dying boys,” he wrote. “I have formed attachments in hospital, that I shall keep to my dying day, & they will the same, without doubt.”

Between 1862 and 1865, Whitman by his own count ministered to some one hundred thousand men. Though his interventions were not universally welcomed—“That odious Walt Whitman, [come] to talk evil and unbelief to my boys,” wrote one nurse—he was nowhere denied entry. One might wonder whether in our day a middle-aged man, a reputed pornographer, would be allowed to haunt the wards, drifting from the bedside of one attractive young man to another, or whether he would not soon find himself hustled to the door by a couple of aides.

Whitman kept notes on his Washington experiences, later working these up into newspaper articles and lectures, which in 1876 he published in a limited edition under the title Memoranda During the War. This in turn became part of Specimen Days, published in 1882, ten years before his death. The Memoranda are now republished under the editorship of Peter Coviello, with a well-informed, thoughtful introduction and succinct notes.

Not everything in the Memoranda comes from firsthand experience. Though Whitman gives the impression that he witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater and provides a dramatic description of the event, he was not in fact there. But he did believe he enjoyed a special relationship with Lincoln. Both men were tall. Whitman was often present when Lincoln passed through the streets and was convinced that, over the heads of the crowd, the elected leader of the people recognized and nodded back to the unacknowledged legislator of mankind (like Shelley, Whitman had elevated ideas about his calling).

As a young man Whitman had been much impressed by the new science of phrenology. He took the standard phrenological test and came out with high scores for amativeness and adhesiveness, middling scores for language skills. He was proud enough of his scores to publish them in advertisements for Leaves of Grass. In phrenological jargon, amativeness is sexual ardor; adhesiveness is attachment, friendship, comradeship. The distinction became important to Whitman in his erotic life, where it gave a name and in effect a respectability to his feelings for other men. It also gave body to his conception of democracy: as a variety of love not confined to the sexual couple, adhesiveness could constitute the grounding of a democratic community. Whitmanian democracy is adhesiveness writ large, a nationwide network of fraternal affection much like the loving comradeship that he witnessed among young soldiers marching out to war, and that he detected in his own heart when he tended them afterward. In the preface to the 1876 Leaves of Grass he would write: “It is by a fervent, accepted development of Comradeship, the beautiful and sane affection of man for man, latent in all the young fellows,…and by what goes directly and indirectly along with it, that the United States of the future… are to be most effectually welded together, intercalated, anneal’d into a Living Union.”

To Whitman, adhesiveness was not simply amativeness in sublimated form but an autonomous erotic force. The most attractive feature of Whitman’s dreamed-of United States is that it does not demand of its citizens the sublimation of eros in the interest of the state. In this it differs from other nineteenth-century utopias.

Whitman was not only highly adhesive but, if one goes by what he wrote, highly amative too: “I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,/I tighten her all night to my thighs and lips.” The question of exactly what physical form his amativeness took has exercised Whitman scholars more and more openly of late.

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