Sailor, lover or quaker:" Fresh Insight into Leaves of Grass
After more than a decade of research, an independent scholar has solved
what he terms Walt Whitman's "quaker paradox." The solution, he says, is a
pink triangle involving religion, sexuality, and.... whaling. Mitch Gould
believes the new view of Whitman will gain ground by the 150th anniversary
of the publication of Leaves of Grass. This occurs on July 4th, 2005.
The "quaker paradox" has plagued scholars ever since Whitman's deathbed
disclaimer. He said that he had considered joining Long Island Quakers as a
youth, but "was never made to live inside a fence." Indeed, there is no
record of Whitman ever belonging to a conventional Quaker meeting. But
references to Quakerism in his poetry, his prose works (which include essays
on Elias Hicks and George Fox), his personal conversations, and even his
dress, are as numerous as they are profound. This trend begins with the 1855
avowal in "Song of Myself:" "I cock my hat as I please, indoors and out."
(Note that as Whitman began to expurgate various editions of his book, by
1867, the word "cock" was replaced by "wear.") In his final years, he became
more insistent about his religion. "I am a good deal of a Quaker," he told
Hamlin Garland point-blank in 1888.
The answer, according to Mitch Gould, is that Whitman did not join meetings
of the first radical Quaker schism, known as Hicksite Quakerism, but he did
participate in a much later and lesser-known schism from that group, called
the Friends of Human Progress. As evidence, Gould points to John Buescher's
recent discovery of two newspaper accounts unknown to Whitman scholars. In
one, Whitman recounts his involvement in a table-tipping sťance that summons
the spirit of a drowned mariner. In the other, Whitman is trying to
determine whether only effeminate men are suitable as mediums for channeling
spirits-a source of concern for him, as the hirsute exponent of manly love.
Ann Braude at Harvard Divinity School had already mapped a similar triangle
during the rise of women's rights, featuring gender outlaws in bobbed-hair
and Bloomers, liberal religion, and spiritualism. Braude showed how a small
band of radical Quakers largely instigated both the First Woman's Rights
Convention at Seneca Falls and the craze for spirits in the "miracle year"
of 1848. The Friends of Human Progress extended the most radical forms of
Quaker free-thought to all participants, without requiring them to come
"inside a fence" of membership, to use Whitman's term. When he covered the
North Collins Progressive Friends Meeting for the Brooklyn Daily Times in
1858, he urged his readers to imagine whether "these heterogenous elements
are destined to coalesce at some period, distant or near; it matters not,
and form a grand Heresy in religion and morals which shall number in its
ranks millions of souls?" It was about this time that Whitman penned
"Mediums," a poem characterized by Harold Aspiz as a "lyric steeped in
spiritualism," and also "Calamus 4," which portrays the wandering poet using
Victorian flower-language to flirt with a swarm of living and dead friends
buzzing around him like so many humble-bees.
Braude pointed out that spiritualism's critical role in suffragism was
written out of the official history of the women's movement by Elizabeth
Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, because of the intense embarrassment over
spiritualism that characterized American society by the turn of the century.
Gould reasons that the same reticence to publicly discuss spiritualism-even
when Leaves of Grass first appeared-accounts for its absence in most of the
contemporary reviews of the book. The exceptions to this rule, of course,
are the spiritualist publications, which received the Leaves with great
acclaim. A British spiritualist journal swore that Whitman had been
"baptised into the true Jordan of Spiritualism."
Building upon the work of Sherry Ceniza, Gould stresses Whitman's ardent
friendships with spiritualist-suffragists such as Ellen O'Connor and Abby
Price, and suggests that Leaves of Grass was written as a transparent appeal
to the varied social concerns of these reformers. In the "Calamus" poems,
Whitman unequivocably announced that he was founding a new institution of
manly love. In his notebooks, he revealed, "My final aim: To concentrate
around me the leaders of all reforms--transcendentalist, spiritualists, free
soilers." Gould demonstrates that Rufus Griswold, the most forthcoming of
all Whitman's critics, specifically identifies Whitman's poetry as
sodomitical and complains that anyone who objects to this is labeled a
"non-progressive conservative. destitute of the 'inner light.' " Delving
into a forgotten 1855 burlesque entitled Lucy Boston, Gould further shows
how some male spiritualist-suffragists were ridiculed not only as
effeminate, but sodomites as well.
Gould's work also addresses the third leg of the triangle, beginning with an
economic chart that locates both Moby Dick and Leaves of Grass at the very
pinnacle of the whaling industry's importance. Long before Whitman was
experimenting with the innovations in both form and content that would
become his flagship poem, whaling voyages had stretched out to three or four
years in duration. They contributed a substantial portion of Long Island's wealth, and employed an enormous workforce. In 1914, a prominent researcher in sexuality, Dr. Douglas C. McMurtrie, learned that a marked
decline in homosexual experiences among sailors was due to "the passing of
long voyages, such as used to be taken in the sailing ships, not touching
land, in some instances, for six months at a time." This is consistent with
literary hints dropped by Herman Melville, Charles Warren Stoddard, and with
the "erotic diaries" of navy sailor Philip Van Buskirk. Drawing upon the
recent findings of Joann Krieg, Caleb Crain, Hans Turley, and Lillian
Faderman, Gould demonstrates many instances of Quaker tolerance for
passionate same-gender relationships, dating back to Daniel Defoe's novel,
Captain Singleton. The conclusion is that the Quaker doctrine of the "inner
light" of individual conscience uniquely accommodated this maritime reality,
and that Leaves of Grass, ultimately, gave voice to the sentiments of Quaker
whalers in Whitman's birthplace near Sag Harbor.
Gould, an author, artist, and multimedia developer, will make these findings
available at LeavesofGrass.org. A preview of the Web site is located at
It has been tested only with Internet Explorer for Windows browser.