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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Walt  Whitman

Walt Whitman 1819to –1892

One of the foremost American poets, considered the father of free verse. Born to a large and struggling family in New York, he left school at the age of eleven so he could work and supplement the family income. He filled a number of different jobs at a number of different newspapers, but by his 30s he had decided to become a poet. He self-published his most famous work, Leaves of Grass, with his own savings in 1855, wanting to create a uniting epic for the common American, with himself as the central hero. It was unusual for its use of free verse and its celebration of sensuality and sexuality—many critics immediately dismissed it as obscene. But it had the influential support of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and slowly gained popularity over the years. Whitman’s hopes of uniting the country were dashed when the Civil War began, and he spent most of those years volunteering his every free moment to nurse wounded soldiers. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, he wrote the poems “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd” in response. It was shortly after the war that Whitman met the bus conductor Peter Doyle, his close companion for many years and likely his greatest love, though publicly Whitman only ever denied having sexual attraction to men. This conflicts with accounts from Edward Carpenter and Oscar Wilde, both of whom claimed to have slept with him. Many people, then and especially now, point to the almost explicit homosexuality that is conveyed among a variety of sexualities in Leaves of Grass, but it’s hard to know where Whitman drew the line between romantic and physical love. He was constantly expanding the collection, and continued to publish new editions of his most prized work up until his death.

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