Walt Whitman's Songs of Male Intimacy and Love, edited by Betsy Erkkila
Walt Whitman's Songs of Male Intimacy and Love
Betsy Erkkila, editor.
University of Iowa Press, 2011.
BETSY ERKKILA'S Walt Whitman's Songs of Male Intimacy and Love can be viewed as representing not only the author's ideas, but the views and insights of a sort of current orthodoxy in Walt Whitman studies. For this reason, every serious student of the poet should have a copy. This is not to say Erkkila is definitive in her treatment of the Calamus poems, but rather, that the book illustrates just how far the field has (and has not) matured, given a century of constant controversy over the issues of sex and shame in the poems of "manly love." As it stands, the book offers an interesting and valuable attempt to wrestle with some serious questions that have never been resolved.
Scholars have traditionally approached Walt Whitman from a few different angles. The Evangelical Approach took the wildly-simplistic legend that Whitman's disciples spun in a first generation of gospels and attempted to flesh out those facts, brags, and lies with supporting evidence. The culmination of the Evangelical Approach was Allen's naive and primitive Solitary Singer, and its many rehashes, such as Justin Kaplan's biography. The second way has perennially employed an Ivory Tower Approach, assaulting Whitman with the mumbo-jumbo du jour (Freudianism, semioticism, etc.). The third, or Shotgun Approach, is to tally all cultural phenomena contemporaneous with Leaves of Grass, whether great or small, and declare each one a causative agent. Reynolds's Walt Whitman's America—which doesn't seem to express a very strong interest in what Whitman actually wrote—is the gold standard for this brand of meltdown. The fourth approach is the diametric opposite: I call it the Rabbinical Approach, because it recognizes little history or literature outside of Whitman's writings.
I'm afraid the Rabbinical Approach scrutinizes Whitman's lifelong habit of poetical revisions with a kind of fetishistic single-mindedness. It's as if these tiny scratches, revisions, and fly-specks could encode earth-shaking secrets that Whitman became progressively ever more anxious to obscure. In practice, focusing on them can—and all too often does—completely absolve the researcher from studying the culture at large. This mode is more aligned with Whitman orthodoxy than the others, so I invite you to guess how many times Erkkila quotes from insights into contemporary life found in Henry Stiles' vital History of Brooklyn; from the gay-rights novel, Joseph and His Friend, written by Whitmanite Bayard Taylor; or the astonishing gay-Quaker novel, Hugh Wynne, written by Whitman's own physician, S Weir Mitchell. That's right: zero. Erkkila has penned a book about gay rights in 19th-century America that never mentions Fourierism or Quakerism once—not even Susan B. Anthony.
Instead, Erkkila spends much of her time repairing damage long ago done to our understanding of Whitman by homophobic voices that have already become irrelevant; and of course this even includes a little damage done by scraps of self-loathing retained by gay critics. Had the book been published in 1980, this would have felt like a serious breakthrough. In 2011, however, holding the book often feels like holding onto a fossil. The world of gay history has moved on, vastly far beyond any historical understanding reflected in this book. I encourage you to take advantage of Erkkila's many insights into Calamus, and then turn to fresher, sounder approaches, such as McDonald's Philosopher-Poet (a rigorous philosophy) or Robertson's Worshipping Walt (a rigorous biography).