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The true story of the British man who loved queer poet Walt Whitman

The true story of the British man who loved queer poet Walt Whitman

Two pictures side by side, one is a portrait of James Wallace, the other is a picture of a young Walt Whitman.

Once I Pass’d Through A Populous City by American poet Walt Whitman reads:

‘Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has
long been forgotten by me.’

Did he write these verses for a man or a woman?

The poem is about a ‘woman’. However, Professor of American Literature at Seaver College Maire Mullins sheds a light on the original manuscript, which revealed a significant change in the text.

Instead of ‘a woman I casually met there who detain’d me for love of me’ in line two, Whitman had originally written ‘the man who wandered with me, there, for love of me’.

Whitman never publicly addressed his alleged homosexuality, but the Calamus poems in his collection Leaves of Grass revolve around sexual and romantic relationships between men. And Leaves of Grass is still one of the most relevant works in North American literature today.

It also became part of pop culture after TV show Breaking Bad used it as a crucial plot device.

‘An open secret’

‘The jury is still out on whether Whitman’s work was explicitly queer,’ said Padraig Kirwan, Senior Lecturer in the Literature of the Americas at Goldsmiths University.

But ‘critics certainly sanitized his work by their standards,’ he also told GSN.

Kirwan further pointed out that other scholars argue that Whitman’s poems were openly and explicitly clear.

‘Charlie Shively, Professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, examines Song of Myself, Bk II, Section 5 and asks, rather pointedly, “Isn’t this cocksucking plain and simple?”’

Several male lovers were attributed to Whitman, most notably Peter Doyle, a bus conductor Whitman met around 1866.

‘How many would have known of his relationship with Doyle during his times is open to debate,’ said Kirwan.

‘But it seems likely that it was an open secret.’

While on his US tour, bisexual author Oscar Wilde visited the American poet in 1882.

The Irish writer told the LGBTI-rights activist George Cecil Ives that Whitman’s sexual orientation was beyond question.

‘I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips,’ he said, as John Stokes recalled in his book on the Dorian Gray author.

The British man who met the poet

The Eagle Street College.
The Eagle Street College. Wallace is sitting right in the middle. | Photo: Bolton Museum and Library Service

Wilde wasn’t the only one in Europe fascinated by Whitman.

At the end of the 19th century, a group of British men − later joined by women − in Bolton, then part of Lancashire, began to gather for a literary club in Whitman’s honor, the Eagle Street College.

The founder of this book club was James W. Wallace, a draftsman, and political activist. Thanks to Whitman’s verses, Wallace embarked on a journey of spiritual and sexual self-discovery.

Six years later, Wallace went to America to meet his hero face-to-face.

For LGBT History Month in the UK, playwright Stephen M. Hornby has focused on the relationship between Wallace and Whitman, played by actress Billie Meredith.

The Adhesion of Love opens on 9 February and will be touring across Lancashire, Manchester, and Salford until 31 May.

The title refers to the concept of ‘adhesiveness’ in phrenology, a fake science which said that bumps on your skull corresponded to character traits, with adhesiveness being a kind of passionate friendship.

‘Whitman subversively takes up this term in his poetry deepening the sense of male intimacy in the term,’ Hornby told GSN.

Write it like Whitman

‘Whitman is an enormous figure in America. He’s known as the Bard of Democracy, a kind of poetic father of the nation. He really invents a whole new approach to poetry, one that makes his poems feel like the work of someone writing today,’ Hornby also said.

‘And, of course, he was a queer man who had a series of intense loving and sexual relationships with men throughout his whole life. He even manages to create a space to write about those relationships and validate them through his poetry.’

Hornby further explained writing dialogue for such a relevant author was ‘a terrifying prospect’.

But Wallace’s diary came to the rescue. He visited Whitman in Camden in New York State in 1891 and kept a meticulous journal.

‘It includes sections were he just records exactly what Whitman said. So, I started by just typing all of this out for myself. By the end of doing that, I had Whitman’s voice in my head and could then start to write his scenes in the play, many of which are based on Wallace’s diary.’

The meeting

Walt Whitman with nurse Warren Fritzinger, whom he affectionately called Warry.
Walt Whitman with his last nurse Warren Fritzinger, whom he affectionately called Warry. | Photo: Bolton Museum and Library Service

In his diary, Wallace doesn’t mention anything to do with any form of sexuality.

‘There are subtle clues, but what they play does is write all of that back in and so provide a unique new take on what happened to Wallace in America, how he found out who he was, and who he really loved,’ said Hornby.

The Whitman we see in the play is old, frail from a stroke and aware he is a diminished figure.

‘He says of himself, on greeting Wallace, “So, you’ve come to be disillusioned, have you?” That’s amazing insight,’ explained Hornby.

‘Wallace is essentially a fan boy meeting his idol, an idol created in Wallace’s mind from the poetry he’s been reading. In that sense, it’s a very modern story about celebrity, identity and finding your place in the world when you don’t feel right in the skin you’re in.

‘But in the play, Whitman knows Wallace better than he knows himself. That creates a really interesting tension as you think it would be the other way round. The idol knows the fanboy better than the fanboy knows himself.’

But, long before their meeting, what was it that drew this British draftsman to the American poet?

The most homophobic period in British history

The play opens in 1885, when the crime of gross indecency has just been created to criminalize gay sex.

‘This makes pretty much any physical contact between men illegal. It’s the start of what is probably the most homophobic period in British history,’ said Hornby.

‘Very few men dare talk about their sexual feelings to another man. And this is Bolton, not London, or even Manchester.’

Wallace found words and images of men loving men, and a language to speak about it, in Whitman’s poetry.

‘It must have been a lifeline in a very dark time for anyone who felt anything for someone of the same sex,’ Hornby added.

Was Wallace gay?

According to historical sources, Wallace never married and eventually adopted his housekeeper as his daughter.

‘He had one intense emotional relationship with a woman, but he is at pains to describe her as a spiritual wife, clearly ruling out anything sexual,’ said Hornby.

The playwright also explained Wallace was sometimes referred to as asexual.

‘Now, I am always highly suspicious of descriptions of single men as asexual, not because I don’t think that exists, I’m sure it does. But because in history it only ever seems to get applied to men who otherwise could be read as being homosexual.’

Nonetheless, there is very little that indicates Wallace or any other member of the group loved other men.

‘We have some small pieces of evidence from the bolder members of the group, some love letters between two of them, a letter to [LGBTI activist Edward] Carpenter from one of them talking about his sexual attraction to men and some changed pronouns and crossings out in a diary,’ Horny said.

‘A bit. Not much. But given the penalties and risks of recording anything, I think it’s remarkable that we have even these scraps.’

The Adhesion of Love is the 2019 national heritage premiere for LGBT History Month in the UK. Touring venues in Lancashire, Manchester and Salford from 9 February to 31 May.

See also:

The 12 LGBTI poets that you have to read right now

Lesbian Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver has died at the age of 83

Monument planned for 19th century activist Edward Carpenter