Biography / History

Whitman and Duckett

 Whitewashing
 Whitman


Academics prevaricate, elide,
revise, and cover-up rather
than acknowledge that
the great poet
loved boys.

            by Charley Shively




ALTHOUGH RELUCTANTLY, many Whitman students now acknowledge that the poet's love of comrades represented more than lip service.  His affection for boys (those below today's age of "consent" laws) has become the current taboo "love that dare not speak its name.”  Scholars, writers, magazines, politicians, and gay boosters now recognize Whitman as gay, but they deny he ever loved any boys.

Whitman portrait by Thomas Eakins - 1887David S.  Reynolds, in his Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995) falls into this pattern with one remarkable exception, his recovery of a "Sodom" story from Whitman's teaching days on Long Island.  Katherine Molinoff published a pamphlet in 1966, Walt Whitman at Southold that collected the testimonials of descendants whose oral tradition offers a remarkable story.  Reynolds summarizes: "As the story goes, one Sunday (January 3, 1841, is the probable date) he [Whitman] was publicly denounced by the Reverend Ralph Smith from the pulpit of Southold's First Presbyterian Church `because of his behavior to the children, and his goings on.' (Later on, reports of `bloody bedding' would emerge.) Members of the congregation formed a furious mob and went to nearby Kettle Hill, where hot tar was always available for mending fishing nets.  They hunted Whitman down at the home of George C.  Wells, whose son Giles was later said by Judge Jesse Case to have been `one of Whitman's victims.' Whitman fled to the nearby home of Dr.  Ira Corwin, whose housekeeper, Selina Danes, known as `the orphan's friend,' hid him in the attic.  The pursuing townspeople found him there, hiding under `straw ticks' (summer mattresses).  They seized him, plastered tar and feathers on his hair and clothes, and rode him out of town on a rail."

In my earlier Whitman book (1986) I did not include this story.  In part this was because one of the Long Island towns had the name "Sodom" (now Bay Shore) before Whitman was born, and that Sodom seemed to have been conflated with Southold.  Of course, Long Islanders in the eighteenth century may have interpreted sodomy as the crime of inhospitality.  There is some new evidence now.  Letters between Whitman and a local doctor (Abraham Leech) from 1840s have recently been published.  While they don't mention the trouble, they do not refute it.  Other interviews with local residents (including indirect descendants of Whitman) also add new twists.  Even so, the evidence is weak.  In January 1841, Whitman was supposedly tarred and feathered.  Yet in March he wrote a letter of reference for another schoolteacher.

Tarring and feathering does not prove a sexual crime.  At the very least, the incident should be put into a wider context.  Whitman's chief persecutor, a Presbyterian minister trained at Princeton, represented the New England and Whig communities on eastern Long Island.  Whitman came from the more Democratic, Quaker, freethinking Dutch section of the island.  His letters with Leech show him to be a supercilious, haughty, somewhat Byronic individual.  That attitude could hardly have endeared him to his opponents.  In the November elections of 1840, he worked for the Democratic candidate Martin Van Buren ("Van, Van's a Used Up Man," the successful Log-Cabiners for William Henry Harrison claimed).  A letter from November 28, 1840, from a lawyer in Washington to a Southold resident refers thus to Whitman's position in the 1840 election: "I am most sincerely sorry that Whitman tho't it expedient to `run a muck' under the chariot wheels of `old Tip'-but hope he may escape unscathed.”  (71) Could this letter suggest that a Tippy-Canoe-and-Tyler-Too mob had attacked Whitman?

Reynolds, nonetheless, should be praised for breaking the Log Cabin Club taboo on boy-love.  On the other hand, he accepts uncritically the current dogma about men and boys sleeping together being so common: "In those days, it was not unusual for a male teacher boarding with his students' families to sleep in the attic with one or more of the boys.”  And later, in analyzing a Whitman story from November 1841, Reynolds writes that the man takes the boy "to an inn, where the two sleep together according to the common custom of the day.”  (76) Where is the evidence for such "common custom"?  And if it were common, did the night go the way Petronius wrote in his first century Satyricon: the tutor whispered in the boy's ear, give me my pleasure and you'll get a gift tomorrow; after a few nights of this the boy got greedy, the tutor then said, be more modest or I'll report you to your father.

After a good beginning, however, Reynolds soon backslides.  He totally distorts Whitman's relationship with Billy Duckett: "He was aided in his driving by a roguish teenager, William Duckett, who boarded for a while at Mickle Street.  Although Whitman liked Duckett, who accompanied him on out-of-town trips....  Mrs. Davis got into a financial dispute with the young man, who falsely claimed the poet had invited him to stay in his house for free.”  Reynolds doesn't mention that Whitman shared his bed with Duckett.  Nor does Duckett's name appear in the index.

Farmers NooningAn interesting discovery (although not exactly overtly presented) comes in Whitman's relations with the artist William Sidney Mount.  Mount painted Whitman's schoolhouse in Southold (the name was later painted over) and he painted a group of Long Island youth.  In Farmers Nooning (1836), the boys lounge with their eyes focused a black man's crotch.  Whitman recalled in his Specimen Days a West Hills liberated slave who was very "manly, and cute and a great friend of my childhood.”  (20) Without any authority, Reynolds changes the word "cute" to "[a] cute."

The academy has made way for homosexuality, but it has not welcomed man/boy love.

From the NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 16, No. 2, Pgs. 32 - 33, Aug. 1995.
Copyright © NAMBLA, 2008

Home
Biography

History