Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Known for his poetry on patriotism, naturalism, and spiritualism, Whitman’s well-known book of poems Leaves of Grass also exhibits homoerotic themes and content. While in his lifetime he rejected the label “homosexual,” specifically in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman has since been claimed as a large figure in queer literature by historians such as Michael Bronski and Jonathan Ned Katz.
In these attempts to claim his queerness, in his book A Queer History of the United States, Bronski points to the strict, suffocating definition of “homosexual” Whitman would’ve faced in his time. Living in a pre-Kinsey scale understanding of sexuality that misrepresented the queer spectrum, anyone during Whitman’s time existing under fluid identities like bisexual or pansexual, would’ve only been given two options: heterosexual or homosexual, with homosexual clearly being the lesser in the public eye.
While reading, pay attention to Whitman’s use of the dominant/submissive relationship and how he subverts expectations put on queerness under heterosexual power dynamics.