In his epic poem "Song of Myself," poet Walt Whitman refers to "the hugging and loving bed-fellow [who] sleeps at my side through the night,/And withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread ."
Whitman (1819-1892) is now celebrated as one of the greatest American poets, but in his day critics debated whether or not his verse was really poetry. Whatever it was, they said, it was downright dirty. His detractors even claimed his sensual stuff was homosexual, sighting lines like those above, or these, from "Earth My Likeness": "For an athlete is enamour'd of me, and I of him,/But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me/Eligible to burst forth ."
Seems tame now, but Whitman's opus collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, remains on many banned-books lists. The Broward County Library's forward-thinking Florida Center For the Book, however, has put together an entire series of events dedicated to the poet.
"Walt Whitman: An American Icon" begins on Tuesday with a screening of the film Walt Whitman: Voices and Visions. "It's a kind of composite history and criticism of Whitman's life and works and a discussion of his place in the pantheon of American writers," explains Dr. John Childrey, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at Florida Atlantic University.
Childrey, a poet himself, will lead the postfilm discussion. He'll also facilitate the February 15 and 21 talks on the book Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography by David S. Reynolds. "It deals with some of the current issues that swirl around Whitman and which remain issues in society today, some 100 years later," Childrey says. "There's a great deal of homophobia, and some contemporary critics are portraying him as a gay hero. Reynolds takes kind of a middle-of-the-road approach."
Whatever Whitman's sexuality, he considered himself a true American and felt poets had a duty to instill love of country in others; his writing often contained themes of equality and democracy. He chronicled his Civil War experiences -- including volunteering as a nurse in Army hospitals -- in Drum Taps. The sequel to the book of prose included an elegy for Abraham Lincoln, the poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
Portraying the poet circa 1872, English professor Carroll Peterson of Doane College in Nebraska will focus on the patriotic side of Whitman during his literary dramatization on February 19, the final event of the series.
Always elusive about his sexuality in a playful way, Whitman would probably get a kick out of the controversy still surrounding him. And if it takes the topic of homosexuality to get people talking about issues he espoused, says Childrey: "I think he would be delighted for us to be talking about what it means to have a national identity, from the standpoint of what it means to be an American."