“I Love Him Though I Do Not Know Him”
Link to my DH Project: https://noratomer.wixsite.com/digitalhumanities
I began reading some of Walt Whitman’s poetry when I was in high school. A handful of poems were assigned to read as homework and I enjoyed them thoroughly. They had a vibrant, joyful tone that many of the writers we previously studied lacked. Although at times they felt melodramatic or over zealous, I still found myself connecting with them regularly. It was not until later that I discovered Whitman was probably not heterosexual. This aspect of his identity had been ignored by all my teachers who featured him. He was simply described as a bachelor who focused on his art rather than romance. Rereading his work, I felt it was criminally dismissive to not mention such a key aspect of his life and one that I felt obviously tied into his writing.
My DH Project, titled “I Love Him, Though I Do Not Know Him” is an analysis of Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” which appeared in the 1892 deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass. With so much historical revision being done in order to accommodate LGBTQ+ artists whose identities have been erased, I felt Walt Whitman’s groundbreaking work deserved the same treatment. Using biographies of Whitman and accounts of his allegedly queer relationships as well, I have tried to connect experiences and meaning within Whitman’s text to his identity. I believe that Whitman’s final revision of the poem can provide the reader with insight into his views on gender and sexuality, a subject which remains contentious among academic to this day.
I have attempted to refrain from placing any definitive gender or sexual label on Whitman during my project. I would not be comfortable using a word that Whitman would not have used for himself, so I have elected to use the reclaimed umbrella word “queer.”
On my project website, I have analyzed five sections of “Song of Myself,” sections 11, 12, 22, 24, and 28. The analysis takes into account depictions of masculinity, femininity, sex, sensuality, and generally gendered terms. By using a queer historical perspective, new life is breathed into a previously overworked text.
When constructing the project, I hoped to make an accessible literary resource for academics of all backgrounds. In research for various projects, I have found many online resources done by scholars to be done with language that suggests gatekeeping and prevents a curious layperson from understanding the analysis. I wanted to write fairly informally so that any audience could understand my objective while also using an understandable, streamlined online experience. This would allow audiences to focus on the content of the site rather than being bogged down by clumsy navigation.
Sections 11, 12, 22, 24, and 28 were specifically chosen because I believe they effectively combine elements of Whitman’s personal life as well as queer thought. These poems include worshipful descriptions of masculine bodies done from male and female perspectives, depictions of sexual pleasure derived from intercourse and masturbation, as well as gendered associations that imply romantic and sexual connections with members of the same gender.
While my conclusion is not as simple as deciding whether Walt Whitman was or was not queer, it does address whether there is overt references to his non-heterosexuality within “Song of Myself.” With firm confidence, I can say that queer relationships (romantic, sexual, and platonic) all appear within the deathbed version of “Song of Myself.” There is a plethora of obviously sexual language throughout the poem entangled with deeply sentimental musings on love between men and humans in general. When Whitman’s life is placed into this context as well, it becomes clear that these are no mere thoughts of brotherhood. Just as Whitman loved Peter Doyle, among other men, and shared romantic and sexual experiences with them, the narrator of “Song of Myself” has done the same and at times encourages readers to explore these moments as well.
“Song of Myself” is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reevaluating Whitman’s work under a queer lens. He wrote constantly throughout his life and there is no doubt that smatterings of his views of gender and sexuality appeared within his other works, some more significantly than others. Ideally, this project would continue to analyze all these instances of non-heteronormative writing in Whitman’s career as well as in his personal life, but based on energy and time constraints, the project has been limited to five selected sections.
I do not see this project as being fully over and I hope to pursue it further. There is still a great deal of information to analyze on a historical and literary basis that may help when it comes to piecing together Whitman’s identity as a queer man. Reclassifying mainstream historical figures as queer is a radical act and by continuing to discuss Whitman as a queer man, the study of his life is being further expanded all while queer people are vindicated and assured that their existence is significant.
I began my DH project by combing over the entirety of Walt Whitman’s deathbed version of “Song of Myself.” I went through and highlighted various terms and phrases that I felt feel into four categories, man/masculine (represented by yellow), woman/femininity (represented by red), sex/sensuality (represented by green), and generally gendered terms or phrases (represented by blue). After going through all 52 sections and taking extensive notes, I selected five that I felt accurately and effectively represented Whitman’s representation of himself as a queer man within the piece. Below are images of the raw notes.
My biographical research of Whitman seemed to dash all over the place for a while. There were so many sources that detailed the events of his life, some more objectively than others. I found that many scholar’s preoccupation with Whitman’s status as one of America’s most famous poets left their work feeling one-sided. Without criticism of his actions or his early work and by promoting the idea of him as an organic genius, the human, sexual Whitman I wanted to portray seemed to be distant. However, by compiling information from a variety of sources, I was able to string together a narrative that felt not only accurate, but relevant to my project.
A challenge for some time was deciding what sort of terminology to apply to Whitman. Recent sources have simply referred to him as “gay,” but I now feel it is inappropriate to use a gender or sexual label that the person themself may not have used. I was introduced to this perspective of queer history when learning about Willa Cather and her gender performance as well as her relationships with women. I wanted to provide Whitman with the same courtesy. For a time, my notes refer to him as LGBTQ+, but this language weighed down the analysis and slowed the pace. I decided to replace LGBTQ+ with the reclaimed word “queer.” As the word can still be upsetting for some people to hear, I worried it would just be another distraction from the actual analysis. However, I ended up sticking with the word “queer” to describe Whitman and I can only hope it does not distance any readers.
For a while, I agonized over how to publish my findings. I am unfortunately rather uneducated when it comes to computer software and most free programs seem to be too tedious to use. After experimenting with several different blogging platforms, I decided to use Wix. Wix offers creators the opportunity to craft a free website full of different apps and functions. Not only is their user interface clean, simple, and intuitive for the creator, it is the same for the viewer. Wix allowed me to draft multiple blog posts in order to divide my research and analysis into relevant sections. Through the apps page I was able to create a home screen and an about section so that the project could be explained and summarized for anyone who may stumble upon it.
When I did my proposal, the functionality and simplicity of the software used to publish my findings was highlighted as a concern and a priority. I strive to make content, academic or not, that is accessible on all levels. This includes free to view as well as easy to comprehend. I want scholars of all ages and ability levels to be able to engage with the research and contribute. For a digital humanities project, the functionality of a website can a deal breaker. As I explored other DH projects for inspiration, I found many of them tedious to navigate and their websites outdated. This created an irritating barrier between myself and the research, one that I do not want my viewers to go through. In the end, I am proud of the aesthetic and functionality of the website. The information is organized clearly and can be read by just about anyone.
I sincerely hope that I can continue to pursue this project and that it may expand to include the analysis and research of other individuals. I found the study of Whitman’s life and his work to be fascinating by my own standards, but I know by working with my peers I would be able to continue to reevaluate Whitman’s work and see it from continually differing perspectives. My dream is that the project could connect to the prolific Walt Whitman Archive, a major help during this project, and become a resource for anyone looking to understand Whitman’s body of work, not just “Song of Myself,” under a queer lens.