Because mine is an evil and a petty mind, suitable more to wallowing in the sordid sexual goings-on of literary giants than in reading their work, I take every opportunity I can to inform people who may not have known that Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde almost certainly had sex in 1882.
You are either the kind of person to whom this matters a great deal, or the kind of person to whom it matters not at all. To the latter I say: yours is the narrow road and the straight, and I extend to you a hearty and fulsome handshake, as well as my sincerest wishes for your continued good health. To the former I say: Want to hear about the time Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde (probably) hooked up??
Of course you do. You’re my kind of person. Why do we ever talk about anything else? Let’s never do that again.
Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman Almost Certainly Did It (And That’s Wonderful)
So. As you may or may not know, Wilde went on a speaking tour of America in 1882, and it was marvelous (Henry James didn’t care for it; Henry James called him a “tenth-rate card” and an “unclean beast”; Henry James can go suck an egg). He lectured and gave interviews and he sold out concert halls and he very possibly had sex with Walt Whitman.
If you have not already read Neil McKenna’s nearly-perfect biography, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (Indiebound | Amazon), please correct this omission as quickly as possible. I will now quote from it at length:
Oscar desperately wanted to meet Walt Whitman, whom he and many others considered to be America’s living poet…Whitman’s poetry spoke of the potency of friendship and love between men, particularly between working-class men, and positively oozed homoeroticism. Indeed, the ‘Calamus’ section of Whitman’s great poetic cycle Leaves of Grass was so intensely homoerotic that it gave rise to the short-lived term ‘calamite’ to denote a man who loved men. Swinburne was to denounce ‘the cult of the calamus’ and ‘calamites.’
Yes, I hear you saying impatiently, but damn Swinburne (you are right, of course. Let us leave him behind us) and get to the sex. Patience, my rouge-lipped darling. All in good time. As it happened, Wilde knew John Marshall Stoddart, a well-known publisher who was also friends with Whitman, and used him to wangle an invitation to dinner.
At first, Walt Whitman says no. No Oscar Wilde for him. But then: Walt Whitman changes his mind and sends Stoddart a note:
Walt Whitman will be in from two till three-thirty this afternoon, and will be most happy to see Mr. Wilde and Mr. Stoddart.
When Oscar Wilde sees an opportunity to have sex with Walt Whitman, he does not hesitate. He goes.
Oscar was suitably humble in the presence of Whitman, greeting him with the words, ‘I have come to you as one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle.’ The contrast between the two poets could not have been more marked. Oscar was young, tall, slender and clean shaven. Whitman was in his early sixties, but looked much older. He was shorter than Oscar and wore a long, bushy white beard. Oscar was highly educated, cultivated and still in his languid Aesthetic phase. Whitman was self-taught, and robustly masculine in manner.
Could his meaning be more clear? “Hello, Daddy,” says the young dandy as he lightly crosses the threshold.
Stoddart tactfully left the two poets alone. ‘If you are willing – will excuse me – I will go off for an hour or so – come back again – leaving you together,’ he said. ‘We would be glad to have you stay,’ Whitman replied. ‘But do not feel to come back in an hour. Don’t come for two or three.’ Whitman opened a bottle of elderberry wine and he and Oscar drank it all before Whitman suggested they go upstairs to his ‘den’ on the third floor where, he told Oscar, ‘We could be on ‘thee and thou’ terms.’
ASDF;LKAJSDF;ALKSJDF, as the saying goes. The next day, Whitman told the Philadelphia Press that the two of them had a “jolly good time” together. Did he get more specific? He did, reader. He did:
One of the first things I said was that I should call him ‘Oscar.’ ‘I like that so much,’ he answered, laying his hand on my knee. He seemed to me like a great big, splendid boy. He is so frank, and outspoken, and manly. I don’t see why such mocking things are written of him.
This is a gift. You do realize that, don’t you? History has reached out to you specifically and given you a gift. The gift is the knowledge that Oscar Wilde once put his hand on Walt Whitman’s knee and then they drank elderberry wine together; the gift is that the next day a reporter turned up and Whitman expounded at length on his big, splendid boy. Let this sink in a moment. This is like finding out Emily Dickinson once secretly stowed away on a ship bound for England and spent a weekend with Jane Austen at a bed and breakfast, doing it. This is like finding out Ernest Hemingway finally let his guard down one night in Spain and let F. Scott Fitzgerald lean across the table and kiss him. This is like finding out Gwendolyn Brooks lost her virginity to Willa Cather.
The night is long, and the night is full of terrors, but Walt Whitman once drank wine with Oscar Wilde in his third-story den, where they talked of love.
Stoddart went on to say that ‘after embracing, greeting each other as Oscar and Walt, the two talked of nothing but pretty boys, of how insipid was the love of women, and of what other poets, Swinburne in particular, had to say about these tastes.’ Stoddart’s reminiscences accord with Oscar’s later account of the meeting to his friend, George Ives.
Could anything possibly be more perfect? “Hello, Oscar.”
“Do you know what I find sickening and insipid?”
“Could it be the love of women?”
“How did you guess?”
“Come here, you great big, splendid, boy, and put your hand on my knee.”
So far, of course, we have setup. We have opportunity. We have motive. But our evidence is as yet circumstantial. We need the smoking gun.
We have the smoking gun. It is loaded, and it is in Oscar’s hands.
Oscar told Ives that there was ‘no doubt’ about Whitman’s sexual tastes. ‘I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips,’ he boasted.
If you have a book in front of you, feel free to close it dreamily. If all you have is this particular website before you, try hitting refresh and sighing romantically; the effect is largely the same. If you would like to argue that Oscar Wilde was occasionally given to exaggeration and sexual braggadocio and coy boasts to a friend might not be the most reliable source, kindly hush up and go away.
You are now invited to post Walt Whitman/Oscar Wilde fan art in the comments.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.