Commentary

Selected Criticism

The Real "Live Oak, with Moss": Straight Talk about Whitman's "Gay Manifesto"

Hershel Parker


More than four decades ago, while working with the Valentine Collection of Walt Whitman manuscripts then owned by Clifton Waller Barrett (now in the University of Virginia), Fredson Bowers discovered that within two years or so of the publication of the second (1856) edition of Leaves of Grass the poet had composed a previously unknown twelve-poem sequence. Around early 1859 Whitman copied the sequence neatly into a notebook under the title "Live Oak, with Moss."1  The notebook subsequently was taken apart, and the existence of the sequence remained unknown until Bowers followed the clues provided by Whitman's capital roman numerals on the twelve poems and pieced together the torn leaves. The twelve poems themselves were all known in revised versions Whitman had printed (shuffled out of sequence) in the new forty-five poem "Calamus" section of the 1860 Leaves of Grass. Long before Bowers's discovery, two of the twelve "Live Oak, with Moss" poems ("I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing" and "When I heard at the close of the day") in their revised "Calamus" texts had become among the best-known of all of Whitman's poems.

The "Live Oak" sequence, of which Bowers became the earliest known reader, is a first-person narrative. The speaker is a poet who previously had seen himself as the singer of songs for "The States" (l. 43),2  like Whitman in parts of the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass and in his early notes and poems meant for a third edition. The sequence traces the course of a man's love for another man, their happiness together, and the aftermath of their relationship, which proves to be only a love affair, not the lifelong union the speaker had hoped for. The plot (and actual wording) of the original sequence is still unfamiliar enough to justify a succinct summary here.

In the first "Live Oak" poem ("Not the heat flames up and consumes") the poet, through extravagant comparisons of forces in nature to his own forces, celebrates the intensity of his search for his "life-long lover" (l. 5). In the second ("I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing") the poet praises self-sufficiency but concludes with the confession that he knows very well that he could never be like the live-oak, which utters "joyous leaves all its life, without a friend, a lover, near" (l. 15). In the third ("When I heard at the close of the day") the poet locates happiness not in fame, carousal, or accomplishments but in the anticipation of the arrival of his friend, his lover, and then in the reality of watching his friend sleeping by his side. The five-line fourth poem ("This moment as I sit alone") announces the poet's thought (part hope, part belief) that there are other men like him all over the world, like him yearning and pensive, men with whom he could be happy. In the fifth ("Long I thought that knowledge alone would suffice me") the speaker repudiates his former ambitions as the poet who had struck up "the songs of the New World" (l. 36). Now he announces: "I am indifferent to my own songs" (l. 44); it is enough that he is to be with the man he loves. The five-line poem VI poses the question: "What think you I have taken my pen to record?" (l. 46) and answers that it is the parting of two men on a pier: "The one to remain hung on the other's neck and passionately kissed him—while the one to depart tightly prest the one to remain in his arms" (l. 50). Poem VII ("You bards of ages hence!") tells the way the poet wants to be remembered by future poets: not as one who "prophesied of The States" (l. 52) but as a lover, one "who ever, as he sauntered the streets, curved with his arm the manly shoulder of his friend—while the curving arm of his friend rested upon him also" (l. 61).

No rupture between the lovers is described, but poem VIII ("Hours continuing long, sore and heavy-hearted") records the aftermath of abandonment: "he, the one I cannot content myself without—soon I saw him content himself without me" (l. 65). Then the poet asks if he is the only one to feel such longings: "Is there even one other like me—distracted—his friend, his lover, lost to him?" (l. 69). The ninth poem ("I dreamed in a dream of a city where all the men were like brothers"), consisting of only four lines, harkens back to poem IV, but here, in a different, self-consoling mood, the poet dreams of "the city of robust friends" where nothing is greater "than manly love" (l. 77). The three-line poem X ("0 you whom I often and silently come where you are") is a silent address to a new man whom he visits: "Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me" (l. 81). In the four-line poem XI ("Earth! Though you look so impassive, ample and spheric there") the poet loves a man ("For an athlete loves me,—and I him" [l. 84])—presumably the same man as in poem X. Making an analogy between himself and the impassive earth ready to break forth in eruption, the poet warns that he contains something in him that he "dare not tell ... in words—not even in these songs" (l. 85): fierce and terrible urges (like volcanic or other pressures inside the earth) that may prove hurtful, apparently when enacted in sex. The last poem ("To the young man, many things to absorb, to engraft, to develop") announces that the poet has much to teach the young man who would be his student (not necessarily the same person as the new man of poem X or the athlete of poem XI), but he acknowledges that he can teach only those predisposed to hear his message: "If he be not silently selected by lovers, and do not silently select lovers—of what use were it for him to seek to become eleve of mine?" (l. 87). With that question the sequence ends.

What I tersely summarize here was, as Bowers first recognized, a direct, coherent, powerful literary work.3  "Live Oak" was also extraordinarily daring, since the sequence explicitly traced states of mind (and mind-body) during a homosexual love affair and its aftermath. As Alan Helms suggests, Whitman may have decided that "the sequence revealed too much."4  Although he lived another three decades and more after copying "Live Oak, with Moss" into a notebook, Whitman never published it intact, as part of Leaves of Grass or elsewhere. Instead he salvaged the "Live Oak" sequence by including versions of all twelve poems among the new forty-five poem "Calamus" cluster in the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860)—but only after taking the sequence apart, shuffling it, and revising each of the twelve poems. In "Calamus" the first "Live Oak" poem became Number 14, the second became 20, the third became 11, the fourth became 23, the fifth became 8, the sixth became 32, the seventh became 10, the eighth became 9, the ninth became 34, the tenth became 43, the eleventh became 36, and the last became 42. Only the seventh and eighth remained contiguous—but in the reverse order, so that the lines that had led into the eighth poem now led into a poem not in the "Live Oak" sequence at all. Whitman could tell himself that he had succeeded in getting the twelve "Live Oak" poems into print—however altered by order, by distance from each other, by new juxtapositions with other poems, and by minor revision, most of it probably incidental to the salvage operation.

There matters stood until Bowers discovered the sequence and printed it in 1953 in the annual he founded and edited, Studies in Bibliography.5  A few errors occurred in the 1953 text, but Bowers silently corrected them in his Whitman's Manuscripts: 'Leaves of Grass' (1860): A Parallel Text (1955). Because his purpose in this book was to allow readers to study previously unpublished Whitman manuscript poems against parallel texts of those poems as first printed in the 1860 Leaves of Grass, Bowers printed the "Live Oak" poems facing their "Calamus" versions, not in their original "Live Oak" order. In 1955, that is, Bowers reprinted the individual poems in corrected texts, but scattered, not as a sequence.

With Bowers's work the printing of "Live Oak, with Moss" stopped for four decades. No one seems to have put the sequence into an anthology of poetry or general literature until 1994, when I included it in the first volume of the Fourth Edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, where I described it as "what would now be termed a gay manifesto" (p. 2,097n). "Live Oak, with Moss" seems to have gone unreprinted as a sequence between 1953 and 1994—with one significant but misleading exception. Along with his essay in Robert K. Martin's The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman, Alan Helms printed a sequence of twelve poems that he called "Live Oak with Moss" (without the comma). These poems, as I will explain, are far from identical to the sequence Whitman called "Live Oak, with Moss," first printed (with only a few errors) by Bower in his 1953 article in Studies in Bibliography, reprinted in a corrected text but in the greatly differing "Calamus" arrangement in his Whitman's Manuscripts (long out of print), and now available—the texts corrected and Whitman's arrangement restored—in the Fourth Edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature.6 

From our vantage point it might seem that Bowers's publication of an unknown homoerotic poetic sequence should have stirred up a good deal of interpretive and even textual commentary, but academic critics were very slow to come to terms with "Live Oak, with Moss." The neglect of the sequence owes something to the fact that Studies in Bibliography, while the most important American bibliographical annual, was, after all, a highly specialized scholarly journal, and Whitman's Manuscripts was a technical university press book (one where the individual poems were printed, but not the sequence). Studies in Bibliography and Whitman's Manuscripts were available in all the best libraries but not necessarily in many of the new postwar four-year and two-year colleges. Even teachers who had ready access to both publications could not easily use the "Live Oak" sequence in the classroom, since this was a decade or so before photocopying machines became fixtures in every library and departmental office. Teacher-critics could count other blessings, such as the entire 1892 Leaves of Grass in print in various paperback editions. A little later (1959), teachers were given the boon of Malcolm Cowley's edition of the 1855 Leaves of Grass and in 1964 James E. Miller, Jr.'s "Song of Myself": Origin, Growth, Meaning, immensely useful for its parallel texts of the 1855 and 1892 "Song of Myself."7  By that time the "Live Oak" sequence may have seemed like old news to many teacher-critics, not worth rushing to make use of just because photocopying was available. But in the 1960s, as in the 1950s, there was another, compelling reason for not talking and writing about "Live Oak, with Moss": the frankly homosexual subject matter, in those distant decades, was one that many teacher-critics found extremely awkward if not downright threatening, whether in the classroom or in learned journals.

Whatever the concatenation of reasons, "Live Oak, with Moss" was printed by Bowers as a sequence in 1953 and out of sequence in 1955, only to be neglected. Of the few scholars and critics who wrote about "Live Oak, with Moss" between Bowers and the 1990s, the earliest and most notable was Gay Wilson Allen, whom Bowers had consulted before he first published the sequence. In his long-standard biography The Solitary Singer Allen was patently uneasy about the subject of homosexuality, sure that poem VIII in the "Live Oak" sequence was "written out of shame and remorse" and happy to find that the poet's ability "to transcend his personal suffering" gave the (much needed) "redeeming feature" to the "poems motivated by unsatisfied homoerotic yearnings."8  Yet despite his edginess about homoerotic yearnings (unsatisfied or satisfied), Allen accurately noted that the "Live Oak, with Moss" sequence told a story and carried "a clearer meaning" (p. 222) than did the forty-five poems published as "Calamus" in 1860 (among which, revised and reordered, were the "Live Oak" poems). So few other critics followed up on Allen's brief comments that Helms in his recent study was entirely justified in his summary of response to "Live Oak, with Moss": "No one has discussed it at length, and the few who have remarked on it merely point out that it gave rise to the 'Calamus' sequence and leave it at that" (p. 185).

An oddity of the decades of near silence on "Live Oak, with Moss" is that those few critics who did mention it, looking back at it from the familiar achieved reality of the "Calamus" cluster in the third or a later edition of Leaves of Grass, tended to treat the sequence almost as if it had not quite existed. In 1985 David Cavitch wrote that at an early stage in the composition of the "Calamus" poems Whitman had "toyed with arranging twelve of them into a cluster resembling an Elizabethan sonnet sequence."9  Whitman did not "toy" with arranging the poems into a sequence, he did arrange them in such a sequence. Furthermore, he did not "toy" with so arranging twelve of the forty-five poems of "Calamus": he actually arranged the original twelve poems in a sequence, very likely after some of the other thirty-three that went into "Calamus" were composed but before there was a "Calamus" section—which seems to have been conceived, later, as a way of salvaging the "Live Oak" poems. Still more recently Robert K. Martin said that "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing" "was apparently intended to be the second poem" of the "Live Oak, with Moss" sequence.10  "I Saw in Louisiana" was the second poem of the "Live Oak, with Moss" sequence—it was not "apparently intended" to be so. The point is simple but consequential: because Whitman never printed the sequence, and because Bowers's 1953 text was not widely available, critics treated "Live Oak, with Moss" as if it never quite had a tangible existence. "Live Oak, with Moss" was almost hypothetical, according to the critics, hardly more than a figment of Whitman's imagination. By contrast, "Calamus"—whatever that consisted of in 1860 or in later editions—most often was seen as tangible, coherent, explicable.

The first full attempt to read "Live Oak, with Moss" was Helms's essay in Martin's The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman (the one that contained the text of the no-comma "Live Oak with Moss"). Like Gay Wilson Allen, Helms emphasized the directness of the "Live Oak" sequence:

Only in "Live Oak" do we get a clear story of a love affair with a man, along with a story of a coming out that affects Whitman's other poetry in this period and even changes the course of his life. In understanding what it meant to Whitman to love a man and to come out as America's first self-identified "homosexual," in seeing how that affects the best poetry of his third edition, and in making sense of his subsequent career, we might at last begin where Whitman himself began. (p. 186)
Having said this, Helms disconcertingly failed to begin "where Whitman himself began."

Judging from his comments, Helms may have thought he was printing and reading the veritable twelve poems that had made up what Whitman had entitled "Live Oak, with Moss":

A reader unfamiliar with the sequence should turn to it now, at the end of this essay. As with the other poems I quote, I give the "Live Oak" poems in their first published form—that is, as they appeared in the third Leaves of Grass in 1860 in the form Whitman approved for publication. I've simply removed them from "Calamus" and restored them to Whitman's original order. (p. 187)
Helms was wrong: no reader (whether "unfamiliar" or familiar with "Live Oak, with Moss") could find that sequence reprinted at the end of Helms's essay. In a textual decision that may have long-term and severely deleterious consequences for textual scholarship and criticism on Whitman, Helms did not print and did not explicate "Live Oak, with Moss." Instead, reprinted (accurately) and what he read were the altered texts of the poems numbered 14, 20, 11, 23, 8, 32, 10, 9, 34, 43, 36, and 42 in the 1860 "Calamus" cluster, which he put together in the order of the "Live Oak" sequence. In any true textual arithmetic, these poems extracted from "Calamus" and strung together do not add up to "Live Oak, with Moss."

If Helms had realized that his choice of copy-text was controversial, he could have attempted to justify it. He could have speculated, for instance, that Whitman had made his revisions poems for some missing version of "Live Oak, with Moss" subsequent to the surviving text, before he reordered and revised the poems for inclusion in "Calamus." Helms made no such argument. Nor did he defend his choice against the predictable challenge that the revisions had been made when Whitman separated the "Live Oak, with Moss" poems so he could try them out in various positions among other poems and perhaps alter them to fit a little better in positions adjacent to other poems, either in lost trial arrangements or in the final arrangement of the 186o "Calamus" sequence. Helms neither justified his choice nor defended it, unless he thought the statement that Whitman had "approved" the text of "Calamus" was sufficient textual justification. Nothing suggests that Helms thought to collate the texts of the twelve "Live Oak" poems against the texts he took from the 1860 "Calamus" section. Helms quoted from Whitman's Manuscripts (where "Live Oak" is not printed as a sequence), but he only alluded to Bowers's article in Studies in Bibliography (without mentioning the year). Saying this sounds very odd indeed, but for all one can tell from his essay, Helms may never have read the genuine "Live Oak, with Moss."11 

Having meticulously but unthinkingly created "Live Oak with Moss," Helms was struck down by swift, ruthless poetic justice, for he suffered miserably in reading his spurious sequence. "What a sad journey the sequence takes us on" (p. 191), he lamented after exposing what he found—a "narrative of homophobic oppression" (p. 190). At the outset of his wretched trek through the twelve poems as reprinted from the 1860 "Calamus" Helms endured the "feverish" tone of the first poem: "Whitman starts off his sequence in a high-pitched, rhapsodic key that recalls how agitated he could become when he was in love" (p. 187). In that poem ("Not heat flames up and consumes") the theme at least was "clear" to Helms—it was "consuming love" (p. 188). But consuming love of what, he dizzily puzzled: "a man? men? love? friendship? the reader/lover of the earlier poetry?" (p. 188). Looking sternly at the end of the poem, where the Soul was wafted "in all directions, O love, for friendship, for you," Helms faced up to a dismaying conclusion: "Whitman is having trouble imagining his reader" (p. 188). Not only was Whitman delivering a discouraging message, he was unable to decide what reader he wanted to deliver it to.

In the third poem ("When I heard at the close of the day"), so apparently cheerful, Helms found lurking a perturbing "transgression" that had driven the poet to his "retreat" into "conventional homosexual fantasy" in the fourth poem ("This moment as I sit alone") (pp. 189, 188). Poem V ("Long I thought that knowledge alone") was particularly painful for Helms to read: "Whitman must renounce his former poetry, and his confused view of the matter results in an ambivalent, bombastic poem in which he sounds more like a man addressing Congress than one celebrating his lover. A deep tension appears in Whitman between pride in his new self and a resistance to that self which absorbs him and provokes his blistering defiance" (p. 189). In poem VII ("You bards of ages hence!") "tension breaks out again," for "Whitman is learning that in a homophobic society, homosexual lovers require" a privacy too hard to achieve (p. 189). In poem VIII ("Hours continuing long"), Helms sees Whitman as describing the "sense of shame and isolation" in which he stifles his feelings, enacting "the centuries-old response" to hostile "cultural judgment" (p. 190). The society wins: "By shaming Whitman, by isolating him, and—most disastrous for a writer—by silencing him, homophobia wins the determining agon of 'Live Oak.' From here to the end, it controls the sequence" (p. 190). In the twelfth poem, according to Helms, "the whole weight of his homophobic culture finally descends on Whitman, exacting silence and with it the end of the sequence. There is literally nowhere for Whitman the lover and writer to go from this point on" (p. 192). For Helms "Live Oak with Moss" was "a deeply troubled sequence, mostly about the confusion, pain, and fear that surround the fact of men loving men" (p. 192)—"deeply troubled," and deeply troubling.

My summary at the outset of this article delineates a coherent, frank, confident, and even ebullient poetic narrative (despite the temporary desolation described in poem VIII and unsatisfied yearnings described elsewhere). Anyone who compares that summary with Helms's account of his "sad journey" might conclude that Helms and I are strangely different travelers, seeing from astonishingly divergent vantage points, but it would be a waste of time to account for our divergent readings in terms of differences in race, age, education, temperament, or any other factors. The reason our accounts differ so drastically is that we are describing journeys over radically different terrain, one of us reading the real "Live Oak, with Moss," the other reading the no-comma text constructed from "Calamus."

Gay Wilson Allen had said that Whitman made only "slight revisions" of the "Live Oak" poems before arriving at the texts printed in "Calamus" (The Solitary Singer, p. 222). The variants were in fact more numerous than Allen's phrasing suggested. Still, it was not the gross number of variants but rather a few particular variants that affected Helms's reading of the poems. The source of Helms's misery in reading his no-comma "Live Oak with Moss" is obvious once one begins checking his interpretation against the original text. Helms's confusion over whom Whitman is addressing in the first poem derives directly from the text of the poem as revised and placed in "Calamus." In the real "Live Oak, with Moss" the line that so confuses Helms reads "wafted in all directions, for friendship, for love" (l. 6)—"for love," not for a nebulous "you." (This is not to say that the "you" is necessarily nebulous when it is encountered in the fourteenth poem in the 1860 "Calamus.") Poem I is indeed confusing in the no-comma "Live Oak with Moss" but not in the original sequence, where Whitman had experienced no trouble in imagining his reader.

Furthermore, nothing in the words of the third poem (either in the original form or in the text Helms took from "Calamus") refers to or even hints at sexual "transgression." Poem III ends, in both the original "Live Oak" sequence and in poem 11 of "Calamus," with the speaker saying, "And that night I was happy"—not that he was happy despite having transgressed some sexual law. What Helms read as "transgression" derives from this passage in the ninth poem as reprinted from "Calamus": "I dreamed in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth,/ I dreamed that was the new City of Friends" (Helms, p. 204). Helms transported his reading of this passage back into the third poem, where he, not Whitman, characterized the speaker's sexual experience with another man as a transgression. The line in poem IX about "the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth" proved to be the crucial evidence (indeed, the only internal evidence) for Helm's reading of the "Live Oak" sequence as dominated by "homophobic oppression." That line, I emphasize, does not occur in "Live Oak, with Moss." It is in poem 34 of "Calamus," but it is not in the ninth poem of "Live Oak, with Moss."

Helms had observed that Whitman published the poems only after "he first reordered them in such a way that he obliterated the narrative they contain" (pp. 186–87), but it seems not to have occurred to Helms that in revising the poems, however slightly, Whitman had thereby "obliterated" the possibility that anyone might accurately reconstruct "Live Oak, with Moss" from "Calamus." Helms's placing of the revised poems; in the order of the original "Live Oak" poems did restore something akin to the original narrative that had been "obliterated" in "Calamus"—the factitious no-comma text can be read, still, as the story of a thwarted love affair. But the altered phrasing, especially in poem IX, seems insidiously to have led Helms to believe that "Live Oak" was about homophobic oppression. Nothing in his essay suggests that Helms assembled his texts as he did because he was determined, from the outset, to find that theme. It may have been through sheer textual haplessness that he took a sequence that should have been liberating and explicated it as a sequence about victimization and oppression. Such were the miserable, and apparently unwitting, consequences of not beginning where a critic should, with the completed "Live Oak, with Moss."

I belabor the point in the interests of clarity: Helms's commentary on what he calls "Live Oak with Moss" (without the comma) is not commentary on the sequence that was later dismembered and revised to become part of "Calamus"; instead, it is commentary on a reconstituted version of the sequence consisting of what had previously been dismembered (and altered) to become part of "Calamus." The choice of copy-text matters—matters profoundly—to every reader of The Continuing Presence who is told that "Live Oak with Moss" is about "homophobic oppression" instead of being allowed to discover that "Live Oak, with Moss" is an ultimately triumphant account of the poet's accepting his homosexuality and surviving a thwarted love affair. (Now, Helms quite reasonably could have speculated that Whitman did not publish the sequence because he felt the weight of homophobic oppression in his society, but that is not what he argued: he argued that "homophobic oppression" had won "the determining agon of 'Live Oak.'")

Far from being a routine article in a run-of-the-mill journal, Helms's essay was showcased in The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman—"the most aggressive gathering of essays ever published" on "Whitman's homosexuality, his homotextuality, and his influence on gay writers," according to the incisive, polemical dust-jacket copy, where Robert K. Martin is quite properly identified as "a pioneer in gay studies." This paragraph from the dust jacket embodies Martin's aspirations for the book:

The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman seeks to be an intervention and not merely a reflection; it is intended to illuminate a response that continues to take place, a constant invention and reinvention, a writing and rewriting that echo Whitman's own text of Leaves of Grass. Whitman remains an originating force. Once read, he will not go away.
Once they were published in such a conspicuous, even momentous collection, Helms's essay and his text of "Live Oak with Moss" will not easily "go away," either, but will continue to be read by practitioners and students of queer theory and gay criticism and by anyone interested in homosexuality in American literature, as well as by other students of Whitman.

Martin was no more alert to mundane issues of copy-text than Helms, or else he would have warned his contributor that he was reading and reprinting the poems in their revised forms. Instead of advising Helms of his error or at least apprising his readers of something problematic in the essay, Martin innocently vouched that what Helms printed and explicated was indeed the original sequence: "The process of revision that has worked to make Whitman 'safe' for the classroom... began with Whitman himself, as Alan Helms shows in his moving commentary on 'Live Oak with Moss,' a sequence that was later dismembered to become part of 'Calamus.'"12  In fact, Martin was wrongly pushing the safe-making process backward to the writing of "Live Oak, with Moss" rather than locating it in the subsequent preparation of the "Calamus" cluster. Since he designed the collection as an "intervention" in the reputation of Whitman, for Martin to relocate that process of defensiveness and disguise was to participate, however unwittingly, in the appropriating of the poem by modish victim-politics.

In the section on Whitman in American Literary Scholarship 1992, the annual review begun under the sponsorship of the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association, Gary Lee Stonum compounded the damage Helms and Martin had done:

Alan Helms's "Whitman's 'Live Oak with Moss'"... conveniently reprints and comments in detail on the original 12-poem sequence that became "Calamus." Helms is especially interesting on stylistic politics—Whitman's difficulties writing freshly about homosexual love in the shadow of Shakespeare's sonnets, and also on the more frequently discussed question of the cost to Whitman in broaching such a theme at all.13 
The overtrusting Stonum was deceived, of course, for what Helms reprinted and commented upon was not "the original 12-poem sequence." What with Martin's endorsement and Stonum's affidavit in American Literary Scholarship 1992, the world has been guaranteed that Whitman's original "Live Oak, with Moss" sequence is conveniently and faithfully printed in The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman. But it is not.

There is nothing merely "academic" about the distinction between a correct text and an incorrect text of this Whitman sequence, about trying to rectify the damage being done by the no-comma "Live Oak with Moss." The text of "Live Oak, with Moss" matters because so many Americans (and so many readers worldwide) look to Whitman not only for aesthetic pleasure but for guidance in living a sane and hopeful life. Helms puts clearly one specific social significance of the sequence: "Whitman's sense of shame and isolation will be painfully familiar to most lesbians and gay men as a part of the process of coming out. 'Is there even one other like me?' is a question that gay men and lesbians have asked themselves by the millions" (p. 190). Now, after gay liberation and after the rise of queer theory, when sexually pondering and yearning young men and women ask what Whitman asked in poem VIII ("Is there even one other like me?" [l. 69]), they are apt, in this country at least, to seek the answer in Whitman's poetry, for any high school student now knows to turn to Whitman as a poet-prophet of homosexuality. Given the immense difficulties that gay teenagers sometimes face in coming to terms with their sexuality, it would be tragic if even one young person among "millions" found the shame-drenched answer in the no-comma "Live Oak with Moss" instead of finding the frank, resolute answer that Whitman wrote and that Bowers printed in "Live Oak, with Moss." It would be tragic if a single teacher treated the no-comma "Live Oak with Moss" as a document dealing with "homophobic oppression" instead of acknowledging the real "Live Oak, with Moss" as a brave sexual manifesto. Once a spurious text gains currency and receives powerful endorsements, correcting it is always hellishly difficult. Whatever the cost, Whitman scholars and critics simply have to join hands to straighten out this kink in Whitman criticism: Whitman matters too much to let "Live Oak with Moss" drive out "Live Oak, with Moss."




Notes

1.  See Fredson Bowers, introduction to Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860): A Parallel Text, ed. Bowers (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 1.   (Back)

2.  Walt Whitman, "Live-Oak, with Moss," in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 4th ed., ed. Nina Baym, et al., 2 vols. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1994), I, 2,097–2,101. All subsequent quotations from "Live-Oak, with Moss" refer to this edition.   (Back)

3.  See Bowers, introduction, p. lxvi.   (Back)

4.  Alan Helms, "Whitman's 'Live Oak with Moss,'" in The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life after the Life, ed. Robert K. Martin (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1992), p. 186.   (Back)

5.  "Whitman's Manuscripts for the Original 'Calamus' Poems," Studies in Bibliography: Papers of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 6 (1953 [for 1954]), 257–65.   (Back)

6.  Lamentably, in the first printing of the Fourth Edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature a technical glitch with a wrap-around word-processing command resulted in words being run together at several points in the poem—not a splendid start for the anthologizing of the sequence, particularly since the run-together words occurred in many desk-copies sent to faculty members, who use the Norton anthology in their teaching of Whitman.   (Back)

7.  See Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Penguin, 1959); and James G. Miller, Jr., ed., "Song of Myself": Origin, Growth, Meaning (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1964).   (Back)

8.  The Solitary Singer. A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman, rev. ed. (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1967), p. 225.   (Back)

9.  My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), p. 131.   (Back)

10.  "Whitman and the Politics of Identity," in Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays, ed. Ed Folsom (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1994), p. 175.   (Back)

11.  Helms does not indicate whether he took his texts from Bowers's Whitman's Manuscripts, from a copy of the 1860 edition, or from another source, such as Roy Harvey Pearce's facsimile edition of the 1860 Leaves of Grass (Ithaca, N.Y: Great Seal Books, 1961).   (Back)

12.  Martin, introduction to The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman, pp. xx-xxi.   (Back)

13.  "Whitman and Dickinson," in American Literary Scholarship: An Annual, 1992, ed. David J. Nordloh (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1994), p. 70.   (Back)


Publication Information
This essay originally appeared in Nineteenth-Century Literature 51 (September 1996), pp. 145-60 and is reproduced with permission.


Whitman Archive ID
anc.00157


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