This makes me smile. In a fabulous piece for The Toast, writer Mallory Ortberg does a little literary detective work (well, she reads biographer Neil McKenna‘s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde) and she helpfully draws our attention to the chapter dealing with Wilde’s 1882 American speaking tour. At the time Oscar was 28 and had a publisher friend arrange a private meeting with the famous Leaves of Grass poet. Whitman was then 63 years old, and thanks to a bushy beard and a cultivated machismo, your classic bear.
From McKenna’s Wilde biography:
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.
So the intrigued Wilde got John Marshall Stoddart, a well-known publisher who also knew Whitman to arrange a visit at Whitman’s home.
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.’
According to Stoddart’s later description of the meeting,
‘…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 might have sensed the chemistry between Wilde and Whitman because he helpfully offered to go away for an hour. Whitman suggested third wheel Stoddart leave them 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.’
There is some solid documentation for their afternoon tryst. A few days later Whitman did an interview with the Philadelphia Press where he described his meeting with Wilde and claimed that the two of them had a “jolly good time” together.
“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.”
And Wilde also described the meeting later to his friend George Ives…
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.
Hooboy. Gay literary nerds everywhere are cranking out the RPS fanfic and fanart. As Ortberg describes it, finding out Wilde and Whitman were an item is sort of like discovering “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.”