Every Atom | No. 28

Paul Lauter

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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In 1955 I completed a Master’s thesis at the School of Letters, then located at Indiana University. The title of the thesis was “Walt Whitman: Comrade and Lover.” To my surprise, late in 1959, most of it was printed as an article in The American Imago. I don’t recall having submitted it, either to the magazine or for the book, The Literary Imagination (1965), in which it was subsequently reprinted. I didn’t complain: I was in good company—that volume of The American Imago (Vol. 16) included articles by Mark Spilka, Edmund Bergler, Harry Slochower, and Lionel Trilling, among other significant players in the world of psychoanalytic study of the arts and sciences. My thesis, based on substantial research in Whitman manuscripts at the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, and elsewhere, was an early contribution to the study of the ambiguous sexuality of Whitman’s poetry. It was very much a part of the consuming interest in sex, especially gay sex, which was soon to mark the 1960s.  I was proud of my work.

I was particularly taken with “To a Stranger” in “Calamus,” the opening line of which stands in tense contrast with the consuming “Span of youth!” passage:


Passing stranger! You do not know how longingly I look upon you. . . .


Rereading the thesis today embarrasses me. The simplistic thesis shared many of the clichés about homosexuality that would soon be deconstructed, especially by gay critics, and condemned by a social movement propelled by events like Stonewall. The material I analyzed helped me think about my own sexuality and probably confirmed the growing understanding of Whitman as a significantly gay, sometimes troubled artist. That is, my thesis was part of its time, and mine, sixty-some years ago.  

The thesis also engaged certain Whitman memes, including the one from “Calamus,” the desired “passing stranger.” This image appears a number of times in Whitman, quite strikingly in “A Song for Occupations”:


If you meet some stranger in the street and love him or her, do I not often meet strangers in the street and love them?


The stranger is but one manifestation of the desired other: Whitman designates him (occasionally her) far more frequently as “whoever you are”—as in “I follow you, whoever you are, from the present hour. . .” or “O to be yielded to you, whoever you are, and you to be yielded me . . .” or, most familiar, “WHOEVER you are holding me now in hand. . . .”   

The first image of the loved (and hopefully loving) stranger, from “Calamus,” expresses desire. It evokes a dream of prior, gratifying contact, contact mysteriously to be renewed. The vision of the stranger is sensual, full of craving.  Here the stranger, as in the “span of youth” passage, arouses intimacy: “You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return.” The moment of intimacy also leads more fully into the “adhesiveness” Whitman wishes to celebrate in that part of his book.

In “A Song for Occupations,” the stranger serves explicitly democratic goals, evoking equality. Whitman establishes a level ground for himself and the person he is addressing: let the working person, to whom he speaks throughout the poem, feel free of self-doubt regarding status, appearance, or work itself:


Why what have you thought of yourself?

Is it you then who thought yourself less?

Is it you that thought the President greater than you? or the rich better off than you? or the educated wiser than you?

Because you are greasy or pimpled—or that you was once drunk, or a thief, or diseased, or rheumatic, or a prostitute—or are so now—or from frivolity or impotence—or that you are no scholar, and never saw your name in print . . . . do you give in that you are any less immortal?


Perhaps you feel, to use a more recent expression, deplorable? At a moment when class interests us anew, “A Song for Occupations” has gained the attention of critics and activists in its rejection of bourgeois values.

The “passing stranger,” the “you, whoever you are,” strongly drew Whitman. His stranger, unlike the figure in almost all the many films, stories, and songs that have emerged since he wrote, remains benign. Part of the democratic “en-masse” encountered on the ferry or in the beer garden, the stranger does not threaten. On the contrary, he holds out the possibility of a desirable embrace, “florid and full,” like that of the “span of youth.” As Whitman liked to warn, there may be ambiguities in that embrace—as there were in the mid-twentieth century intimacy among strangers that marked gay male life. “My lovers suffocate me.” Certainly, there were tensions between the longings of the “simple, separate person” and the demands of “en-masse.” But these tensions were, for Whitman, a source of poetic as well as political energy.

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Paul Lauter is Allan K. & Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of Literature (Emeritus) at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the editor of the groundbreaking Heath Anthology of American Literature, a past President of the American Studies Association, and one of the founders of The Feminist Press.


Cover art Chris Corkery