I recommend to your attention Mallory Ortberg’s Literary Trysts It Gives Me Great Joy To Think About: Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman:
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.“Old news,” I hear you saying. “Next you’ll be telling us about Isherwood and Auden, or that unfortunate passage at arms between Melville and Hawthorne.”
I shall do no such thing. Read on.
All you need to know: The Whitman/Wilde incident took place at the home of John Marshall Stoddart, a publisher, when Wilde was on a speaking tour of America. Wilde was a great fan of Whitman’s poetry. Single-indent quotations are from Mallory Ortberg. Double-indented quotations are from Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde.
They meet at Stoddart’s: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’ …
When Oscar Wilde sees an opportunity to have sex with Walt Whitman, he does not hesitate. He goes.Swinburne, whom we will recall as the author of “Our Lady of Pain,” disapproved of same-sex canoodling. He seriously needed more practice at saying “Your kink is not my kink.”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. …
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.’