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September 17, 2013

Literary history of the slashtastic kind
Posted by Teresa at 09:20 PM * 37 comments

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.

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’ …
They meet at Stoddart’s:
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. …

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.’

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.”

There’s more to the article, and the comment thread is lively. It takes eight comments for someone to post fanart, and seventeen comments for Tom Hiddleston to be invoked.

Comments on Literary history of the slashtastic kind:
#1 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2013, 10:32 PM:

The Toast is reliably great.

#2 ::: Ayse ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2013, 11:31 PM:

I believe they actually met at Whitman's, because Whitman wrote that he would be at-home between two and three-thirty, and they went and did their fondling in Whitman's third-floor den, which most sensibly would be in his own home.

And I love this story.

#3 ::: Andrew Willett ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 12:03 AM:

Less-than-three. Hell, less-than-four. Less-than-eight-hundred-six-thousand-five-hundred-seventeen.

Also, swoon. And squee. And stuff.

#4 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 12:22 AM:

Swoon. And squee. And stuff. Yes!

#5 ::: kate ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 03:45 AM:

Gosh. What an author to find. Thank you.

(Plus! Whitman and Wilde. Huzzah.)

#6 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 06:53 AM:

This is very wonderful. Thank's Teresa, you've made my morning, which was a somewhat difficult feat given that I'm up at 4:00 am to drive fifty miles and install a router!

#7 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 07:35 AM:

At first I read that as "catamite" and thought it was a typo, especially as the calamites are an extinct group of horsetail plants. On further research, it appears the terms may be linked since Whitman's Calamus poems derive their title from the calamus grass that has a phallic-shaped root and an ancient Greek origin story involving tragic homosexual love.

#8 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 08:38 AM:

Chris Lawson @7--No, 'calamus' and 'catamite' have different root origins--the former is from the Latin for reed or cane, and the latter come from the Greek Ganymede, through Etruscan and finally Latin. But thanks to Whitman, we can pun wildly.

#9 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 10:33 AM:

I concur with Ayse's reading: Wilde got in touch with Whitman by way of Stoddart, then Stoddart and Wilde went together to visit Whitman at Whitman's place and matters proceeded from there.

#10 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 11:30 AM:

Am imagining JMF-penned short slashfic now.


#11 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 11:55 AM:

Fidelio @8: I see what you did there (and I admire it greatly).

#12 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 12:23 PM:

What is needed here is a Whitman Sampler. I'm certain it would drive us all Wilde.

#13 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 12:30 PM:

This totally made me giggle.

#14 ::: Beth Friedman ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 01:36 PM:


This is the sort of thing that makes lovely Yuletide fodder.

#15 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 01:37 PM:

My favorite comment from over there:

Re: 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.’

Does that translate to anyone else as "stay and we'll have a threesome! If you're not into it, thanks much and come back in three hours."

Yes. Yes, I think it does.

#16 ::: William Burns ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 04:25 PM:

It's not actually like the hypothetical Dickinson/Austen encounter, as that would involve time travel.

#17 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 05:10 PM:

fidelio, sorry I wasn't very clear. What I meant to say was that calamite the slang term for homosexual and calamite the name of the extinct horsetails might have been linked, not that either had any etymological link to catamite.

#18 ::: Anderson ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 06:49 PM:

While you're on calamite/catamite, the word "gunsel" has a possible origin that should be amusing to the Haydens:

"A plausible story of the way the word changed sense was set out by Erle Stanley Gardner in an article in the Atlantic Monthly in 1965. He claimed it was the fault of Dashiell Hammett. Together with Gardner, Raymond Chandler and others, he was a contributor to the old Black Mask pulp magazine edited by Joseph Shaw that featured naturalistic crime stories. But Shaw was dead against including vulgarisms and blue-pencilled some of Hammett’s underworld usages. To retaliate, as Gardner told the story, Hammett laid a trap for Shaw. In his next story he included the term 'gooseberry lay.' Shaw pounced on this and rejected it, though it wasn’t a rude term at all but tramps’ slang for stealing washing off clotheslines to sell. But Hammett also included 'gunsel' in the story, which Shaw left in, thinking it meant 'gunman.'"

#19 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 09:06 PM:

Did Walt Whitman really contain multitudes, or was he just full of himself?

#20 ::: Jeremy Preacher ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 09:44 PM:

Erik Nelson, is that a dirty pun? Because in the context of this thread, it reads as a very dirty (and yet somewhat inexplicable) pun.

#21 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 10:29 PM:

Though I like Whitman very much, my favorite bit of Whitman trivia is that he wrote and published sockpuppet reviews of Leaves of Grass.

I guess you can do that, if you contain multitudes.

#22 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2013, 10:35 PM:

I can't express how happy this makes me.

Tangent. If anybody can ever explain what happened between W.H. Auden and Bertolt Brecht, that would make me happy too. They worked together briefly during WW II and afterwards Brecht couldn't stop talking about what a wonderful man Auden was and Auden would only say that Brecht was the most vile man he had ever met . . .

#23 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2013, 08:44 AM:

Chris Lawson @17--Absolutely, because the pun is just hanging there, waiting to be taken up and used. Ortberg notes that Swinburne certainly succumbed to the temptation.

#24 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2013, 09:30 AM:

I wrote a rather tasteful, if I say so myself, piece of slash about an encounter in a study between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. I even got to read it before an audience. I will leave you with the last line...

" Tolkien scarcely looked up from his book before Lewis let himself outside, where the rain washed his upturned face with glory, and in his heart a lion roared."

#25 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2013, 11:46 AM:

I've always thought there was something going on between Horace Walpole and Thomas Gray, except they seem to have had a big fight and broken up while in the Grand Tour.

#26 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2013, 12:48 PM:

William Burns @16: Dickinson/Austen

Angie Dickinson and Steve Austin? No, wait— (g,d&r)

Jeremy Preacher @20: it reads as a very dirty (and yet somewhat inexplicable) pun.

No, not inexplicable, just anatomically highly unlikely.

#27 ::: Jacque, gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2013, 12:49 PM:

Oh dear. I seem to have exceeded the MPAA rating of this thread. Ah, well, have a little tea, to soothe the nerves.

#28 ::: John M. Burt ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2013, 06:09 PM:

I'd still like to know what was up with Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers.

I will defend this as a literary question, since Chambers was the English translator of Bambi.

#29 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2013, 06:22 PM:

Side note: "calamite" is also an Italian word (pronounced ca-la-MEE-tay), the plural of "calamita", which means "magnet". It is important not to confuse "calamita" with the very similar-looking "calamità", meaning "disaster", which is pronounced with the emphasis on the final syllable and has an invariant plural (that is, same as the singular).

If you keep this information firmly in your head, you will not find yourself momentarily becroggled when reading an Italian magazine which appears to be informing you that Prince Andrew and his ex-wife are still attracted to each other like two disasters.

#30 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2013, 07:31 PM:

Mongoose @29 -- That would be a calamity!

#31 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2013, 03:52 AM:


#32 ::: R. H. Kanakia ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2013, 07:16 AM:

WHAT?!?!?! Holy crap, my mind is BLOWN.

#33 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2013, 02:27 PM:

Sean @ 24, of course, Tolkien and Lewis spent a great deal of time together

#34 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2013, 02:36 PM:

Gorgeous line, Sean.

#35 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 12:15 PM:

I'm glad folks are so happy about this, but it gives me a strong sense of "meh." Probably a failing on my part. Oh, and it reminds me again of how happy I was to have missed out on Swinburne in college after reading David Langford's comments on Swinburne's style.

#36 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 29, 2013, 08:21 PM:

Beth, #14: This is the sort of thing that makes lovely Yuletide fodder.

And so it has.

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