The Wilde-Whitman Love Affair
The literary hookup that people can't stop talking about.
The history of literature is full of many great collaborations. Lord Byron and Mary Shelley wrote ghost stories at Lake Geneva, Gertrude Stein mentored Ernest Hemingway in Paris, and J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis compared fantasy novels at The Eagle and Child.
But, on one fateful evening in 1882, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman shared the greatest collaboration of all.
Oscar Wilde, aged 27, had been building up the legend that was himself since his university days. He was traveling across America on a lecture tour, selling out theater halls wherever he went as he spoke about beauty, aesthetics, and interior design. Any negative press he received only fueled his fire. It was a year-long coming out party, if you will, and Oscar was loving every minute of it.
Meanwhile, Walt Whitman, 62, had long since established himself as a major voice in American poetry. His seminal work, Leaves of Grass, with its unique lyrical style and steamy homoerotic undertones, had earned him widespread acclaim and heavy criticism. By 1882, with several volumes in print, his checkered reputation preceded him wherever he went.
Whitman's proclivities were not lost upon the young Oscar Wilde, who looked up to him as a man and a poet. He would have given anything for a chance to meet him. And, as luck would have it, they had a mutual friend: John Marshall Stoddart, a well-known publisher of the time. The opportunity was too good to pass up—Oscar asked him to arrange an introduction.
At first, Whitman didn't want to meet him. Perhaps he thought the young dandy too frivolous for his tastes, or maybe he simply wasn't in the mood to receive visitors. His health had been in decline, after all.
In the end, however, he changed his mind. Stoddart and Wilde were both invited to dinner at his home in Camden, NJ.
The evening of their meeting finally arrived, and Stoddart introduced his two friends. Imagine it for a moment: Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman in the same room. Their eyes met, they shook hands, and like old friends, they embraced.
From the very first, Walt insisted that they be on first name terms. He wouldn't call his guest anything but "Oscar."
Oscar placed a hand on his knee and said, "I like that so much."
And that was it. Everyone, even Stoddart, knew what must pass between them.
Stoddart looked on in satisfaction as the poets talked. Oscar and Walt absolutely could not stop flirting with each other. They talked of the utter ignorance of Walt's critics and the insipid love of the fairer sex, but most importantly, they talked of pretty boys.
Now, Stoddart was no fool. He could sense the tension between the two poets, like a static charge built up by insurmountable friction. It couldn't be more clear what was going on—these two men wanted to Sing the Body Electric.
Not wanting to be the third wheel any longer, he tactfully excused himself, saying he would only be gone for an hour.
Whitman told him not to come back for three.
Imagine the suspense that filled the room when the two poets found themselves alone together. Ponder the sound of the cork as Whitman opened a bottle of elderberry wine. Consider the anticipation they felt when he suggested they go up to the third floor, so they could be on "thee and thou terms." Imagine how their hearts pounded as they climbed the stairs...
What happened after that we need not say here. Oscar might have called it a "love that dare not speak its name," but I think Whitman said it best in one of his early poems.
But while we leave them to their business, let us reflect for a moment on the singularity of this event. Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman, literary giants in a world of dwarfs, met, flirted, and fornicated. Like shooting stars ricocheting off each other, for one moment their lives intersected, and what a blessing it is for us that the news has never died down.
Eventually, the evening came to an end. The two parted as pleasantly as they had met. Oscar eventually wrapped up his lecture tour and returned to Europe, while Walt spent his remaining years in Camden, revising Leaves of Grass until his death in 1892.
And for all intents and purposes, that was the end of the story. The two poets never met again, though they did leave quite an impression on each other. Oscar boasted years later to a friend that "I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still upon my lips."
Now, after all my nerdy rambling and childish innuendos, you may be asking yourself, why does this matter? So what if these guys hooked up? It's no big deal.
It's true that to most of the world, a historical homosexual hookup between two poets may not be groundbreaking news, and that's okay. You don't have to care.
But if you're an unabashed book nerd like me, then this is the kind of stuff that brings color into your life. We have been given a gift: two iconic authors, one passionate evening, and a story that has kept their fans snickering ever since. This is our equivalent of celebrity gossip. Forget the Kim Kardashians of the world, out with the Paris Hiltons, and to hell with the Justin Biebers.
Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman hooked up!
Spread the word!