To address stubborn enigmas in Whitman Studies, LeavesOfGrass.Org began, in 2003, to restore the background of maritime Quaker wealth and power during the meteoric rise of the New York Seaport. It’s a story that begins with Quaker mentoring of the great tycoon John Jacob Astor, blossoms with the revolutionary introduction of packet shipping by five English Quakers, and concludes with Elias Hicks assuming the presidency of the New York Chamber of Commerce (1852-3) at the very moment Walt Whitman composed Leaves of Grass. Hicks was, of course, the grandson of Whitman’s greatest hero, the radical theologian Elias Hicks.
The picture which results reveals Whitman’s role as spokesbard for forbidden voices: the “sailor, lover or quaker” inhabiting “Song of Myself.” The very existence of this triune alliance was so sensitive that Whitman expurgated it in the 1867 version of “Song of Myself” — by erasing the suspect “lover” which linked sailors with Quakers. As Whitman’s rowdy littoral world was being swept away by the Civil War and the rise of the Age of Steam, its history, like Spiritualism and Transcendentalism, was subject to an embarrassed repudiation — as shown by Whitman’s obsession with denying that he had ever worn the common sailor’s notorious red flannel shirt.
The most prominent Whitman scholars concede that none of the many extant biographies significantly overturn the primitive legend of a “solitary singer.” This isolated genius, hardly beholden to any one, was canonized in Gay Wilson Allen’s 1955 influential biography, Solitary Singer. Gould compares that influential book, from the historian’s point of view, to Leaves of Grass’s stylized etching of the poet against a void background. He argues that our biographical tradition is intrinsically stymied because it was deliberately established by Whitman on self-censored foundations. Unresolved mysteries at the very core of Whitman’s life and poems demand no less than a paradigm shift: his sexuality, his Quakerism, his debt to Emerson, and 1855’s bardic supernova, Leaves of Grass. Gould argues that the lifelong project which ultimately manifested as Leaves of Grass in 1855 was originally commenced during Whitman’s “Great False Start of 1842.”
We can now grasp Whitman’s role as spokesbard for forbidden voices: the “sailor, lover or quaker” inhabiting “Song of Myself.” The tumult that should have attended the publication of Leaves of Grass after July, 1855, may have been preempted by the sex panic which gripped Manhattan's newspapers that fall — when Walt’s colleague, Henry Clapp, Jr, was caught up in an expose of the Free Love League. Clapp, a relative of the Coffin whalers, was a product of Nantucket's Sailor / Lover / Quaker culture, and distantly related to Quaker reformers Lucretia Mott and Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford (the latter becoming America's first openly lesbian minister). Clapp’s aim was to someday translate all of the writings of socialist Charles Fourier, a corpus which evidently includes Fourier's unpublished manuscripts defending gay and lesbian Passional Attractions. Clapp’s influence on Whitman can be seen whenever Whitman refers to sexual attraction as a force of nature using the analogies of magnetism and gravitation.
In previous years, LeavesOfGrass.Org has broken important new ground in recovering neglected communities which embraced Whitman’s manly love: sailors, Civil War soldiers, volunteer firemen, and religious liberals such as Quakers, Unitarians, Transcendentalists, Swedenborgians, Fourierists, and Spiritualists. Whether on square-riggers, whalers, mining or logging camps,or on ranches and farms, the promise of unrestricted sexuality was a powerful lure for capitalist exploitation of labor — to be as ruthlessly harnessed for profit as slavery or any natural resource. We have discovered that Whitman’s claim that manly love unified the continent was no mere bombast, but actually reflected federal policy for the conquest of California.
By addressing the era’s potential for vigilante violence and the deadly code of honor for avenging personal insult, this work delineates for the first time the sheer gravity of the dangers Whitman faced as a sexual renegade — and in debunking a popular myth, LeavesOfGrass.Org identified the bachelor poet from Whitman’s hometown who was tarred, feathered, and horribly mutilated for unwanted sexual advances: Charles G Kelsey. It’s also possible to show that Whitman took an abiding interest in a muscular, charismatic Bowery Boy who met his end in a fatal duel resulting from a homophobic insult: United States Senator from California David Colbreth Broderick.
Ultimately, Whitman’s Transcendentalism represented a secularized Quakerism. The right to sexual-self-determination, the original species of Self-Reliance, was now to be a matter settled not by law, scripture, or priest, but between each seeker and the Inner Light of Christ-consciousness, as extolled by the great theologian Elias Hicks. A new understanding of the Hicksite Schism results from Gould’s analysis of Orthodox Friends horrified by the sexual implications of trusting the seeker’s own conscience.
Leaves of Grass is ultimately a Quaker summa theologica, and more readers get their Quakerism — albeit subliminally — from Whitman than from any other source.