Wilder Bentley and Walt Whitman

By Stan Persky | January 2, 2002

The first college course I took, at San Francisco State College in the early 1960s, was a survey of American literature taught by Wilder Bentley. Although in my naivete I had no idea of who Bentley was, he was well-known in the college, if not beyond it, as one of those professors who is an inspiring catalyst for receptive students.

Going to college reflected a shift in my intellectual allegiances toward the views of the poet Robin Blaser, who was then working as an acquisitions librarian at SF State and who thought it was a good idea to become educated. Conversely, taking classes was a slight turning away from Jack Spicer, who regularly offered us young poets dire warnings against going to university. Spicer especially admonished us–as we sat at what was known as the "poets’ table" in Gino and Carlo’s bar in San Francisco’s North Beach–not to study in the "good, grey, dead" English department, on the grounds that it would surely destroy one’s ability to write anything beyond the deadening academic verse that the English department approved of and fostered. I was also influenced in my decision to go to college by Jim Herndon, a former classmate of Spicer’s and Blaser’s at the University of California, Berkeley, and himself an elementary schoolteacher and writer, who pointed out to me with common-sense amusement, "Oh sure, Jack’s against university education–he’s got one."

The two things that happened in that college course at San Francisco State were, first, I encountered Bentley, a white-haired, elderly, enthusiastic expositor of the beauties and significance of American writing and, second, under Bentley’s tutelage, I read the poetry of Walt Whitman. The first point, about the presence and acquisition of teachers in one’s life, is more interesting than the second one. But I’ll also say something about what I got from reading Whitman.

In the matter of teachers–in schools and elsewhere–I was both exceptionally lucky and a good student, that is, I was a "quick study" who also makes his own luck. In the course of eventually studying anthropology, sociology, and philosophy–Spicer’s admonitions against the English Department had their effect–I would discover a series of professors like Bentley, men and women who were both competent and inspiring, and who disinterestedly–without prejudice or favour–shared their understanding of the world and provoked my interest in it.

My first teacher was my father, who I loved almost unreservedly. (See "Alphabet" passage, earlier in this text.) As a result of my trust in his pedagogy, I had little of the neurotic resistance to education that one often observes, but instead an openness to schooling and a talent for recognizing what Jim Herndon, in his book Notes from a Schoolteacher, called "good schools," taught by good father-figures (and mother-figures) against whom I had no impulse to rebel. As a later teacher of mine, Joseph Tussman, would point out, docility in a student, paradoxically, is a sign of health–a recognition that necessary submission to the more knowledgeable minds of others is not oppression–whereas rebellion often means that the student is trying to learn something other than what the teacher can teach. Almost everyone I’ve met who has never had a "real" teacher in his or her life has struck me as slightly warped.

I was in no hurry to go to college. As a 16-year-old high school student in Chicago, I’d received an invitation from the University of Chicago to quit secondary school and enter its "accelerated" program, a course of action urged upon me by most of my family, aspiring first generation immigrants for whom university was an ultimate sign of achievement. Despite being flattered by the invitation–which meant that you were "bright"– I was drawn to "adventure" rather than university and, protected by my father’s approval, joined the U.S. Navy, first entering the world-at-large instead of the world of the classroom. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I was ready for college.

Going to school a couple times a week, riding the trolley-car out to the San Francisco State campus at the edge of the city, was a pleasant enough change from the waterfront warehouses and North Beach bars where I worked. I may have taken other courses there–I think I did–but it was only Bentley’s course that filled me with anticipation. At the same time, there’s an embarrassing lacuna in my memory. I’m chagrined at how little I actually remember of Bentley. How often did I see him? Twice a week, I suppose, for at least three or four months, and yet I recall, at this great remove in time, little more than a faint physical image of Bentley, his slightly bowed shoulders, longish white locks. I hardly remember a word he said, except for one remark about me that I’ll relate in a bit.

When, much later, I became a teacher myself, I recognized the ways in which students do or don’t take you into their lives. In my own classrooms today, I often observe the difference between students for whom something important is happening (and for whom I’m someone significant) and those who are so self-absorbed or distracted that I’m little more for them than the anonymous clerk in a convenience store.

The faintness of my memory of Bentley, to whom I wasn’t at all indifferent, hints at something deeper that retrospectively strikes me about my younger self. I’m disturbed by how little I retain of people who were significant to me, though I could plead in this instance that I really only knew Bentley peripherally. The broader point, however, is that again and again, when I revisit past scenes (or am revisited by them), the striking feature of the scene is how unconscious I was, how inattentive I was to anything except myself. I thought the world was all for-me, barely aware I was a bit player in-it, nothing more. And in the case of Bentley I only remember something he said about me. "Me," that’s the problem. To put it another way, I was too full of myself, that is, full of shit. Or, to use a standard phrase from school that students remorsefully invoke before "finals," as they’re called, "I should’ve taken notes." That’s especially to the point now, when I really am faced with the final exam. Now, I’m ashamed–before the shade of Wilder Bentley–that I was so unmindful of him.

Still, mindful or not, under Bentley’s tutelage, I read Walt Whitman, which is to say, I learned something about both poetry and the history of American thought, especially its phase of Transcendentalism. It was through Bentley that I was formally introduced to that great mid-nineteenth century moment in American letters when Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Melville and Hawthorne were contemporaries. I’d already picked up bits and pieces about them from Spicer and others–my father had given me Melville’s Moby Dick to read when I was 10–but the haphazard manner of instruction that Spicer favoured was now complemented by a more systematic approach.

Both temperamentally and intellectually, I felt closest to Henry David Thoreau and his book, Walden, whereas my initial interest in Whitman, I now think, was a superficial attraction connected to matters of style.

I have to untangle another bit of confused memory here. It’s likely that I had read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, whose poetic line and political vision is derived from Whitman, before I read Whitman’s "I Sing the Body Electric" or any of the other poems in Leaves of Grass. When I encountered Whitman’s long poetic line, his colloquial language, and mixture of bardic prophecy and conversational intimacy, I recognized his work as "modern" because I was reading Whitman, in a sense, through Ginsberg, whose rhapsodic vision and contemporary subject matter (those "angel-headed hipsters dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn") seemed to me the epitome of "cool" romanticism.

The critic Harold Bloom cites Whitman’s canonical "originality" as the feature that makes him central to American writing and, indeed, his exuberant invocations of self in a new national context seem unprecedented. Whitman’s poems teem with life, and are filled with catalogues of jostling people, objects, crowded streets. Nothing before Whitman in American poetry is like him, just as there’s nothing quite like Whitman’s younger contemporary, Rimbaud, in French poetry. Only William Blake, among Whitman’s immediate predecessors, strives for such an expansive vision, though Whitman’s compatriot, Thoreau, offers a comparable, if far more critical, exposition of American life. Bloom grandly claims that "we have never got Whitman right," because Whitman is really a difficult, even hermetic poet. (See Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, Riverhead, 1994.) If so, I missed it. My partial revulsion to Whitman, like that of my discomfort with Ginsberg, is that he too often just lets it all hang out, undercutting or "getting in the way" of the poem, as Spicer would say, with his own self-expressive gush.

Maybe I didn’t get Whitman right back then, but I did get excited. Understandably–given my own sensual inclinations and the desire, in my early twenties, to not only experience but to understand those inclinations–the aspect of Whitman to which I was first drawn was one of the least important, namely, the homosexuality that appeared to be so blatantly and unprecedently evident in Whitman’s poems.

I’d already learned, from Spicer, Ginsberg, and Blaser, of some of the long roll-call of homosexually-inclined writers, from the Wunderkind Rimbaud, to Lorca, Hart Crane, Cavafy, and many of the contemporary poets of "The New American Poetry," including my immediate mentors in the art. Today, in the period of post-homosexuality, Whitman’s sexual proclivities merely assume their place as an historical fact of some minor relevance, but at the beginning of the 1960s, the contested matter of Whitman’s sexuality was a cogent political issue.

Though Whitman spoke in his poetry of "comradely love" and "adhesion" (a curious nineteenth century word that Whitman turned into a reference to same-sex affections), when directly asked, late in life, about his sexual tastes by such avowed homosexualists as Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds, he professed shock, adamantly denied his interlocutors’ lurid imaginings, and cobbled together an implausible cover-story about heterosexual affairs and the fathering of children.

Harold Bloom argues that Whitman was primarily auto-sexual. "One of the many current ironies of Whitman’s reception is that he is acclaimed as a gay poet. Beyond doubt, his deepest drive was homoerotic, and his poems of heterosexual passion have convinced no one, including Whitman himself." However, "there is very little evidence that Whitman ever had sexual relations with anyone except himself… For whatever reason, in his poetry as probably in his life, his erotic orientation was onanistic… More even than sadomasochism, autoeroticism appears to be the last Western taboo."

However, Bloom’s view mistakenly implies that homosexuality must mean homosexual sex, which isn’t true. I’ve observed many homosexual couplings not predicated upon sexual intercourse. As with a lot of long-standing heterosexual relationships in which the sex is no longer particularly important, I’ve known several homosexual couples where that’s also true, yet the love continues. I have one friend who’s had a series of live-in relationships with beloveds where no sex at all was involved. My friend and his beloveds were both certainly aware of the (homosexual) love but felt no desire for the sex. Moral of the story: desire is inevitably more diverse than the official advertisements for it. (For a view of Whitman’s sexuality contrary to Bloom’s, see Charles Shively, ed., Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman’s Working Class Camerados, Gay Sunshine, 1987.)

Bloom allows Whitman but "one abortive attempt at relationship, presumably homosexual, in the winter of 1859-60," out of which were written the indubitably erotic "Calamus" poems. Yet, what are we to make of such a line as, "How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me," or any other of a dozen similar descriptions? If there was only one "abortive attempt," Whitman certainly got a lot of poetry out of a small amount of experience.

At the time of my reading, just about a century after Whitman wrote, and many years before Gay Liberation, although poets like Ginsberg could urge the American bard to "put your queer shoulder to the wheel, Walt Whitman," among literary scholars there was still widespread denial that Whitman might be referring literally to homosexual encounters. At most, there were discreet, embarrassed suggestions of Whitman’s inclinations. Even the most prominent of the scholars of the period, F.O. Matthiesen (himself gay), maintained a judicious neutrality. But I read Whitman’s texts, including the emendations–where he erased a "he" and replaced it with a "she"–as well as the clues in the sanitized biographies and critical analyses. In short, I put it together for myself, and the resulting essay that I submitted to Wilder Bentley was, for the time, a daring bit of original if limited scholarship.

Bentley read it with his characteristic admirable disinterestedness. By the way, I knew nothing then or subsequently of Bentley’s private life or of his views on the topic of homosexuality. A week or two later, he returned my essay to me with the highest possible grade, and enthusiastic scrawled comments. I remember the emphatic phrase, "Great work, Stan!" As I say, I’m embarrassed that those are the only words of Bentley’s I retain. Now, I write similar comments on student papers myself, some of which are comparably encouraging. Perhaps that writing, the often-unread teacher’s comments and marginalia involved in "paper-marking"–about the drudgery of which we teachers endlessly complain–is the most fitting tribute to Bentley’s memory that I’m capable of offering.

As for Whitman, the details of his sexuality, whether Bloom’s version or mine–in the long run who-slept-with-whom amounts to little more than a skeleton humping a fossil–matter far less than Whitman’s insistence on the presence of living bodies within the vision of an American space. In a passage cited by Bloom–one that I also like–Whitman moves quietly among the wounded young men in a military hospital during the American Civil War:

I wander all night in my vision,
Stepping with light feet, swiftly and noiselessly
   stepping and stopping,
Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers,
Wandering and confused, lost to myself,
    ill-assorted, contradictory,
Pausing, gazing, bending, and stopping.
I stand in the dark with drooping eyes
    by the worst-suffering and the most restless,
I pass my hands soothingly to and fro
   a few inches from them,
The restless sink in their beds, they fitfully sleep.

That’s the image of Whitman–with its unintentionally humourous portent of New Age "touch therapy"–that stands before me in the flux of time. When I was in the Navy, on night-watch, I also walked through the barracks of sleeping young men, with similar feelings: maternal, comradely, incestuous.

2481 w. January 2, 2002


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

Posted in:

More from Stan Persky: