Thursday, November 27, 2008

Stoddard & Whitman

In 1867, the twenty-four year old self-described “boy poet” of San Francisco, Charles Warren Stoddard, had his first book published. It was a slim volume of forty-five poems, underwritten by subscription, and published by Anton Roman. Amid mixed reviews and anxious to garner approval and autographs for his growing collection, the young Stoddard sent his book out to leading literary figures of the day including Walt Whitman. Just the year before Stoddard had written, “I have been reading Walt Whitman and him I thought a fool––and him I am growing to glorify. Who shall say we are not all babes and fools; and that this one and the other one who are declared gross and rude––because their eyes see all things clearly and their lips speak out––who shall say they are not prince and king among us––and shall by and by shine brightly and be understood.” Apparently Whitman did not feel Stoddard saw or spoke things clearly, for he did not respond.

In October 1868, after a year of trying to recover emotionally from the critical failure of his volume of poetry, Stoddard decided to return to the Hawaiian Islands. He had spent a glorious six months there in 1864 recovering from a “nervous disorder.” The twenty-one year old made fast friends with the thirty-eight year old manager of the Royal Hawaiian Theater, Charles Derby, and also discovered the delights to be found with naked native boys.

On 2 March 1869 Stoddard wrote once again to Walt Whitman from Hawaii. This time Whitman did respond. Stoddard wrote:
May I quote you a couplet from your Leaves of Grass? “Stranger! if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?”
I am the stranger who, passing, desires to speak to you. Once before I have done so offering you a few feeble verses. I don’t wonder you did not reply to them. Now my voice is stronger. I ask––why will you not speak to me?

So fortunate to be traveling in these very interesting Islands I have done wonders in my intercourse with these natives. For the first time I act as my nature prompts me. I would not answer in America, as a general principle,––not even in California, where men are tolerably bold. This is my mode of life.

Stoddard now spoke to Whitman in Whitman’s own language; he told Whitman that he understood more now, “Now my voice is stronger. . . For the first time I act as my nature prompts me.” Stoddard had come to fully understand the meaning of Whitman’s language, that Whitman speaks not only to Stoddard but to all men-loving men, all “Strangers” to whom he desired to speak.

I mark one, a lad of eighteen or twenty years, who is regarding me. I call him to me, ask his name, giving mine in return. He speaks it over and over, manipulating my body unconsciously, as it were, with bountiful and unconstrained love. I go to his grass house, eat with him his simple food, sleep with him upon his mats, and at night sometimes waken to find him watching me with earnest, patient looks, his arm over my breast and around me. In the morning he hates to have me go. I hate as much to leave him. . . .

You will easily imagine, my dear sir, how delightful I find this life. I read your Poems with a new spirit, to understand them as few may be able to. And I wish more than ever that I might possess a few lines from your pen. I want your personal magnetism to quicken mine. How else shall I have it? . . .

In “speaking” to Whitman, Stoddard relayed his erotic encounter in Hawaii. A lad of eighteen who manipulated Stoddard’s body, whom he spent the night with wrapped in his arms. Stoddard then told Whitman that he knew Whitman understood how much Stoddard loved being there. Stoddard was telling Whitman that he knew that, like himself, Whitman was also a lover of men. Stoddard’s phrasing of his request for a few lines from Whitman’s pen, “I want your personal magnetism to quicken mine,” has a sexual feeling; as though an exchange of literary lines could be like an exchange of bodily fluids. Indeed, how else would Stoddard have it?

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