It's hard to imagine any modern poet writing about lying in another man's arms and then calling homosexuality "damnable." But the kind of same-sex intimacy Whitman described -- and enjoyed in real life -- was accepted at the time as a natural part of heterosexuality. When editors did censor Whitman's work, they left the "Calamus" poems intact and instead cut his descriptions of male-female passion. ("Love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching," Whitman wrote, describing a bride and groom on their wedding night. "Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice.")
"Certainly, in his poetry, Whitman tries to be omnisexual," says David S. Reynolds, a CUNY graduate professor who specializes in 19th century American culture and has written several books on Whitman. "He even wants to exude a kind of sexuality toward the physical earth and the ocean." But it was more than that, as Reynolds explains. "Showing passion and affection was a more common part of the daily experience than it is today. America was a young nation, a new nation, and there was a sense of brotherhood."
That brotherly love certainly existed between Abraham Lincoln and his friend Joshua Speed. The two men slept together in the same bed for four years, and Speed wrote to Lincoln in 1842, "You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting -- I will never cease, while I know how to do any thing."
Another American president, James A. Garfield, wrote passionate notes to his college friend Harry Rhodes. "Harry Dear, do you know how much I miss you? In the school -- the church, at home, in labor or leisure -- sleeping or waking, the want of your presence is felt. I knew I loved you, but you have left a larger void than I ever knew you filled." A few months later, Garfield wrote to Rhodes, "I would that we might lie awake in each other's arms for one long wakeful night."
"The thing we don't know about any of these people," says Peggy Wishart, "is the question most modern people have: Were they gay?" Wishart manages Historic New England's Sarah Orne Jewett House in South Berwick, Maine, which is hosting a lecture this weekend on the "Boston marriage." Jewett spent her later years in one of these ambiguous female partnerships, enjoying the almost constant companionship of Annie Fields, the widow of Atlantic editor James T. Fields. The two women lived together, traveled to Europe together, and called each other pet names. (Jewett was "Pinney" and Fields was "Fuff.")
This sort of arrangement wasn't uncommon at the time. The Massachusetts capital was filled with educated women from good families who could support themselves without the help of any man. It made sense for them to seek out each other's company, says Wishart. "And it didn't necessarily occur to friends to wonder what their sex life was like. Women were perceived as being non-sexual to begin with, and most people assumed that if they didn't have husbands, they wouldn't have any interest in sex."