More than mates: Walt Whitman and male friendship

Earlier this year, the American journalist Ezra Klein was invited onto the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend to mansplain – in a good way – male friendships for the segment ‘Ask A Man.’ One of the listeners posed the question: “Why are men so shit at friendship?” Klein’s answer was characteristically earnest:

That’s an important question. Because we literally are – it is literally the case that men have fewer friends than women, and as we get older we have fewer and fewer and fewer friends. Some of us have no friends at all and the resulting loneliness becomes a huge health risk.

Social scientists have begun to talk of a crisis of male friendship. A beyondblue study in Australia found that twenty-five per cent of thirty- to sixty-year-old men had no-one outside their immediate family they felt they could rely on; some thirty-seven per cent were not satisfied with the relationships in their lives, reporting a lack of emotional connection and support. Narrow masculine social roles – ‘silent, resilient, unemotional, and self-reliant’ – were fingered for blame in the report. It’s a cliché, but it appears to be true: many men have a lot to learn about friendship.

We all struggle together under the weight of a culture that taboos male intimacy when it occurs outside of straight sexual relationships and the nuclear family.

Researchers are beginning to show how loneliness brings significant medical risks, both for women and for men. But men don’t only let themselves down by struggling at friendship, we also let down our romantic partners, who are expected to provide all the emotional support that a person needs. And we let down society, more broadly, by not having what it takes to forge meaningful connections across boundaries of privilege, gender identity, race, class and geography. We all struggle together under the weight of a culture that taboos male intimacy when it occurs outside of straight sexual relationships and the nuclear family.

There’s a paucity of role models here. The recent(-ish) phenomenon of the ‘bromance’ film – think Blades of Glory, This is the End– may or may not be progressive (I suspect it is not), but its humour certainly relies on the fact that the movie-going audience has trouble separating a male acting intimate from (heterosexual) romance and sex. Even the bloody word: ‘bromance’ = ‘brother’ + ‘romance,’ morphing queerness with the incest taboo. And all that just to describe two men who like each other’s company, who sometimes talk deeply, who care – and try to fix it – if they hurt each other’s feelings.

In Australia there’s mateship, a kind of blokey solidarity with roots in the tight economic partnerships that took shape between men as a means of surviving and taking advantage of this country’s colonial frontier economy. Mateship later became folkloric through endless replication in sporting and political culture. Ex-Prime Minister John Howard dressed it up in khaki, a process still going on today, and even tried to write it into the constitution.

If you think you’re living in a war zone, mateship makes sense.

The argument rages on about whether mateship can be rescued from its exclusive (straight Anglo-Celtic male) connotations, but what’s clear is that friendship is something different, something extra, and that mateship isn’t really living up. As Robert Dessaix, a lovely Australian essayist, has written: ‘If you think you’re living in a war zone, mateship makes sense. If you don’t, and you don’t see other men as rivals, friendship might strike you as a more appealing and enriching option.’

I propose we look for inspiration to an unusual male role model, a great bard of friendship: the poet Walt Whitman. Whitman became a true American legend, armed with his super-sized beard, mystical utterances and shouty epic poems over-seasoned with unfashionable exclamation marks. He was almost certainly queer, one way or another. An improbable male icon, perhaps, but he is one that has moved people greatly in America and beyond ever since he emerged in the mid-nineteenth century.

People have read Walt Whitman’s poetry in all kinds of different ways – he does contain multitudes, after all – but I think we can see in him a real poet of intimacy, an inspirational over-sharer. For Whitman, who is obsessed with love and friendship, camaraderie isn’t just a matter of sharing your goals and working together, nor is it just talking out loud about your feelings. It’s about sharing the very essence of yourself: leaving yourself open to change, vulnerable to hurt and prepared for unexpected inspiration – including that of the erotic kind.

When Walt Whitman emerged on the American poetry scene, it was clear he was an original. There was something Realist about him, and something Romantic, and something all his own. He was, as he put it: ‘free, fresh, savage / fluent, luxuriant, self-content.’ Above all, the unmistakeable persona that he fashioned for himself – the ‘I’ of his poems – was fluid, transcendent and monumentally inclusive.

‘This is not a book,’ he writes, ‘Who touches this touches a man.’

What strikes you immediately when you read him is the intimacy of the experience. It can even be a little unnerving at first. In ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,’ he approaches his reader with minimal chill:

Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear,
I have loved many women and men but I love none better than you.

These are not love poems, or not just. ‘This is not a book,’ he writes, ‘Who touches this touches a man.’ Whitman’s wide-ranging, all-loving ‘self’ touches everyone; he expects to be touched in return. His voice is polyphonic – his ‘songs of myself’ are actually songs of America, because the ‘self’ in his poems is so plural and open. This view of poet-as-observer, of poet-as-vessel, is a great departure from the older idea of a poet as a lonesome creator. As critic Harold Bloom puts it: ‘What Whitman looked on, he became.’

His goal is a self that is open and sensitive. He embraced his own fluidity: instead of releasing multiple poetry books, he simply re-released his Leaves of Grass countless times from 1855 to 1892, with new poems as well as edits to the old ones. It’s like a band re-releasing continually changing ‘best of’ albums and no other records.

There’s a vulnerability to note here, too. His later ‘Calamus’ poems, perhaps because they are more erotic in nature, bear him most vulnerable and proud: ‘Here the frailest leaves of me, and yet my strongest-lasting.’ Whitman’s intimacy runs two ways, and he is empowered by opening his voice up to his readers:

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you
and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main thing from you.

Walt Whitman loves sharing – but he isn’t just sharing his lunch. He shares his very self, and all of this came at a time when the trope of the American hero was one of masculine silence and stoic self-reliance. The offer he makes to us, the reader, shows how empowering intimacy can be, and how gentle.

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nonetheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

The poetry of Walt Whitman is founded on friendship; his whole radical vision for America was based in ‘the institution of the dear love of comrades.’ It might start to sound a little like ‘mateship,’ in the dun John Howard sense, but it is vitally different. A world of mateship implies that men are always in competition or in conflict, condemned to rely on steadfast alliances. This vision is favoured by capitalism, by the ANZAC and frontier legends, and by the forces of heteronormativity and patriarchy. Mateship is always ready to close its ranks.

Walt Whitman’s friendship, by contrast, insists on openness. The presence of other people in the world brings about renewal rather than scarcity. There’s nothing zero-sum about Whitman – for one thing, at a time when this was an open topic for debate, he argued that semen was a boundless, ever-replenishing substance. Whitman’s men do not face off threats; they mingle, entangle and speak as one. ‘I will make inseparable cities,’ Whitlam writes, ‘with their arms about each other’s necks; / By the love of comrades, / By the manly love of comrades.’

His solidarities are not derived of pity or alliance; he opens his mind, his very soul up for change, to be possessed.

Like the culture of mateship, this was forged in part by experiences of wartime: Whitman was a nurse during the American Civil War, administering to wounded and dying soldiers at a hospital in Washington, DC. Crucially, though, Whitman treated casualties from both sides of the conflict – and when he writes about this time, he mingles the heroic image of the healer with the erotic tenderness of the lover and/or friend. His solidarity was constantly reaching across boundaries: ‘If you became degraded, criminal, ill, then I become so for your sake,’ he wrote, and those words count for more when they come from a volunteer nurse.

Being marginalised himself in a number of ways, Whitman allies himself with the unconventional and the downtrodden. Granted, he was not much ahead of his time in matters of race, but his gender politics were comparatively progressive. And Whitman’s solidarities are targeted towards the margins as well as the centres – another difference, perhaps, from the stereotypical male friendships that prioritise convenience and are often sited in one’s immediate milieu. In his poem ‘To a Common Prostitute,’ he writes: ‘Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you.’

His solidarities are not derived of pity or alliance; he opens his mind, his very soul up for change, to be possessed. ‘The Sleepers’ contains a remarkable declaration of intimacy:

I go from bedside to bedside—I sleep close with the other sleepers, each in turn,
I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers,
And I become the other dreamers.

Eros is everywhere in Whitman’s poetry, as it’s everywhere in life. Sometimes it drifts about like a fog, sometimes it’s slathered on like thick coats of paint. Critics continue to argue about whether he was gay, bisexual or just given to homoeroticism; when he speaks of the ‘manly love of comrades,’ people have wondered if he means sex, intimate male affection or just ‘I love you, man.’ (Some, mainly religious, critics have tried to remove sex from his poetry entirely: a ludicrous stance on a poet who wrote lines like ‘it’s sex, sex, sex; sex is the root of all.’)

The key is not that Whitman was queer. The key is that he was not homophobic.

As JM Coetzee has argued, the persistent speculation over what his poetry of intimacy is ‘really about’ – i.e. whether he’s having sex with men or not – might reveal more about us than about Whitman or his time. Mid-nineteenth-century men held each other’s hands, kissed on the lips and often shared beds. The social and psychological construction of homophobia hadn’t fully kicked in at that point, and such expressions of intimate male friendships were not taken to imply that sex was also going on – and that question was often not raised. In a very limited sense, this might be more enlightened than the will-they-won’t-they sexual fixation over the male friendships in ‘bromance’ comedies. There is a social wisdom, Coetzee suggests, to this ability to ‘take things as they are.’

Whitman’s erotics are sometimes sexual, sometimes intimate, but they are always connective. He believed strongly in the idea of ‘adhesiveness,’ an old-fashioned phrenological term meaning passionate attachment and comradeship, as opposed to the straight sexual ardour of ‘amativeness.’ This potential for love – sexual, non-sexual or hey-who-knows – outside of straight romantic/sexual relationships is a powerful ally in the search for real (male) friendships. The key is not that Whitman was queer. The key is that he was not homophobic.

Robert Dessaix describes real friendship as the feeling that something’s about to set on fire. I love that phrase. Dessaix believes that ‘mates’ has become a safe option for a homophobic male culture, at great cost:

[Friendship] makes men who feel threatened by other males uncomfortable for several reasons. Apart from anything else, friendship, which implies emotional involvement with another and continual self-disclosure, can look suspiciously like coupledom with an unsettling erotic subtext …

The intimacy, exchange of vulnerabilities, and mutual understanding between true friends is not cultivated against anyone, either. It’s enjoyed, indeed craved, for what it is. It’s freely chosen, too, unlike mateship. And it strengthens and affirms you not as a male, but as a human being.

To be open to friendship, to allow intimacy into your life, you have to be open to change in yourself – new opinions, new interests and new ways of being. Perhaps that includes setting aside the fear of unfamiliar erotics as well.

The difficulties of friendship for men in our culture are not easily resolved. The road to improvement must surely include long cultural conversations, including a lot of voices that see its limitations from perspectives beyond the mainstream. Still, we can take some inspiration from Walt Whitman’s idea of friendship, as part of a balanced diet. His is a male identity that seeks out solidarity instead of competition, that opens itself to empathy, alliance and the risks of self-change. Unlike the kinds of male openness that lead only to self-therapy and emotional release, Whitman insists on reciprocal sharing; he makes himself ready to receive and embrace, to meet in love with anyone like or unlike him.

Which is not to suggest that Walt Whitman himself would be a very good friend; I’m not sure that many great poets would be. (You certainly couldn’t take him anywhere: when he was staying with the family of his friend/lover Harry Stafford, Whitman greeted each day with a mudbath and a dip in the spring, all while singing loudly.) But the power of his vision drives home the question of what men lose out on when we lack the capability for deep, expressive friendship outside the home. How could this challenge us, provoke us and expand us? And how might it make us better allies, friends, and partners?

Robert Dessaix is being tongue-in-cheek when he says, against mateship: ‘Who knows what grown-up intimacies a word like ‘friend’ might encompass?’ But I think it’s an exciting question. And my own slow, halting apprenticeship in actual friendship has been monumentally rewarding. Walt Whitman is a fantastic talker, but midway through ‘Song of Myself,’ he points to a vital asset in this project:

I think I will do nothing now but listen,
To accrue what I hear into myself—to let sounds towards me.

By talking and listening, we may challenge ourselves to make deeper connections. It is a difficult process, no doubt, but if we need inspiration, we might look for it under our boot-soles, in the leaves of grass that spring from Whitman’s soil.

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