Badpuppy Gay Today

Friday, 17 October 1997

NATIONS GRAPPLE with GAY LIVES of their GREATEST MUSES

In GERMANY: GOETHE, in U.S.A. : WHITMAN, in BRITAIN: WILDE
German Intellectuals Furious, Americans Nervous, Britain Alone is Prideful

By Jack Nichols

 

Germany has been rocked for weeks following the publication of a carefully researched study based on 2,500 letters written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—long regarded as The Fatherland's greatest cultural genius-- letters proving the Muse was homosexually inclined. The book, The Tender Caress of the Tiger, by a highly respected biographer, Karl Hugo Pruys, has found its author's "Goethe was gay" thesis favorably received by non-German scholars and critics. Pruys has been angrily castigated by many of Germany's own critics, however, who seem to accuse him of dragging Goethe's name through the mud.

At a news conference Tuesday Goethe's controversial biographer said he hoped his countrymen wouldn't pay attention to the nation's alarmed and disgruntled pundits and would read the new book to make up their minds individually. He hopes his study of Goethe, he said, will ignite more open discussions about Goethe both in Germany and abroad.

In the United States, Walt Whitman's recognition in other lands became finally responsible for spotlighting his poetic genius among his countrymen. American academics could no longer deny Whitman recognition, therefore, though some "high-minded" researchers continue to suggest that while Whitman may have been homoerotic in tone, he was probably celibate.

Gary Schmidgall, author of the acclaimed biography of Oscar Wilde, The Stranger Wilde, now watches with considerable wonder as his latest book, Walt Whitman: A Gay Life, sparks heated controversies about the sexual orientation of The Poet of Democracy. Schmidgall dances, say some reviews, with noticeable ease into scintillating arenas of high scholarship.

The Manhattan-based researcher succeeds in humanizing Whitman, while maintaining a deep-going affection for the great gay poet that is apparent on nearly every page.

Along with other Whitman-myths debunkings, Schmidgall takes on David Reynolds recent cultural/ biography, Walt Whitman's America (1995) for Reynolds' attempt to downplay or dismiss Whitman's homosexuality. Schmidgall's Walt Whitman: A Gay Life, rescues the poet's sex life in grand style for which the Philadelphia Inquirer congratulates him for successfully linking Whitman's sexual desires—as Whitman himself did—with his greatness as an inspired seer.

An enraged mini-sized review in the New York Times, however, blithely scolded Schmidgall for once again daring to tell readers that Whitman was gay and for not only repeating this (the review says) unnecessary point but for making it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Admirers of this Whitman biographer, however, say that the author has performed with passion, humor and finesse. They note that the Times reviewer would seem, sadly, to prefer Americans pretend, just as German intellectuals do, that a great Muse's compelling spiritual affirmations—can't be acknowledged as gay-inspired. Or, if a great genius' same-sex attractions are actually demonstrable, say the shocked ones, then those very facts must be allowed no public emphasis.

The response of Great Britain to the approaching centennial of the death of one of its foremost homosexually-inclined geniuses, Oscar Wilde, has been more festive. Wilde, a contemporary of Whitman's, suffered imprisonment because of 19th century sodomy statutes. He then watched his reputation sink in what he believed would spell eternal infamy for his progeny. Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, was so hounded in childhood that his name—like that of Wilde's wife—was changed to protect him from public taunts.

Today, however, as his own son nears adulthood, Wilde's grandson is again taking for himself the Irish playwright and poet's name. Wilde festivals are currently being held throughout the nation and at last count, it is said, 400 books about Wilde have been published.

Wilde, speaking of Walt Whitman whom he met, said that America's poet was the precursor of a fresh new kind of man. Whitman, on the other hand called Wilde "frank and outspoken and manly." Gary Schmidgall uncovers similarities both men demonstrated in their strategies and what drew them together from separate cultures to make of them such admiring friends.

Schmidgall, also critiques David Reynolds' deliberate attempt at neutering Whitman as well as all such mystification of the poet's nigh-blatant sexuality. Such scholarship only signals, he seems to say, a ostrich-like burial of scholarly brains, a pose instilling a suffocating and unhealthy "high-mindedness" about sex.

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