Like most modern homosexual men, I am a connoisseur of dick pics. They are the lingua franca of our day, the calling card of the Grindr generation. A good one can get you in a lot of places (so to speak), which is why men often fake them, leaving their recipients to compare hair patterns, partially cropped tattoos, and other identifying marks.
In this capacity I decided to embark on a girthy assignment: verifying the 141-year-old dong, photographed by Thomas Eakins, which may or may not have belonged to Walt Whitman.
If you only read Whitman in The Norton Anthology of Modern & Contemporary Poetry in high school, you probably missed out on how Brooklyn's foremost poet was a total perv. His epic, Leaves of Grass, is one of the most erotic books of poetry ever written. He loved nudity, sex, and all the desires of the body. Or as he put it in the "Song of Myself" from Leaves of Grass:
I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.
If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it…
The verse may be the most lyrical list of turn-ons ever written. Whitman was an apostle of nudity even in non-sexual situations, and in Specimen Days, a collection of thoughts and journal entries he published late in life, he wrote about how he was proud of his body.
It was unlikely that he would have opposed posing nude for photos, especially by an artist as renowned as Thomas Eakins. The mysterious dick pic in question is actually a group of seven black-and-white photos, which show a Gandalf-esque man turning like a rotisserie chicken: full-on, in profile, and from behind. It is but one of many nude physiognomic studies that Eakins did in his life time, and contains the oldest model, by far, in his entire oeuvre. The model projects neither modesty nor bravado; he simply allows the camera to dispassionately catalog his body. In general outline, he ticks all the Whitman boxes: two arms, two legs, long white beard, and a cute little wang.
But is it Whitman? Eakins didn't label it so ("old man," he simply noted), and under close examination, the face appears inconclusive. Whitman-ish, sure. But actually Whitman?
To make that call, I consulted some experts, starting with Karen Karbiener, a Whitman scholar and professor at NYU who also leads walking tours of "Walt's Brooklyn" when the weather is nice. In between spring classes, she picked apart Whitman's willie in her office.
"The first page of Song of Myself he's like 'I will be undisguised and naked,' and here he is!" she said through giggles as she pulled up the photo on her computer monitor. "The size fits," she murmured. "He was six feet tall, never had a gut, was always in reasonably good shape even when he was older… I haven't seen a lot of 80-year-old men naked, but presumably this is good shape for an 80-year-old man!"
Not only does the photo fit with what we know of Whitman physically, Karbiener said, it also fits energetically. Whitman was one of the most photographed men of the 19th century, and he embraced new technology in general.(Indeed, a similar mystery in the canon of Whitman ephemera concerns an early Edison recording of someone (probably Walt) reading a stanza from Whitman's "America."
"I don't think Walt would have any shame about posing for these," Karbeiner noted after perusing the photos. "Especially for Eakins. There was a mutual affection and respect there."
Eakins and Whitman met around 1887, according to the books kept by Whitman's amanuensis, Horace Traubel. Both were artists of the first caliber and lovers of virile young men; critics think the "28 Young Men Bathe by the Shore" passage in Song of Myself inspired Eakins' painting The Swimming Hole. Shortly after their first meeting, Eakins commenced on a portrait of Whitman, and it's possible that these nude images were photographic studies for that painting.
Ed Folsom, a Whitman scholar and co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive online, noted that this timing would make sense for Whitman, writing in a paper for the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review that "in 1887 Whitman was in relatively good health (following his recovery from an earlier stroke) and was busy posing for several artists, including Eakins, Gilchrist, Sidney Morse, and J. W. Alexander."
Folsom hedged his bets, however, never quite coming out and saying the model is Whitman. In 1997 Folsom brought the photos to a neurologist, hoping to discover whether they contained any evidence of the strokes and other ailments that plagued Whitman towards the end of his life. Neurological results were, again, inconclusive. Although the Walt Whitman Archive's digital gallery includes the image, they list it with a note that suggests it may or may not be him.
Whoever it is, the photo shows the thing that Whitman was writing about: the absolute adoration of the body.
"People don't want to stick their necks out," Karbiener said as we discussed the inconclusive scholarly consensus. There's almost no way to know, unless an undiscovered trove of Whitman's writing resurfaces (a not implausible possibility, given the recent discovery of one of his lost manuscripts.) But maybe the actual provenance of the photo doesn't matter.
"This is the approach I take when I teach it," Karbiener stated towards the end of our discussion. "Whoever it is, the photo shows the thing that Whitman was writing about: the absolute adoration of the body."
Whitman would have been 198 years old today; were he still alive, perhaps that photo would grace his Grindr profile. Some might consider it indecorous to commemorate one of America's literary treasures with an investigation into his penis, but it's oddly fitting for Whitman. This was a man who loved puzzles, new technology, and—yes—penises. He reveled in the body, and in thumbing his nose at Victorian morality. Sharing this photo, whether or not it is actually of Whitman himself, is perhaps the most Whitman-ic way we could celebrate his birthday.