Fans of literature are familiar with both Bram Stoker and Walt Whitman, the former most famous for writing his 1897 horror masterpiece Dracula, and the latter considered a queer literary icon who published the poetry collection Leaves of Grass in 1855. But did you know that the two men engaged in written correspondence back in the 1870s that has led some to question whether Stoker had a “crush” of sorts on his queer predecessor? One letter to Walt Whitman in particular has some scholars making just that assumption.
Though Walt Whitman never went public with his own sexual orientation, it’s commonly understood that he was in a decades-long relationship with a man named Peter Doyle, and Whitman wrote about romance and sex between two men in Leaves of Grass. Since we can’t be sure whether Whitman self-identified as “gay” or “bisexual,” many tend to just refer to him as “queer.”
We’ve since learned that Stoker considered Whitman an idol of sorts. Months before Stoker published even his very first short story — and 25 years before he made his name on the Gothic horror novel Dracula — he wrote a letter to Walt Whitman that has caught our attention.
Four years after Whitman’s Leaves of Grass made its way to England, Stoker, in the words of Maria Popova, “poured forth a long stream of sentiment cascading through various emotions — surging confidence bordering on hubris, delicate self-doubt, absolute artist-to-artist adoration — channeled with the breathless intensity of a love letter, without interruption.”
Despite having written this letter to Walt Whitman, Stoker waited four years — until Valentine’s Day 1876, as Popova points out — to gather the courage to actually send it to his literary idol, along with a new letter. Both have been published in the book Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula by David J. Skal.
Here’s a snippet from the 1876 letter to Walt Whitman:
The four years which have elapsed have made me love your work fourfold, and I can truly say that I have ever spoken as your friend. You know what hostile criticism your work sometimes evokes here, and I wage a perpetual war with many friends on your behalf. But I am glad to say that I have been the means of making your work known to many who were scoffers at first.
The years which have passed have not been uneventful to me, and I have felt and thought and suffered much in them, and I can truly say that from you I have had much pleasure and much consolation — and I do believe that your open earnest speech has not been thrown away on me or that my life and thought fail to be marked with its impress.
I write this openly because I feel that with you one must be open. We have just had tonight a hot debate on your genius at the Fortnightly Club in which I had the privilege of putting forward my views — I think with success. Do not think me cheeky for writing this. I only hope we may sometime meet and I shall be able perhaps to say what I cannot write.
But it’s Stoker’s original letter to Walt Whitman that has left many eyebrows pointed. Here are some segments from it:
I don’t think there is a man living, even you who are above the prejudices of the class of small-minded men, who wouldn’t like to get a letter from a younger man, a stranger, across the world — a man living in an atmosphere prejudiced to the truths you sing and your manner of singing them.
Put [this letter] in the fire if you like — but if you do you will miss the pleasure of the next sentence which ought to be that you have conquered an unworthy impulse. A man who is certain of his own strength might try to encourage himself a piece of bravo, but a man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of a mortal man — a man to whose candor Rousseau’s Confessions is reticence — can have no fear for his own strength.
If I were before your face I would like to shake hands with you, for I feel that I would like you. I would like to call YOU Comrade and to talk to you as men who are not poets do not often talk. I think that at first a man would be ashamed, for a man cannot in a moment break the habit of comparative reticence that has become second nature to him; but I know I would not long be ashamed to be natural before you. You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master.
In this age no man becomes worthy of the name without an effort. You have shaken off the shackles and your wings are free. I have the shackles on my shoulders still — but I have no wings. If you are going to read this letter any further I should tell you that I am not prepared to “give up all else” so far as words go. The only thing I am prepared to give up is prejudice, and before I knew you I had begun to throw overboard my cargo, but it is not all gone yet.
I am writing to you because you are different from other men. If you were the same as the mass I would not write at all. As it is I must either call you Walt Whitman or not call you at all — and I have chosen the latter course. …
More than a year after I heard two men in College talking of you. One of them had your book (Rossetti’s edition) and was reading aloud some passages at which both laughed. They chose only those passages which are most foreign to British ears and made fun of them. Something struck me that I had judged you hastily. I took home the volume and read far into the night. Since then I have to thank you for many happy hours, for I have read your poems with my door locked late at night and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea: and here I often found myself waking up from a reverie with the book open before me.
But be assured of this Walt Whitman — that a man of less than half your own age, reared a conservative in a conservative country, and who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of people who mention it, here felt his heart leap towards you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts. It is vain for me to quote any instances of what thoughts of yours I like best — for I like them all and you must feel you are reading the true words of one who feels with you. You see, I have called you by your name. I have been more candid with you — have said more about myself to you than I have said to anyone before. …
How sweet a thing it is for a strong healthy man with a woman’s eye and a child’s wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul. I don’t think you will laugh, Walt Whitman, nor despise me, but at all events I thank you for all the love and sympathy you have given me in common with my kind.
At the time Stoker wrote the above (first) letter to Walt Whitman, he was reportedly a single man when he was considered rather old to be a bachelor for the time. And while he did eventually get married when he was 30, it was reportedly a “celibate union” with a whom who funny enough had also been courted by Oscar Wilde, himself a gay men with whom Stoker “strongly identified.”
Popova also points out that Stoker’s Dracula features some of the same “rich homoerotic overtones” found in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
While it’s perfectly possible that Stoker was intending nothing more than collegiate respect for one of his literary idols, much of the language in his letters seems to present rather intense feelings for a man Stoker must have known to be — if not “queer” — then not a typical male specimen for the time.
Whitman did receive Stoker’s letters, and wrote back to his newfound friend:
BRAM STOKER, —
My dear young man, — Your letters have been most welcome to me — welcome to me as a Person and then as Author — I don’t know which most. You did so well to write to me so unconventionally, so fresh, so manly, and affectionately too. I, too, hope (though it is not probable) that we will some day personally meet each other. Meantime, I send my friendship and thanks.
Edward Dowden’s letter containing among others your subscription for a copy of my new edition has just been recd. I shall send the book very soon by express in a package to his address. I have just written to E.D.
My physique is entirely shatter’d — doubtless permanently — from paralysis and other ailments. But I am up and dress’d, and get out every day a little, live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits. — Write to me again.