Review: In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America From Itself

by John Marsh

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Also on this website:

Toby Johnson's books:

GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness

GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe

SECRET MATTER: updated, revised & expanded edition from Lethe Press with Afterword by Mark Jordan

GETTING LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE: A romance novel set in the 1980s and the 1890s.

THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil

TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams

CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: Reclaiming Our Queer Spirituality Through Story


About ordering

Books on Gay Spirituality:

White Crane Gay Spirituality Series

  Articles and Excerpts:

Read Toby's review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness

Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"

The Simple Answer to the Gay Marriage Debate

Why gay people should NOT Marry

Wedding Cake Liberation

Gay Marriage in Texas

What's ironic

Shame on the American People

The "highest form of love"

Second March on Washington

A Bifurcation of Gay Spirituality

 The cause of homosexuality

The origins of homophobia

Q&A about Jungian ideas in gay consciousness

What is homosexuality?

What is Gay Spirituality?

My three messages

What Jesus said about Gay Rights

Queering religion

Common Experiences Unique to Gay Men

Is there a "uniquely gay perspective"?

The purpose of homosexuality

The Reincarnation of Edward Carpenter

The Gay Succession

Interview on the Nature of Homosexuality

What the Bible Says about Homosexuality

Mesosexual Ideal for Straight Men

Varieties of Gay Spirituality

Waves of Gay Liberation Activity

Why Gay Spirituality: Spirituality as Artistic Medium

Easton Mountain Retreat Center

Andrew Harvey & Spiritual Activism

The Gay Spirituality Summit in May 2004 and the  "Statement of Spirituality"

"It's Always About You"

The myth of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara

Joseph Campbell's description of Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara at the Baths.

You're Not A Wave

What is Enlightenment?

What is reincarnation?

How many lifetimes in an ego?

Emptiness & Religious Ideas

Experiencing experiencing experiencing

Going into the Light

Meditations for a Funeral

Meditation Practice

The way to get to heaven

Buddha's father was right

Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal

The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika

Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva

John Boswell was Immanuel Kant

The Two Loves

Curious Bodies

What Toby Johnson Believes

The Joseph Campbell Connection

Campbell & The Pre/Trans Fallacy

The Nature of Religion

What's true about Religion

Being Gay is a Blessing

Drawing Long Straws

Freedom of Religion

The Gay Agenda

Gay Saintliness

Gay Spiritual Functions

The subtle workings of the spirit in gay men's lives.

The Sinfulness of Homosexuality

Proposal for a study of gay nondualism

Priestly Sexuality

 "The Evolution of Gay Identity"

"St. John of the Cross &
the Dark Night of the Soul."

 Eckhart's Eye

Let Me Tell You a Secret

Religious Articulations of the Secret

The Collective Unconscious

Driving as Spiritual Practice


Historicity as Myth


No Stealing

Next Step in Evolution

The New Myth

The Moulting of the Holy Ghost

Gaia is a Bodhisattva

The Hero's Journey as archetype

Marian Doctrines: Immaculate Conception & Assumption

Teenage Prostitution and the Nature of Evil

Allah Hu: "God is present here"
Adam and Steve

The Life is in the Blood

Gay retirement and the "freelance monastery"

Seeing with Different Eyes

The mystical experience at the Servites'  Castle in Riverside

The Great Dance according to C.S.Lewis

The Techniques Of The World Saviors

Part 1: Brer Rabbit and the Tar-Baby
Part 2:
The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Part 3:
Jesus and the Resurrection
Part 4:
A Course in Miracles

The Secret of the Clear Light

Understanding the Clear Light

Mobius Strip

Finding Your Tiger Face

How Gay Souls Get Reincarnated

In honor of Sir Arthur C Clarke

Karellen was a homosexual

About Alien Abduction

What are you looking for in a gay science fiction novel?

The D.A.F.O.D.I.L. Alliance

More about Gay Mental Health

Psych Tech Training

The Rainbow Flag

Ideas for gay mythic stories

Kip and Toby, Activists

Toby's friend and nicknamesake Toby Marotta.

Harry Hay, Founder of the gay movement

About Hay and The New Myth

About Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first man to really "come out"

About Michael Talbot, gay mystic

About Fr. Bernard Lynch

About Richard Baltzell

About Guy Mannheimer

About David Weyrauch

About Dennis Paddie

About Ask the Fire

About Arthur Evans

About Christopher Larkin

About Sterling Houston

About Michael Stevens

Our friend Tom Nash

Book Reviews

Be Done on Earth by Howard E. Cook

Pay Me What I'm Worth by Souldancer

The Way Out by Christopher L  Nutter
The Gay Disciple by John Henson

Art That Dares by Kittredge Cherry

Coming Out, Coming Home by Kennth A. Burr

Extinguishing the Light by B. Alan Bourgeois

Over Coffee: A conversation For Gay Partnership & Conservative Faith by D.a. Thompson

Dark Knowledge by Kenneth Low

Janet Planet by Eleanor Lerman

The Kairos by Paul E. Hartman

Wrestling with Jesus by D.K.Maylor

Kali Rising by Rudolph Ballentine

The Missing Myth by Gilles Herrada

The Secret of the Second Coming by Howard E. Cook

The Scar Letters: A Novel by Richard Alther

The Future is Queer by Labonte & Schimel

Missing Mary by Charlene Spretnak

Gay Spirituality 101 by Joe Perez

Cut Hand: A Nineteeth Century Love Story on the American Frontier by Mark Wildyr

Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman

Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano

The Key to Unlocking the Closet Door by Chelsea Griffo

The Door of the Heart by Diana Finfrock Farrar

Occam’s Razor by David Duncan

Grace and Demion by Mel White

Gay Men and The New Way Forward by Raymond L. Rigoglioso

The Dimensional Stucture of Consciousness by Samuel Avery

The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love by Perry Brass

Love Together: Longtime Male Couples on Healthy Intimacy and Communication by Tim Clausen

War Between Materialism and Spiritual by Jean-Michel Bitar

The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion by Jeffrey J. Kripal

Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion
by Jeffrey J. Kripal

The Invitation to Love by Darren Pierre

Brain, Consciousness, and God: A Lonerganian Integration by Daniel A Helminiak

A Walk with Four Spiritual Guides by Andrew Harvey

Can Christians Be Saved? by Stephenson & Rhodes

The Lost Secrets of the Ancient Mystery Schools by Stephenson & Rhodes

Keys to Spiritual Being by Adrian Ravarour

Scissors, Paper, Rock by Fenton Johnson

The Recurring Question: Was Walt Whitman Gay?


In Walt We Trust:

How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America From Itself

By John Marsh

Monthly Review Press 2015
256 pages, Hard Cover, $25.00

Available from

5 stars

Reviewed by Toby Johnson, author of Gay Spirituality: Gay Identity and the Transformation of Human Consciousness

This book was literally a joy to read. There's just enough of the author and the familiar struggles of his personal life woven into the text to show him as insightful, kind, good-intentioned and good-hearted, and likeable. The basic concept of the book is that modern America is suffering from a general malaise about the meaning of life and the value of our lives today as modern Americans. Death, money, sex and democracy are the four themes Marsh identifies as sources of this malaise. He is a poetry professor at Penn State—and I bet he's a good teacher—and so, perhaps naturally, he looks to poetry to find solutions. Poetry is almost always a kind of "philosophical" endeavor, striving to express, intimately and evocatively, deep insights into this meaning of life. The specific poet he turns to is Walt Whitman, the Civil War era poet who established with his free verse a whole new kind of poetic style and who, in spite of being controversial, helped establish what we think of as the American mind.

Whitman's poetry is mystical and in some ways highly abstract: "I sing the body electric," "I celebrate myself," etc. But it is also very physical and real: what he celebrates includes "The smoke of my own breath, Echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine." It's the physical world shot through with mystical significance. Marsh examines Whitman's experience by following in his footsteps, taking the Brooklyn ferry, visiting Whitman's home in Camden, NJ, wandering the Civil War battlefield, at Fredericksburg, Virgina, going to a strip club to experience raw sexuality. He finds lines in Whitman's verse that explain and elaborate these experiences, applying the wisdom in the poems to our current times. The basic advice is to love life and build deep friendships and live passionately—in spite of the realities of death, the insecurities of money, the vagaries of sex and the responsibilities of living in democracy. Good advice. And it's so nicely presented, it's easy to agree.

Within the discussions of these big questions are inserted two little interludes to deal with recurring issues in Whitman studies: "Was Walt Whitman Socialist?" and "Was Walt Whitman Gay?" To American patriots who'd like Walt Whitman to be All-American, apple pie and motherhood, it's something of an embarrassment that the answer to both questions is Yes.

John Marsh actually concludes that we just don't know enough to answer the sexuality question affirmatively and so concludes that Whitman might not have been homosexual as such, but he certainly was what today we'd call "queer," i.e., sexually and emotionally unconventional and outside constraining definitions. The reason scholars routinely question Whitman's occasionally seemingly obvious homosexuality—besides their not wanting it to be true—is that Whitman himself said it wasn't true.

Marsh is very even-handed at how he deals with this question, beginning, of course, with the anachronism in the question: the very notion of "gay" didn't exist in the mid-19th century, especially of homosexuality as a fundamental, unchangeable character trait and a reason to organize and fight for human rights. The section opens with a story from Marsh's life as a teacher of Whitman about a young woman student asking this very question. He tells us that he is a "dyed-in-the-wool liberal, in love with tolerance," and says he'd love it if Whitman were "gay" and a good role model for young homosexuals, because he is such a good role model for human beings in general. Whitman is so positive and life-affirming about sexuality and physicality—this is what young men and women discovering their sexuality need to discover about their own self-identities. But, he says, unfortunately, it's not that simple, and then goes on to unravel the arguments in favor of Whitman's homosexuality.

As a writer myself about gay consciousness, I found this section of the book particularly thought provoking, and in this review I want to share an observation about gay consciousness that, I think, even, or especially, our best straight allies and the most "dyed-in-the-wool liberals" likely don't understand.

One of Whitman's most outright denials of homosexuality is in response to a letter from the British literary critic and early writer about sexual orientation, John Addington Symonds.
Whitman wouldn't have thought of himself as "homosexual" anyway, because that word didn't exist yet either. There were no words, there was no concept. Symonds was one of the people who helped create that concept. Marsh quotes from the Englishman's letter to Whitman: "I have pored for continuous hours over the pages of Calamus [the most gay section in Leaves of Grass] (as I used to pore over the pages of Plato) longing to hear you speak, burning for a revelation of your more developed meaning, panting to ask—is this what you would indicate…" Symonds is asking: are you like me? In old gay slang that question always went: I'm one, are you one too?

What I think John Marsh misses is how much homosexuals dislike other homosexuals. By the processes that modern gay-oriented psychotherapy calls "internalized homophobia" and projection, and which C.G. Jung referred to as The Shadow, homosexuals are understood to internalize all the same anti-homosexual messages in religion and society—and the nervous silence and absence of any positive messages—that make everybody else suspicious and uncomfortable with homosexuality, and then blame it all on other homosexuals. This is part of what, at least in the old days, caused gay people, men especially, to experience difficulty in love and relationship—how can you have a relationship with somebody who is a kind of person you don't like? And it is what has caused so many factions and so much divisiveness within the "gay community." The great effort of the gay rights and gay liberation movement has been to address this self-sabotaguing dynamic. The very notion of "gay community" is an example of this effort. And the effort has been amazingly successful. The movement changed how homosexuals thought of themselves and that's changed the whole world.

The practical experience for homosexuals, at least before liberation, was that they felt different from everybody else; they were the only ones like this, and this was something wonderful and precious, even sacred, in themselves, but disgusting and reprehensible in others.

I think Whitman's denials are more like protestations even of today's youth: I don't want to be labelled. I'm not like anybody else. I'm me. And, of course, that was Whitman's great declaration: I celebrate myself.

It's ironic that Walt Whitman has been one of the best proponents of affirmative gay consciousness in human history. Without him the gay rights movement might never have happened.

John Marsh's book is about so much more than Whitman's sexuality, and my quibble of how to portray Whitman as a gay/queer man and icon is more with ol' Walt himself for not being as liberated as he showed the rest of us the way to be. I really liked the wisdom Marsh found in Whitman, and in himself. I liked the optimism—in spite of all the evidence against it—that Marsh offers to modern America.

This book demonstrates the wonderful use—and power—of poetry to discover, and create, deep meaning and a reason for living. A joy to read.

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Toby Johnson, PhD is author of eight books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, three gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality. In addition to the novels featured elsewhere in this web site, Johnson is author of IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD and THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET (Revised edition): AN APPRECIATION OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL.

Johnson's Lammy Award winning book GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness was published in 2000. His Lammy-nominated book  GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe was published by Alyson in 2003. Both books are available now from Lethe Press.

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