Worshipping Walt …200 years on

Paul Salveson on Whitman’s local legacy

One of the most fascinating influences on the early British socialist movement was that of the American poet, Walt Whitman. We’re coming up to his 200th birthday on May 31st and the main focus of celebrations in the UK will be in Bolton.

Why Bolton? In the late 1880s the expanding textile town developed a lively socialist culture and a key figure in it was a young man called ‘Wallace’ – J.W. Wallace, though nobody seems to have called him anything other than by his surname. He was the son of working class parents and lived with them in a very modest terrace in one of the town’s poorest neighbourhoods. From the mid-1880s he started what was an early kind of book group. It was all men, most having liberal or socialist views. Amongst the latter was a local GP, Dr John Johnston. The group developed a fascination for the writings of Walt Whitman. His message of brotherly love, solidarity, the joys of the countryside laced with a heavy dose of mysticism was a heady and exciting mix for the group which jokingly described itself as ‘The Eagle Street College’.

A few weeks before Whitman’s birthday in 1887 the group decided to send him a greetings message with the added bonus of a small amount of money. As a penniless poet the gesture was much appreciated. But Whitman was fascinated by what he interpreted as an expression of interest from an ‘authentic’ group of working class Lancastrians. In fact, the group was more middle class than he thought, notwithstanding Wallace’s parentage.

They developed close links not only with Whitman but other admirers of the poet in the UK and in other parts of Europe. A particularly close friend was Edward Carpenter, the Sheffield socialist and pioneer of sexual freedom. Johnston became Carpenter’s informal medical adviser and went on holidays with him, and Carpenter’s lover George Merrill, to North Africa. The sexuality of the group itself is still a very open question. Some of its members, including the young mill manager Charles Sixsmith, were probably bisexual whilst others would have been horrified at the suggestion that Whitman was anything other than a red-blooded American heterosexual male. Wallace’s own sexuality is the subject of a new play written by Manchester writer Stephen Hornby, The Adhesion of Love, which is being performed as part of the bi-centennial events.

The Independent Labour Party was founded in 1892 and some of the ‘Eagle Street College’ quickly joined. Wallace was elected to the ILP’s national administrative council and used the position to influence the party, and its leading figures like Hardie, Glasier and Blatchford, to embrace the democratic and spiritual message of Whitman.

The influence of Whitman on British socialism has been recently explored by Kirsten Harris in her book Walt Whitman and British Socialism. There is no doubt that Whitman’s influence was immense, with his message interpreted and popularised by Edward Carpenter. Within the broad socialist culture promulgated by the ILP, and put into practice by Blatchford’s ‘Clarion’ movement with its choirs, cycling and walking groups and field naturalists, there was a niche for radical sexual politics.

The Bolton group evolved and a number of local feminists such as Alice Collinge became part of its informal membership. The main event in the group’s social calendar was the Whitman ‘birthday picnic’ usually held at the home of one of the members.

The First World War had a major impact on the group. Wallace, Johnston and some other members of the group were resolutely anti-war, though Johnston worked in Whalley military hospital which cared for soldiers with horrific injuries. He was even pictured wearing military uniform! Another issue which divided the group was the Russian Revolution of 1917, with Wallace firmly on the side of the Bolsheviks and at odds with some of the ILP leadership including Snowden. He supported Katherine Glasier as editor of Labour Leader in championing the revolution, a stand which led to her sacking in 1920. Wallace was also a fervent supporter of Irish nationalism and applauded the 1916 Rising.

The group continued to meet to celebrate ‘the poet of democracy and comradeship’ until the 1950s.

The annual Whitman Day ‘picnic’ was revived by a group of local socialists in 1984. Contacts with Whitman scholars in the USA were re-established and the picnics, combined with a walk on the moors, wine tasting (from a ‘loving cup’) and readings from Whitman, have continued to the present day. This year, a string of events are being planned in Bolton, led by the Socialist Club whose history stretches back to the earliest days of the socialist movement, Bolton Library and the University of Bolton. The annual walk takes place on Saturday June 1st, meeting at Barrow Bridge bus terminus at 2.00pm.


For full details of events please email Paul at paul.salveson@myphone.coop

Paul’s book With Walt Whitman in Bolton – spirituality, sex and socialism in a Northern mill town is available priced £9.90. Chartist readers can take advantage of a special offer of £9.00 including post and packing. Cheques to ‘Paul Salveson’ sent to 109 Harpers Lane, Bolton BL1 6HU.

Paul Salveson

Paul Salveson is a visiting professor in transport & logistics at the University of Huddersfield.