Getting to the bottom of the man they loved to love

Walt Whitman
March 10, 2000

In "Song of Myself", Walt Whitman famously wrote: "Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)" Anyone who cultivates such anarchic largeness, however, risks confusing his audience. In his excellent biography, Jerome Loving vividly demonstrates how Whitman and his work have inspired a great diversity of opinion over the years. Even one of his first champions, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who contributed to Whitman's rise to fame by praising the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, was aware that the work would not please everyone. When Emerson sent a copy to Thomas Carlyle, he warned that if he thought it "only an auctioneer's inventory of a warehouse", he could always "light [his] pipe with it".

Neither Europe nor America was ready for the radical novelty of Whitman's free verse. Large parts of the American literary establishment turned away from the all-too-frank and sensual poet, who also fell out with many editors while working as a journalist. But Whitman's writing still had an amazing ability to inspire devotion, especially among women. By the end of his life, Whitman was, as befitted a man of his magnitude and generosity, loved by many and was increasingly recognised as the poetic innovator America had been waiting for.

Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself is the first full-length, critical biography of Whitman since Gay Wilson Allen's The Solitary Singer (1955). Loving's ambition is to write a new standard work, aimed both at a scholarly audience and the general reader. He defines his task as to reconfirm or correct the facts of the life (which he does, painstakingly and well) and to discover new ones (he introduces some revealing new letters and journalism).

Perhaps most importantly, he aims to reconsider the biographical evidence for our age. This involves a re-evaluation of Whitman's attitudes to race and slavery, which were nowhere near as far ahead of his times as his celebration of the body. Most thoroughly, however, he reconsiders Whitman's sexuality. Much has already been said on this subject, but a detailed biographical rereading is certainly needed - Allen discussed Whitman's homosexual leanings in terms of abnormality and perversion. Loving's account is refreshingly up to date, without overlooking the difference between 19th and 20th-century constructions of desire. It is curious to think that even Whitman's most blatant celebration of male-to-male affection in the "Calamus" poems was seldom seen as homosexual in the 19th century. As Loving puts it, "the problem with Leaves of Grass was always and simply sexuality" - what shocked was the sheer physicality of his work.

In fact, we know very little for certain about Whitman's intimate life. Loving presents the facts we do have in a non-judgemental way. His biography strikes a balance between substance and speculation; it is scholarly and precise while also leaving room for the reader's own conclusions. "Perhaps" and "probably" are key words in this book. This tentative approach is signalled in the wisely chosen epigraph from John Burroughs: "Whitman/is so hard to grasp,/ to put in a statement./One cannot get to the bottom of himI" Loving is particularly strong on Whitman's previously relatively uncharted journalistic career, his time in New Orleans in 1848 and his hospital service during the civil war, which is given prominence as the starting point of the biography. He is also good on the different editions of Leaves of Grass , a work he has edited for Oxford University Press's World's Classics series. His lucid account of Whitman's revisions will be useful for students of his work, as should his discussion of Whitman's efforts at self-promotion and his friendship with Emerson.

There are pleasingly few loose ends in this biography - topics generally recur and are treated in depth. Loving is especially adept at tracing Whitman's main themes back to their first appearance. Occasionally, however, the book reads too much like a catalogue of acquaintances. Some sections close too suddenly, leaving the reader without a satisfying conclusion.

More than bare references to other works in the (otherwise copious) notes would also have been useful, as would a chronology of Whitman's life. But these are only minor reservations, as Loving's work is engagingly written and carefully researched.

His biography succeeds above all through its vivid evocation of its subject. Loving ends his book on a fine image from 1990s New Jersey, where black and Hispanic working-class children play in the cemetery where Whitman's grave is, "and every one of them seems to know where the poet is buried". Whitman's spirit is well preserved in this book, but, perhaps more importantly, his memory also survives among the American people he loved.

Madeleine Minson is a part-time tutor in English, University College London.

Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself

Author - Jerome Loving
ISBN - 0 520 214 7
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 568

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