Literary letters,"" Whitman claimed, are ""too deliberate,"" ""prepared,"" ""top-loftical""; he preferred the ""personal"":...



Literary letters,"" Whitman claimed, are ""too deliberate,"" ""prepared,"" ""top-loftical""; he preferred the ""personal"": ""It is the man and the feeling"" And his letters are indeed both revealing and evocative, a generous offering of a whole array of selves shaped by his circumstances and by his tactful sense of audience. The selves range from the rancorous young schoolteacher writing in 1840 from that ""wretched hole"" of Woodbury, Long Island; the bohemian journalist savoring the ""living panorama"" of N.Y.C.; the ""hospital missionary"" lamenting the ""body's tragedies"" as he worked among amputees in a military hospital; the astute business. man protecting his copyrights; the concerned lover expressing his ""manly love"" for the young soldiers he nursed; a spectator on a ferry in N.Y. harbor or on a train in the West, recording his delight in the diversity and sweep of the country he celebrated; and the public personality, somewhat vain, enjoying the impact on the ""confounded citizens of Boston"" of his flowing white beard, disheveled clothes, shocking appearance. The major offering of himself was the song of himself, Leaves of Grass; but it is just this self--vivid, comprehensive, mercurial, exuberant--that editor Miller (English/New York Univ.) neglects here. Out of the 2800 letters Miller edited for the collected Whitman edition, he chose 250, evenly spaced over Whitman's lifetime, that depict a pitiful, lonely, ailing, misunderstood ""good, gray old poet""--the image that Whitman's contemporaries created to deflect criticism from a life-style that he admitted was ""jolly, bodily, and probably open to criticism."" Miller sanitizes Whitman by omitting notes (who were these six illegitimate children Whitman admits to fathering?), by misinterpreting (making Whitman a ""father surrogate"" to young men he admits to kissing and petting), and sometimes by the selections themselves, including, for instance, all the postcards Whitman in his decline sent to Dr. Bucke, his medical advisor, reporting his eating and bowel schedules, cards Whitman himself was embarrassed to discover that Bucke had saved. These letters are fascinating because Whitman writes a great letter; anyone reading them, however, should be equipped with a recent biography.

Pub Date: April 30, 1990


Page Count: -

Publisher: Univ. of Iowa Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1990