WALT WHITMAN: A Gay Life by Gary Schmidgall

WALT WHITMAN: A Gay Life

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

A book about ""the most gaily, muscularly, and relentlessly phallic writer in the annals of literature."" Schmidgall, who is also Oscar Wilde's biographer (The Stranger Wilde, 1994), has chosen here not to write a biography in the usual way. Instead, he offers six long, thematically linked essays about the poet's gradual homosexual evolution, interspersed with candid first-person comments by Schmidgall (who is gay) that try to narrow the historical gap between gay culture in New York circa the 1850s and that of today. Because of Schmidgall's quite specific goals, this is not a good first Whitman biography for the layperson. Yet it holds other charms. Unlike most writers of ""lives,"" as a stylist Schmidgall gives himself plenty of breathing room. He rarely writes the sort of pareddown, minimalist declarative sentences that keep many other biographies going. Rather, his preference is loosely Whitmanian: orotund, spacious, personal, and rhythmic writing, which can make for bagginess and turgor at times. But two voices travel engagingly alongside each other, edging into an odd harmony: Whitman's and his biographer's. If that artfulness were not enough to beguile, then consider Schmidgall's intriguing range of subjects: Whitman's discovery of opera in midlife as the decisive influence on his mature poetry; a speculative chronicle of the writer's love life; Whitman's dogged amanuensis, Horace Traubel; the kinship between Whitman and Oscar Wilde, who met in 1882. It is an undeniable hindrance to Schmidgall's research effort that so little indisputable documentary evidence exists to prove his hunches about the identity and number of Whitman's amours. This lack of evidence can give the author's sometimes rhapsodic guesswork and impassioned assertions the feeling of willed fantasy. But the biographer's insights and imputations depend as much on his innate literary and personal sympathy for the poet, as he confides in detail in a fascinating autobiographical afterword. An unfailingly humane treatment.

Pub Date: Sept. 22nd, 1997
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: Dutton