WALT WHITMAN by Jerome Loving


The Song of Himself
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Perhaps every age needs to reinterpret its icons, but this first full-length, critical biography of Walt Whitman in nearly 20 years, while perfectly serviceable and replete with modest insights and discoveries, is primarily for scholars. Though Whitman avidly sought to be a public poet, going so far as to supply newspapers with self-congratulatory reviews and blind items, much about his life remains elusive. Certain key portions of his early years, such as an extended sojourn in New Orleans, seem biographically and artistically important, but details are vague. And in an era which desperately wants to claim him as gay, or at least bisexual, the full range and breadth of his sexuality and sexual experiences are still hotly debated and hard to pin down. The upshot is that any account of the “good graybeard’s” life tends to be rife with interesting but ultimately indecisive speculation and closely cloistered academic debate. Loving (Emily Dickinson: The Poet on the Second Story, not reviewed, etc.) stays further above the fray than most and puts to rest several of the wilder surmises, but doughty portions of this account feel more like an MLA colloquium than an engaged biography. However, the author does break some new ground in his analysis of Whitman’s journalistic career, particularly how it shaped his politics and poetry. While he—d scribbled all kinds of ephemera as a journalist, including a forgettable temperance novel, Whitman enjoyed little success or acclaim until the self-published and self-promoted collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, in 1855. With its vers libre, democratic vistas, frank eroticism, and fixation on the self, it was an utterly original landmark. Though Whitman, despite a scandalous reputation, never became as famous in his lifetime as Longfellow or Whittier or Emerson, in death he has eclipsed all rivals as the father of modern American poetry. A useful academic biography, but not one to capture the imagination of the general reader.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-520-21427-7
Page count: 595pp
Publisher: Univ. of California
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1999


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