The biography’s narrative emphasis is wisely chosen, as the intention of the authors is both to provide a reliable biography of the subject and to appeal to younger readers. The book provides the excitement of fiction while simultaneously emphasizing the information and detail of the historical biography. The result of such a combination is a book that successfully bridges the genre gap between young adult and adult biography. Issues that point to the book’s adoption by a young audience include its use of language, the authors’ treatment of Whitman’s sexuality, and the nature of the book’s conclusion.
The language is simple, yet not reductive. While it is true that Stoutenburg and Baker provide dramatic transitions that keep their readers’ interest, the accessibility of the language is not attributable only to this technique. The poems that are represented in the book are thoughtfully discussed by the authors and are often introduced in context and followed up with (and sometimes interrupted by) summary. Stoutenburg and Baker include just enough information for the reader to appreciate each poem’s importance without belaboring the presentation with excessive commentary on poetic structure. The poems are simply made part of the story. Explanations of Transcendentalism and Whitman’s Quaker background are made clear without using academic or religious language.
Sophisticated issues of sexuality are also presented and discussed intelligently and responsibly. The authors do not avoid this important part of Whitman’s life. Stoutenburg and Baker...
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The dedication in this book celebrates an individual’s contributions to democracy. The book itself seems concerned with the relationship between poetry, the arts in general, and democracy. Whitman was preoccupied with the advantages of this form of government and believed that, in democracy, a poet would be given an opportunity to speak for the people as a citizen and as an individual. The authors seem to agree.
The book opens the issue of poetry and public reception, a timeless issue, and extends it with the invocation of names that are contemporary with the publication of this book: Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and Allen Ginsberg. Readers are asked to consider issues and events in Whitman’s life—such as his reception by the public and his comparison to “accepted” writers of the day such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant—and to apply them to the time in which they are reading.
The relationships between poetry, democracy, and public reception force this book beyond Whitman as subject and into the larger implications of art and individual artistic freedom and expression. Readers are introduced to these issues through the seemingly safe medium of historical biography, but they are given an opportunity to consider censorship, ignorance, moral defensiveness, and narrow-mindedness in their own time. Listen America succeeds as more than a biography; through dealing with Whitman and his timeless poetic concerns, Stoutenburg and Baker themselves deal with timeless artistic and democratic issues.