The subtitle of this biography, Builder for America, denotes the emphasis of Deutsch’s book. She presents Whitman’s life as expressing the ideals of the American love of freedom and the right of everyone (including slaves and poor immigrants) to share in prosperity. The problems Whitman experienced in his personal life and as a poet were also the problems of America—the political and moral prejudices that divided Americans and culminated in the devastating Civil War.
Perhaps because Whitman was unimpressed by the materialism and ambition of so many Americans of his youth, his early life was marked by his need to “loaf,” to enjoy life around him in nature and in the people he met. Even when it was necessary for him to earn a living, he refused to give up his long walks and his talks with people such as stagecoach drivers and longshoremen. Consequently his life was marked by frequent changes of jobs—printer, schoolteacher, editor, journalist, political speaker. In this spirit of movement, Whitman traveled across the United States. He boarded a steamboat going down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where he was an editor for a newspaper for a few months; he later traveled north to see the wonders of Niagara Falls. All these people and places become part of his poems.
The life of Whitman as expressed in Walt Whitman is attractive primarily because of the unique spirit of the man himself, a spirit essentially democratic and fiercely dedicated to his own vision of life. With the young Whitman, the reader experiences the many controversial political issues in the United States during the years prior to the...
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Deutsch received the Julia Ellsworth Ford Foundation Prize for Walt Whitman in 1941. As a poet herself, she could appreciate the personal life that fuels a poet’s inspiration. Deutsch was born in New York City in 1895, only a few years after Whitman died in nearby Camden. Her first book, Banners, was published in 1919; her poetry often dealt with social issues. Other than her own poetry, Deutsch published translations of German and Russian poetry and compiled anthologies; she also wrote fiction.
One of the advantages of this biography is that Deutsch uses the poet’s own language whenever appropriate. Some of Whitman’s best-known lines and phrases enliven these pages. Another strong point is the duplication of the feeling of movement, of witnessing many people and scenes, that Whitman expresses in his poems, especially in his autobiographical poem “Song of Myself.”
Walt Whitman re-creates some lively nineteenth century settings. In the torchlit political rallies of New York City and in the fever-plagued army hospitals of the Civil War, the reader will find the backdrops of major historical events.