The United States has always had a peculiar love-hate relationship with its artists, one that grows out of one’s complex and often contradictory national identity. If, on the one hand, one aspires to noble ideals of national life and destiny such as those recorded in the Declaration of Independence, bequeathed by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, one also espouses a boundless opportunism that has little time for the life of the mind. If people profess devotion to freedom and human dignity, the national experience has all too often brought out a narrowness and meanness of spirit that manifests itself in the crudest of provincialisms and jingoistic patriotism. Cities, in part, participate in the international life of culture and the arts, while small towns and rural areas, in part, revel in isolationism and suspicion of all that is foreign and different.
It is, perhaps, both ironic and appropriate that of all the great American artists Walt Whitman has received far more than his share of the consequences of so complex and contradictory a cultural mix. For Whitman was the poet of American exuberance, of American optimism, of the deeply ingrained sense that America represented a new chance for European humanity to live up to its great ideals. Whitman celebrated that America in his great epic poem Song of Myself and its attendant volume Leaves of Grass. In doing so, he drew on the great poetic models of national identity in the West—the classical epics of the Bible—but he transformed them into a form and a voice and a language distinctively American. As a result, those provincial nineteenth century American intellectuals, who looked to Europe for their sense of culture, could not grasp the value of his achievement. The audience of mass America, the common people whom Whitman celebrated in his work, could not respond either, for he asked of them a degree of self-awareness and self-celebration which they were incapable of achieving. Hence, he faced, with courage and self-confidence, the attacks of the prudish and the proverbial.
Ironically, the problem continues. Whitman did have his influence on twentieth century American poets, but only indirectly, through his influence on European writers whom Americans then copied. Canons of critical taste through much of the twentieth century had little use for Whitman’s prose-like rhythms, his unabashed romantic love-affair with America, his seemingly uncontrolled rush of language. Yet, Whitman remains an authentically American poetic voice, perhaps before the 1930’s the greatest poet America has produced. To get at the heart of the American character, readers must deal with him.
Justin Kaplan’s biography is a significant step in that direction, and readers must be grateful for it. If it has a weakness, it is in its failure to deal critically with Whitman’s poetry, but that is perhaps because there is as yet no critical language appropriate to it. Here, the poetry comes all too frequently as commentary on Whitman’s life, rather than as the subject of revealing commentary. Instead, Kaplan provides perhaps the clearest and most revealing picture yet of Whitman the man in the context of his times. The reader sees him moving among the economic, social, and political turmoil that was to culminate in the Civil War. He is seen amidst the literary figures of his age—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, James Russell Lowell, and the rest. He is seen in his own family situation—the economic and personal struggles, and Walt’s role in attempting to meet them. What comes through is a vivid portrait of Whitman the man, in all his complexities and contradictions.
One point should be dealt with immediately—the question of Whitman’s sexual orientation. Although Kaplan never states explicitly, what comes through his discussion of the evidence is that Whitman was probably homosexual in orientation, although never in practice. Whitman’s comments about having children, used by many to...
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