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Walt Whitman

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

How does one unravel a miracle? That is the question Paul Zweig set before himself when he undertook to explain the unexpected blossoming of Walt Whitman’s poetic genius. How does a conventional short-story writer and minor-league journalist and editor turn into his nation’s first poet of the first rank? Zweig’s answer is developed patiently, with the rich complexity and inspired insights this subject demands. Zweig’s uplifting book becomes not only an exploration of Whitman’s transition from journeyman to high master but also a testimony to the power of human will and spirit—of Whitman and of anyone who turns a corner and finds himself transformed. It is the story of self-making, a process that remains no less miraculous for being so well explained.

Zweig opens his discussion with this bald fact: “In 1848, Walt Whitman was twenty-nine years old and had not yet written a single text that we now remember.” Furthermore, there were no predictions of a talent-in-the-making. Nevertheless, seven years later, a strange book called Leaves of Grass appeared, largely unheralded. In due time, this book, an ongoing compilation that went through a series of shape-shifting editions, would be recognized as the product of genius. Zweig brings the reader as close as he can ever be to the metamorphosis of Walter Whitman, Jr., a man of marginal accomplishment in a wide range of activities, into Walt Whitman, the self-defined singer and prophet of America. The story, then, is about the making of poems and about the making of a man-myth. By demonstrating how the two stories are one, and how the one story has a double track, Zweig approaches the psychology of the creative personality in a concrete, sensitive way. He sets a high standard for a type of study that rarely finds such a fruitful subject and rarely succeeds. What is startling is that Zweig accomplishes so much without establishing any theoretical underpinning, though one is readily available. If Zweig had read and made use of Otto Rank’s Art and Artist (1932), his investigation of Whitman might have been even more revelatory and even more convincing. After all, it was Rank who most forcefully established the thesis that an artist’s fundamental “work” is his own artistic personality.

The strands that Zweig lovingly weaves together are many and various, though some are more successfully developed than others. Early in the book, Zweig explores the father-son dynamics of Whitman’s fiction. He reveals Whitman’s obsession with the “rejected son who longs to come home; an angry son who longs for revenge; a guilty son who discovers, in a terrifying economy of mental symbols, that he can take revenge and punish himself in the same act.” As he traces Whitman’s role in his own family, Zweig finds provocative parallels—even to the point of Whitman’s successful drive to replace his father as head of the household. This trail, however, ends up being a relatively blind alley. Zweig notes, as have other critics, the absence of fathers in Whitman’s important work and the presence of only the stereotypical, idealized mother of nineteenth century popular fiction. The transformation of family dynamics is not viewed as a fundamental part in the making of Leaves of Grass, which leaves the reader wondering at Zweig’s careful analyses of the stories and of the Whitman family. Obviously, though, the business of rebelling and fathering is part of the persona of Leaves of Grass, and, as Zweig sees quite clearly, Whitman’s “parenting” of wounded Civil War soldiers was a manifestation of tendencies revealed early in his life.

Zweig’s examination of Whitman’s love for theater, especially opera, is put to better use. Impersonation, music, and oratory seized the imagination of the young journalist in profound ways. Whitman’s reviews and relevant notebook passages are used by Zweig to bring the reader close to the aesthetic that blooms in “Song of Myself” and the other major...

(The entire section is 2,080 words.)