Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is America’s best-known poet, and his magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, the country’s most influential book of poetry. When it first appeared in 1855, Leaves of Grass was revolutionary in its celebration of the working class and its extensive use of free verse. What distinguishes Jerome Loving’s biography from its numerous predecessors is its use of new research on Whitman and the author’s scrupulously balanced approach. Loving does not set out to “prove” anything about his subject’s personal life or political views. On the contrary, this is an examination of the man and his work in the context of his times.
As Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself reveals, Whitman was a study in contrasts. Though he represented the very antithesis of the literary establishment and was rejected by it throughout his life, he still managed to win early approval from the very embodiment of that establishment, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). And though Whitman was energized by the Transcendentalist notion of God in nature, his most enduring poems celebrate the workaday world of the American city. In terms of politics, Loving correctly points out that this champion of freedom was not an abolitionist. As a Free-Soiler, Whitman feared that the spread of slavery would steal jobs away from the working-class people he cherished. Loving most clearly demonstrates his skills as a biographer in his treatment of Whitman’s sexual orientation. While most critics feel that Whitman’s poetry indicates that he was a homosexual, Loving contends that the evidence in the poet’s life and work is ultimately inconclusive.
This superb biography will leave the reader wanting to know more about its subject.