All-American Bard

Walt Whitman: A Life

by Justin Kaplan
Simon and Schuster, 429 pp., $15.00

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman; drawing by David Levine

It was Walt Whitman, at the age of forty-five, who finally took his elder brother Jesse to a lunatic asylum in Brooklyn and left him there. As Justin Kaplan reports in his brisk and accurate biography of Whitman, Jesse had an unstable, violent nature, and Walt early became their mother’s favorite child. Even when she was dying, Mrs. Whitman singled out her “dear beloved Walter” by name for a particular leave-taking.

Jesse died after five years in the asylum and received a pauper’s burial, with no member of the family at hand. Kaplan reminds us of the line in Song of Myself that foreshadows the poet’s management of his brother: “The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm’d case.”

Not only did Walt displace this rival for parental love. He also won the contest with their father. Mr. Whitman was a philoprogenitive carpenter who succeeded in little besides the fathering of a large brood. Hard-working, short-tempered, and laconic, he quarreled with his literary son. It is easy for us to believe that the lines about a father in “There Was a Child” are autobiographical:

The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust,
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure….

Scholars have noticed how often Whitman’s early stories deal with the injustice of a father toward a son.

The poet wished to live by no discipline but the promptings of his genius. He would refuse, his brother George said, “to do anything except at his own notion.” The young Whitman came late to meals; and while other sons were rising betimes to work normal hours with hammer and saw, the poet loafed and invited his soul. In the preface to Leaves of Grass he sneered at the “abandonment of such a great being as a man is to the toss and pallor of years of moneymaking.” In a fragment of verse addressed to poor people, he wrote:

The road to riches is easily open to me,
But I do not choose it
I choose to stay with you.—

About the time the poet began to conceive Leaves of Grass, his father’s health began to fail. Mr. Whitman sank eventually under a paralytic stroke that left him bedridden. It was Walt who took the invalid for a visit to the family homestead on Long Island. When Mr. Whitman died, a week after Leaves of Grass came out, his widow commented on the length of time he had been ill, and the “many bad spells” he had suffered.

One might have expected the prolonged sickness and the death to stir feelings of guilt in a son who took over the father’s position in the family. But Kaplan quotes another anticipatory passage from the preface to Leaves of Grass. Speaking of his countrymen’s attitude toward history, the poet says that…

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