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 America does not repel the past but accepts the rightful place of successor—“perceives that the corpse is slowly borne from the eating and sleeping rooms of the house…that its action has descended to the stalwart and well-shaped heir who approaches.”

Whitman says so much in the very first sentence of the preface; and one is tempted to speculate that the poetical son gained creative energy from the decline of the parent. Selfhood and its coming into being are the characteristic subjects of Whitman’s best poems. A reaching for identity is the process that underlies his work. He strove to form his personality in opposition to that of Mr. Whitman; for Walt devoted himself to speech as his father had done to silence; he liked to appear genial as his father was irritable; he celebrated his own health while his father’s was fading. Mr. Whitman’s shrinkage drove his son (I think) to define himself more positively, and not merely in contrast to a rejected model. The father’s absence left room for the poet to expand imaginatively and re-create the world.

Yet the world of men stirred ambiguous responses in the younger poet. American politics, American civilization, human nature, his own nature, less often pleased than troubled him. Close at home there was his brother Andrew, consumptive and alcoholic, chained to a slatternly wife who walked the streets. (Andrew died miserably a year before Jesse was put away.) There was his brother Eddy, youngest in the family, feeble-minded from birth, with a crippled arm and leg. Although Eddy was sixteen years younger than the poet, they often shared the same bed.

The family had shallow roots. During Whitman’s early years they moved constantly from house to house on Long Island or in Brooklyn, while the mother bore child after child. It seems clear that the stable term in young Walt’s development was Mrs. Whitman’s love. Only through her was he able to connect himself with his siblings; and among these, the two girls whose birth followed his own were inevitably rivals who kept the infant poet from absorbing an eager mother’s attention.


He had himself displaced the one elder son. The other children, including the girls, he treated as domestic responsibilities, objects of a surrogate maternal impulse; for he helped Mrs. Whitman look after them. The poet’s much younger brother George said it seemed “as if he had us in charge,” and added that “now and then his guardianship seemed excessive.”

When he was a young man, Whitman often took short-term jobs as a schoolmaster. The evidence is that he was easygoing and not a severe disciplinarian. Although he kept order, he disapproved of corporal punishment and did not encourage learning by rote. He would play games with the children and gave special attention to the younger ones.

In the columns Whitman wrote for the Long Island Star (1845-1846), he liked to give parental advice to youthful readers. Here, moral improvement obsessed him. So far from sounding manly and permissive, he habitually condemned vulgarity and coarseness: “Swear not! Smoke not! and rough-and-tumble not!” If King John was one of Whitman’s two favorite plays by Shakespeare, the reason was probably Mrs. Kean’s harrowing rendition of maternal woe.

John Burroughs, who knew Whitman intimately, compared his look and eyes with those of “the mother of many children.” Whitman celebrated maternity and called his mother “the most perfect and magnetic character, the rarest combination of practical, moral and spiritual, and the least selfish, of all and any I have ever known.” Her letters do not bear out this description. Twice when he made a will, Whitman left his property to his mother in trust for the care of Eddy, the most dependent of his surviving brothers and sisters. Such a testament seems to me an odd blurring of filial and maternal characters, with Whitman trying at the same time to serve his mother and to push her off-stage.

Certainly the family was not the sort on which one could comfortably establish one’s identity—there was so much more to reject than to accept. For an imaginative boy drawn to music, literature, and self-contemplation, the community of the nation seemed no better disposed. Whitman was ten years old when Jackson became president; and the two decades that followed were periods of national obsession with growth, productive industry, and material wealth. Whitman recorded his disgust in the preface to Leaves of Grass, where he denounced the accumulation of riches as “the great fraud upon modern civilization.”

In verse and prose over the next ten or dozen years he reiterated his condemnation of American politics and culture:

Smother’d in thievery, impotence, shamelessness, mountain-high;
Brazen effrontery, scheming, roll- ing like ocean’s waves around and upon you, O my days! my lands!

The virulence of his attack on the presidential campaigns of 1856 was unrelenting. Every “trustee of the people” said Whitman, “is a traitor, looking only to his own gain, and to boost up his party.” Public office was a mark of criminal character: “The berths, the Presidency included, are bought, sold, electioneered for, prostituted, and filled with prostitutes.”

In an essay on democracy (1867) he broadened the attack. All the branches of American government were, he said, “saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, maladministration.” American civilization was “a sort of dry and flat Sahara…crowded with petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms, playing meaningless antics.” The American character, he said, was quintessentially hypocritical:

Confess that everywhere, in shop, street, church, theatre, barroom, official chair, are pervading flippancy and vulgarity, low cunning, infidelity—everywhere the youth puny, impudent, foppish, prematurely ripe—everywhere an abnormal libidinousness…shallow notions of beauty, with a range of manners or rather lack of manners…probably the meanest to be seen in the world.

Yet American character was only an instance of the general failure of humanity:

The devilish and the dark, the dy- ing and diseas’d,
The countless (nineteen-twentieths) low and evil, crude and savage,
The crazed, prisoners in jail, the horrible, rank, malignant,
Venom and filth, serpents, the ravenous sharks, liars, the dis- solute;
(What is the part the wicked and the loathesome bear within earth’s orbic scheme?)

From the general condemnation he did not exclude himself:

I own that I have been sly, thievish, mean, a prevaricator, greedy, derelict,
And I own that I remain so yet. What foul thought but I think it—or have in me the stuff out of which it is thought?
What in darkness in bed at night, alone or with a companion?

* * *

Inside these breast-bones I lie smutch’d and choked,
Beneath this face that appears so impassive hell’s tides continually run,
Lusts and wickedness are acceptable to me,
I walk with delinquents with pas- sionate love….

Such reflections are not anomalies but rise from a poem as central to Whitman’s accomplishment as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:


I too knitted the old knot of con- trariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shal- low, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me….

A sign of Whitman’s displeasure with the culture and people of his own age is the way he turned to youth and the future for his ideals to be realized. In a letter of 1852 he urged a man about to become a presidential candidate to “look to the young men.” Speaking of New York, he says there are “tens of thousands of young men” who yearn for political reform. “In all these, under and behind the bosh of the regular politicians, there burns, almost with fierceness, the divine fire which more or less, during all the ages, has only waited a chance to leap forth and confound the calculations of tyrants, hunkers, and all their tribe.”

In the essay on democracy he declares that America counts for her justification “almost entirely on the future.” And so (much later) he described his “Song of the Redwood-Tree” as celebrating the Pacific half of the country, which he called “the future better half.” So also among social classes, Whitman did not interest himself in those who could not use his guidance: members of the established order, the higher professions, families deeply based in old wealth.

Instead, he strove to identify himself with young, semiliterate workingmen, the class to which he was sexually drawn and which he exalted in poetry as in love. Through these “offspring of ignorant and poor—boys apprenticed to trades” he could—I think—narcissistically cherish the boy who lived on in the poet. With them he could play the role of attentive mother; and to them he wished to entrust the government of his country.

If Whitman’s constant invocation of unknown, future readers suggests his disenchantment with those at hand, so also his constant shifts from one casual boyfriend to another suggests his disappointment with each. The poet regularly attributed his own feelings and character to strangers (including posterity). Sometimes he thought they were staring suggestively at him; they wanted his companionship. He created an imaginary milieu of this sort, a community for himself, to replace the alien, hostile body of his contemporaries, the nation to which languor and poetry were offensive.

Close up—I suspect—the boys who accepted him showed themselves finally to want the qualities he sought. Their lack of definition was genuine, their lack of commitment, of fixed place. But they were not after all Whitmans in embryo and had little sympathy with his aesthetic tastes.

He pursued those who were teasingly accessible but equivocal. Motion was important. Young men who worked on streetcars, railways, ferries, whose very work suggested undefined potentiality, lured him particularly. He loved movement without destination, action without commitment, journeys that were infinitely renewable and returned him to his starting point. So also he established no proper residence but lived in illfurnished, obscure rooms for transients, leaving himself free to move along, keeping all options open.

During the Civil War, when he busied himself as a hospital visitor and volunteer nurse, he could feel deeply satisfied with the wounded soldiers. Passive in their invalidism, the boys took his kisses with his gifts. Again and again they could not disappoint him because they died, leaving the ideal relationship unspoiled. If they recovered, they went home or back to camp; and Whitman could enjoy fantasies of renewing the intimacy.

The tendencies that directed Whitman’s social doctrines and sexual habits also appear in his poetry. Here, self-definition is the pervasive theme. The poet could not happily blend his own nature with that of his family or nation. Yet he wished to be a national poet with praiseworthy antecedents.

An attractive solution was to evade the problem by embodying pure potentiality himself, by representing an amorphousness that suited the usual description of his country. In the land of boundless possibility, the poet who rejected definition could speak for all. When Whitman assumed his public, heroic posture, this was the character he promoted.

Yet his best poems do evoke distinct personalities, and one of them is the liberator of natural enjoyment. I think we may connect this with the deep separation, in Whitman’s development, between morality and imagination. Authoritarian didacticism pervaded the early writings of Whitman—his journalism, poems, and stories—until he conceived Leaves of Grass. I suspect that moral principle, self-discipline, and materialistic ambition all were tied, for Whitman (as for most boys), to the figure of his father; and that self-indulgence, pleasure, and the aesthetic impulse were tendencies blessed by the mother. The physical decline of Mr. Whitman may have driven the poet to establish a more independent personality. If so, I think one way he met the challenge was by profiting from a split he felt in his consciousness.

“I am always conscious of myself as two,” Whitman said, “—as my soul and I.” The soul would normally be the seat of morality; the “I” would then be the body, vessel of sensuous pleasure. It is clear from Whitman’s poems that yet another person was involved, a permissive observer before whom the poet engaged in his free acts.

To escape from self-condemnation, Whitman could find the true self in the body and declare from his own experience that the dangers of alleged misconduct were illusory. In this comic phase he could substitute physical well-being for moral integrity and defy the communal, fatherly shibboleths of industry, virtue, and duty. The true poet, he said, had “the soundest organic health.”

So we find Whitman, in poem after poem, cherishing the body and its voluptuous pleasures as if they would carry him to salvation. “I…receiv’d identity by my body,” he said. In private life he was ostentatiously indifferent to the walls and furniture around him; but he cared for his body as if it were an infant nourished, bathed, and rubbed down by a proud mother.

Here is the liberated poet who bounds through Song of Myself. He is a protagonist in whom the artificial conscience has given up the effort to control the flesh. Instead, it now yields authority to creative genius, which operates by opening a route from the depths of undifferentiated sensation to the forms of art. Hence the climactic, central section 24 of Song of Myself, exalting the hidden parts and secret sensations of the body.

In this phase the poet escapes from immediate, routine reality, abandons the society of conventional adults, and withdraws to a hidden life in a natural setting along with like-minded comrades. Here he does not feel isolated, for the encounters with landscape become narcissistic deeds of sex-tinged voyeurism. The looseness of Whitman’s syntax allows the episodes to seem a boy’s sexplay with a boy, or childish self-exposure to the caresses of nature herself. Amazingly, Whitman combines innocence with sexual titillation:

I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-threads, crotch and vine….

Nature is both observer and participant, blessing the occasion. The poet cherishing his own body is parent and infant at once; and in this spirit he offers to liberate the reader:

Long enough have you dream’d contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes….

This comic dismissal of danger, and free indulgence in sensual gratification, is magnificent. Whitman’s fiat reverses the direction of conventional American poetry in his generation. But he cannot always sustain the mood; and when it goes, beaten down by reality, he must confront the pathos of dependence. Without a lover, the poet sees his bold fantasy fade and loses his confident buoyancy. Comradeship assuages his guilt, frees the will to act on the body’s sensual momentum. Rejected by those to whom he has offered love, the poet drops his insouciance:

Who pensive away from the one he lov’d often lay sleepless and dissatisfied at night,
Who knew too well the sick, sick dread lest the one he lov’d might secretly be indifferent to him,
Whose happiest days were far away through fields, in woods, on hills,
he and another wandering hand in hand, they twain apart from other men….

Without a lover the achieved self comes apart, and pathos takes charge.

Both these phases, the comic and the pathetic, are means of giving shape to an undeveloped personality. They are private resolutions of private conflicts. But the other way also existed, the publicly heroic; and this was, ignoring the inner selves, to identify the poet with his nation. By assuming the role, Whitman really evaded the problem of selfhood and clung to unfocused potentiality. If we consider the reservations the poet had concerning the nation, and his tendency to replace the present by the future, we can understand why self-definition was no obvious feature of Whitman as American bard.

To veil his reservations, he merely associated his own voice with all the voices of the people. Instead of being a person who contemplates the world, the poet becomes the belvedere from which the world is seen by others. To the extent that this heroic poet has shape, it is in terms of things that impose themselves on him.

Hence Whitman’s catalogues. If the poet is to have no character distinct from that of his world and people, he cannot describe himself with a sharp outline. The infinitude of the universe is evoked by the length and randomness of the catalogues, and the poet dissolves into a list of sympathies:

O race of the future! O women!
O fathers! O you men of passion and the storm!
O native power only! O beauty!
O yourself! O God! O divine average!

In his theories of poetry as in his achievements of selfhood, Whitman made his first principle the acceptance of carnal indulgence. Sexual passion was the best food of the sympathetic imagination. “Doubtless I could not have perceived the universe, or written one of my poems, if I had not freely given myself to comrades, to love.” Sometimes he describes his book as if it were either a phallus or his own phallicized body, offered to the reader’s hand.

But without a lover he has only a weak feeling of selfhood; and without an identity of his own, he has no position from which to make the impressions of his senses coherent and reliable. A powerful poem, “Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances,” makes the process clear.

Yet if the insecure self finds the external world unreal and menacing, the secure self welcomes and encompasses it. Through the imagination the poet not only tames but sanctifies the things he can conceive. Whitman yearned to give his imprimatur to the book of creation.

A shining instance of his attitude is the note he made in 1852 on a sentence by an unknown literary critic. The essayist had said, “The mountains, rivers, forests, and the elements that gird them about, would be only blank conditions of matter, if the mind did not fling its own divinity around them.” Whitman commented, “This I think is one of the most indicative sentences I ever read.”

In Song of Myself he wrote, “Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from.” Again and again his catalogues are sacraments of praise. By naming and consecrating, the poet transformed the workaday world into an imaginative experience.

The enormous variety of items in an eruption like section 33 of Song of Myself reveals the poet’s pride, surprise, and joy in the scope of his imagination. The point of the passage is not the substance of the articles enumerated but the sudden leaps and transitions from one to another; it is the fact that he can conceive and find words for such diverse material.

Whitman’s best poems spring from a rejection of the usual schemes of conscious art. It is a mistake to measure rhythms or to trace patterns of sound in his lines. Whitman deliberately held back from the forms that Tennyson and Longfellow relied on.

There is a level of intuitive expression, just above the dark chaos from which all creation starts. At this level Whitman found he could trust his genius. In his early career as journalist, storyteller, and versifier, before he produced Leaves of Grass, Whitman discovered how weakly he wrote when he followed conventional models.

Yet the intuitive style that Whitman discovered does not lend itself to large structures. It calls for lyric forms and revelations of the self shifting its moods while the poet watches. This method of composition might seem to simplify the character of the speaker in a poem. But it does not. The suffering self, the triumphant self, and the observing self hold the center by turns as the reader is invited to share their experience.

One of the least fortunate pieces of advice that Whitman ever received came from his friend Hector Tyndale, who told the poet to strive for “massiveness, breadth, large, sweeping effects, without regard to detail.” Tyndale used a cathedral—York Minister—to suggest the impression he had in mind.

This sort of counsel only aggravated Whitman’s epic yearnings. It encouraged him to be vague and repetitious, to give many examples where a handful would suffice, to move back and forth among themes and images without deepening them, to anticipate conclusions ponderously and to declare them pretentiously.

Poems like Song of Myself and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” can easily be treated as collections of lyrics on related themes, like the Calamus sequence. Some of these lyrics we may wish to put aside while we linger over others. By giving too much attention to “Passage to India” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” critics leave too little for short masterpieces like “Patroling Barnegat.” Here the poet evokes the depths of his own creative power from the features of the storming ocean, and he suggests the emergence of poetic images from the turmoil of inchoate, dark feelings:

Wild, wild the storm, and the sea high running,
Steady the roar of the gale, with in cessant undertone muttering,
Shouts of demoniac laughter fitful ly piercing and pealing,
Waves, air, midnight, their savagest trinity lashing….
Steadily, slowly, through hoarse roar never remitting,
Along the midnight edge by those milk-white combs careering
A group of dim, weird forms, struggling, the night confronting,
That savage trinity warily watching.

In his compact and excellently written biography, Kaplan touches on the topics I have been handling. But he does not examine them closely. The triumph of the book is its cunning, dramatic design. Instead of beginning with the poet’s birth and proceeding to his death, it opens with the start of the final era in Whitman’s life, his acquisition of the house in which he spent eight disease-ridden years and in which he died. This period is minutely documented, and Kaplan can give us a sharply detailed impression of the old man’s character. Then he returns us to Whitman’s origins and goes on to the time of the opening pages.

The arrangement is not only ingenious but more instructive than the normal plan would be. We have incalculably more information about Whitman’s closing years than about his childhood. Kaplan can supply us with vivid and reliable anecdotes of the aging poet’s intimate life. When we then review his beginnings, we are so well orientated that the paucity of details hardly troubles us.

Even more important is the way Kaplan’s approach reveals Whitman’s obsession with self-presentation. The poet put immense energy into the manufacture of his reputation—the construction of a visible personality that he believed was appropriate to a national poet. The story of his career is, to an alarming extent, the story of how Whitman created his public self. We can observe the process close up during the final period when several admirers boswellized him; and this knowledge alerts us to the many aspects of the process that are less obvious during Whitman’s maturity and middle age.

Kaplan has also gone through the scholarship on his subject. His mastery of a century of research appears in the many corrections and fresh details he has been able to add to the much longer biography published by Gay Wilson Allen in 1955, The Solitary Singer.

And yet, for all its virtues, Kaplan’s biography does not much alter the view of Whitman presented by Allen. The new book constantly illustrates the homosexual character of the poet. We get perhaps more information than we need about Whitman’s attachments to miscellaneous young men. But the nature of his sexuality was made clear both by Allen and by Roger Asselineau (among others) decades ago. It is probably a step backward for Kaplan to intimate that Whitman may have visited prostitutes when he was in his early twenties, and for him to describe Whitman’s attitude toward boys as fatherly.

On the poetry Kaplan does not try to be adventurous. He connects the life with the works chiefly by suggesting that passages in the poems allude to experiences of the poet. Like Allen, he shows how consistently Whitman refused to weaken his poems in order to accommodate conventional moralists or uneasy publishers. He demonstrates the poet’s admirable integrity in retaining provocative sexual material against strong opposition. But he seldom offers new judgments or interpretations of the poems.

The price of Kaplan’s brevity is his omission of much important information. So the fascinating account of Lincoln’s reading of Leaves of Grass does not appear here. Neither does the masterly analysis of Whitman’s character by his disciple Edward Carpenter—an analysis more penetrating than anything to be found in Kaplan’s study. I am afraid that Allen remains indispensable.

This Issue

April 2, 1981