I've spent the past two months or so reading Walt Whitman: A Life, Justin Kaplan's biography of Walt Whitman. Whitman is one of my favorite poets and one of three American poets from whom I trace the main subject matter of my work (Allen Ginsberg and Sharon Olds are the other two). Whitman has appeared in a number of my poems and I am -- and always will be -- jealous of the rhythms he developed. So I decided to read a biography of him and Kaplan's looked quite good.
And it is. Kaplan relies heavily on letters between Whitman and his friends and on letters others wrote about Whitman. His research is extensive and thorough. And while he often refers to Whitman's poems, he doesn't spend too much time trying to connect Whitman's life with the work he wrote. Kaplan also does not indulge himself in long passages of psychoanalysis of Whitman, about which I was happy.
Kaplan's biography focuses mainly on Whitman's family and the circle of friends Whitman kept close (and whom he, at times, pushed away). He also focuses on Whitman as a worker. Much of the book revolves around Whitman's financial struggles and on his attempts to hold a steady job working for printers and newspapers. By choosing these foci, Kaplan is able to investigate Whitman's personal life and his publishing life (since, as we all know, Whitman was primarily a self-publisher, though Kaplan's biography does give great detail about the places where Whitman published individual poems and the few publishers who gave Leaves of Grass a selling shot). His descriptions of Whitman, his family, and his friends are vivid and engaging.
There were some disappointments with the biography, though. Kaplan has chosen the common technique of beginning the biography with Whitman's death and then moving into his birth. While this made for a wonderful opening, it ultimately meant the biography ended anti-climatically. I also felt let down during the chapters on Whitman 's nursing experience during the Civil War. I expected a lot more information but Kaplan, for one reason or another, seemed to rush through this part of Whitman's life.
Still, the biography was informative and entertaining. Knowing about Whitman's relationship with his mother is illuminating as is knowing about his interest in Opera and phrenology. And the book has some fun facts about Whitman that are worth telling at dinner parties (did you know, for example, that Whitman's brain was sent to the American Anthropometric Society to be measured, weighed and studied? Did you know, further, that the brain was accidentally destroyed when a lab worker dropped it on the floor? And, did you know that Whitman wrote and anonymously published reviews about his own work?). It was also a lot of fun to watch Whitman evolve the "official line" about who he was, where he came from and why he wrote as he did (ever the control freak, Whitman insisted people see him as he wanted to be seen).
And in the end, it is a biography of Whitman. Even if Kaplan's writing had been terrible, which it isn't, it is full of wonderful snippets of Whitman's poems, like the most beautiful eulogy ever written in English, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd":
"When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring."
Does it get any better than that?
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