Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Biographies
Author:
Loving, Jerome
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Fifteen biographies of Whitman have been published since 1883, not counting biographical studies such as John Addington Symonds's Walt Whitman: A Study (1893), Edward Carpenter's Days with Walt Whitman (1906), Basil De Selincourt's Walt Whitman: A Critical Study (1914), Newton Arvin's Whitman (1938), or Frederick Schyberg's Walt Whitman (1951). Of these, at least two are adolescent or purely romantic biographies, Cameron Rogers's The Magnificent Idler: The Story of Walt Whitman (1926) and Frances Winwar's American Giant: Walt Whitman and His Times (1941). There are also "pre-biographies" or hagiographies written by close associates of the poet. The naturalist John Burroughs's Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867) was co-written by Whitman to promote the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass; William Douglas O'Connor's The Good Gray Poet, a forty-six-page pamphlet published in 1866, was done by an inspired enthusiast and (along with Burroughs) one of the poet's closest friends.

In fact, the "first" biography was also partly written, or revised, by Whitman, Richard Maurice Bucke's Walt Whitman (1883). It differs from those by Burroughs and O'Connor mainly in that Whitman deleted as much myth as he added as a silent coauthor. Mainly, he discarded Bucke's attempt to make him more of a prophet than a poet. But he allowed to stand the notion that the poet had traveled America (including one year instead of three months in New Orleans) before emerging with his poetic vision. Today the biography, a collector's item, is valued mainly as a sourcebook because more than half of its 236 pages are devoted to testimonies by contemporaries.

The next full-fledged biography, and the first book written largely away from the influence of Whitman's disciples (sometimes referred to as "Whitmaniacs"), was Henry Bryan Binns's Life of Walt Whitman (1905). It brought together on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the 1855 Leaves of Grass most of the known facts about the poet's life and attempted to link Whitman with the emerging international stature of the United States. While Binns benefited from biographical material supplied by literary executor Horace Traubel, the British biographer resisted Traubel's attempts to control his thesis. Binns was the first biographer to embellish Whitman's 1890 letter to John Addington Symonds about having had six illegitimate children by suggesting that the poet while in New Orleans in 1848 had experienced a literary awakening as the result of "an intimate relationship with some woman of higher social rank" (51). Binns may also be the first biographer to attempt to ward off the rumors of the poet's homosexuality, suggested by Edward Carpenter (who published Symonds's letter in his 1906 Days with Walt Whitman) and exploited as Whitman's "sex pathology" in Eduard Bertz's Der Yankee-Heiland in 1905.

Perhaps unfairly, the importance of Binns's scholarship was quickly overshadowed by Bliss Perry's Walt Whitman: His Life and Work (1906), the first "unauthorized" American life of the poet. That is to describe, however, its outcome, not its process, which depended heavily upon information from Whitman associates such as Traubel and Ellen O'Connor Calder, the widow of William Douglas O'Connor. Traubel attacked the book in The Conservator, his journal devoted to the worship of Whitman, for its selective appreciation of Leaves of Grass and Perry's effort to make a "gentleman" out of the "man." Perry, who soon afterward became a professor of literature at Harvard and the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, acknowledged that, except for his "immodest" but not indecent poems, Whitman would be read universally, but Perry's tone was often condescending (e.g., when discussing the rumor about illegitimate children, he chided Whitman for parental irresponsibility). Yet it was probably because of Perry's affiliation and literary Brahmin status that his biography was influential in the eventual acceptance of Whitman as a national poet. No objective criticism had done so much for Whitman's reputation since Edmund Clarence Stedman's assessment of Whitman's poetry in Poets of America (1885), based upon his essay on Leaves of Grass in the November 1880 issue of Scribner's Magazine.

The first of three French biographies, Léon Bazalgette's Walt Whitman: L'Homme et son oeuvre, appeared in French in 1908 (with a bowdlerized English edition by Ellen Fitzgerald appearing in 1920). It was a romanticized version of Whitman's life, but Bazalgette also speculated on Whitman's sexual activities, even hinting that the poet's huge sense of diversity might have led him to indulge in same-sex activities. This material, especially Bazalgette's speculation on the New Orleans period, was omitted from Fitzgerald's "translation."

Binns and Perry held the field for scholarly biography until the publication of Emory Holloway's Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative in 1926. Even though it has no notes, its information is fully reliable, if not its speculation about the poet's sexuality, which Holloway was determined to see as primarily heterosexual, or bisexual at most. In arguing against the poet's homosexuality, Holloway elaborated on Binns's theory about the New Orleans romance and speculated that Whitman fell in love with a Creole woman. Holloway's book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927, was the most visible product of many years of groundbreaking research that appears more systematically in his edition of Uncollected Poetry and Prose (1921). There he printed the manuscript version of "Once I Pass'd Through a Populous City" in which the "woman" is a "man," but he ignored this fact in his subsequent biography. Generally, he believed that the confusion about Whitman's sexual preferences stemmed from the poet's failure to distinguish between "the sort of affection which most men have for particular women and that which they experience toward members of their own sex" (Holloway 168–169). For all its faults, Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative held the field as the most original and reliable biography until the publication of Gay Wilson Allen's The Solitary Singer in 1955.

The second French biography appeared in 1929, Jean Catel's Walt Whitman: la naissance du poète. It was the first full-length psychobiography of the poet, in which Catel discounted Whitman's public life and external activities and interpreted the first edition of Leaves of Grass as the writer's retreat into a fantasy world which compensated for all Whitman's failures both professional and personal. Whereas his French predecessor Bazalgette had hinted reluctantly that Whitman may have been bisexual, Catel had no reservations in pronouncing the poet homoerotic. Catel examines the "foreground" exhaustively to argue for its negative influence upon Leaves of Grass. He also believed that after the first edition Whitman retreated from his original candor and attempted to cover up its embarrassing truths.

The next two important biographies before Asselineau and Allen were written by a renowned man of American letters and the author of Spoon River Anthology (1915), Edgar Lee Masters, and a renowned literary editor and critic, Henry Seidel Canby. While both studies are dependable, neither Whitman (1937) nor Walt Whitman: An American (1943) is definitive or useful to more than the reader of popular nonfiction. Using the current sexual pathologist's term for homosexual, Masters described Whitman as a "Uranian," whose personal warmth led to the intimacy found in Leaves of Grass and especially the "Calamus" poems. Making no apologies about Whitman's homosexual tendencies, he thought the poet cleverly translated his sexual energy and inaugurated the movement, better realized in the twentieth century, toward acceptance of sex and psychology in American literature. Canby, on the other hand, avoided the psychological in his effort to explore Whitman's social and intellectual background. Canby found a merely symbolical America within Leaves of Grass, but he felt the poetry was the product of a real America, its strength, tenacity, and probity, which—it seemed to be implied in the first years of World War II—would always endure. While not denying the possibility that Whitman was homosexual, this literary historian (who would write the Whitman chapter in The Literary History of the United States, 1948) refused to theorize where there was no empirical evidence. Canby's biography was the most up to date for its time in terms of scholarship, even though he did not intend a scholarly biography.

The current era of Whitman biography began with studies by Roger Asselineau and Gay Wilson Allen. In the French tradition of treating the life and the work in tandem, Asselineau wrote L'Évolution de Walt Whitman in 1954 (translated into English in two volumes in 1960 and 1962 by Asselineau and Richard P. Adams as The Evolution of Walt Whitman). Picking up where Catel left off in his book, the biography begins after the first edition of Leaves of Grass, but the narrative contains numerous flashbacks that utilize the most up-to-date scholarly information for the 1950s. For Asselineau there is no doubt that Whitman was a homosexual, but it was literature (more than, if not in lieu of, actual homosexual liaisons) that allowed the expression of his homoerotic passion. In his focus on Leaves of Grass, Asselineau sees the successive editions in relation to important episodes and crises in the poet's life. The biography is most successful in its imaginative apprehension of Whitman's psychological situations as he turns life into literature.

More documentary and perhaps less speculative is Allen's life of Whitman, which sifts through all the information available at the time and treats the life from start to finish. It has stood for forty years as the principal compendium of facts about the poet's life and work. Allen gathered this vast and scattered information before most modern editions of the poet's papers; hence, today the citations are often to superseded sources. Writing near the end of the New Critical period, in which an author's work was considered without reference to the times and culture, Allen nevertheless saw his "Solitary Singer" as much involved and influenced by his milieu. It is the most complete biographical picture available today.

Joseph Jay Rubin's The Historic Whitman is a biography of Whitman in the "foreground" of Leaves of Grass as revealed by an analysis of newspaper articles and historical documents. It presents information about Whitman not found in Allen, but its organization is not the most effective way of highlighting such information. Often, it makes claims that are historically incorrect with regard to Whitman, yet overall it reimmerses Whitman in the political age that fostered his revolutionary poetry. Justin Kaplan's Walt Whitman: A Life (1980) takes advantage of Rubin's discoveries in one of the most readable biographical narratives of Whitman yet written. Otherwise, Kaplan relies for the most part on information found in Allen and elsewhere between 1955 and 1980, but this information is recast to place the poet within the myths and expectations of late twentieth-century culture and popular culture.

Paul Zweig's Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet (1984) is a poet's view of the life of Whitman from the late 1840s, when he lived in New Orleans, to the beginning of the Civil War. It is a stimulating if not altogether reliable portrait of the poet during his most important years. In Zweig's lively and enthusiastic prose there is an element of hero worship that ties this biography to hagiographies written by O'Connor, Burroughs, and Bucke. It adds no original information about the poet's life, but the colorful portrait of Whitman the poet is freshly conceived. It has been said that a biography is a novel that dare not speak its name, but British novelist Philip Callow might well have added "A Novel" after the main title of his From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman (1992). Poorly documented and rife with minor biographical errors, Callow's biography, like Zweig's but without his stronger command of the material, celebrates Whitman instead of analyzing him or chronicling his life with any hint of originality. As a foreign biography, it resembles Bazalgette's in its portrait of the poet as vigorously in love with life freed from convention and pregnant with possibility. The most recent biography is David S. Reynolds's Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (1995). True to its subtitle, this life is written in the fashion of the New Historicism, where it is thought that the culture is frequently more important than the author in producing original works. Reynolds is a master at this kind of scholarship, and his book brings out all the background to Whitman's "long foreground." The biography covers the entire life but is concerned mainly with the author's life up to the Civil War.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. 1954. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1960–1962.

Bazalgette, Léon. Walt Whitman: L'Homme et son oeuvre. Paris: Societe du Mercure de France, 1908.

Binns, Henry Bryan. A Life of Walt Whitman. London: Methuen, 1905.

Bucke, Richard Maurice. Walt Whitman. Philadelphia: McKay, 1883.

Callow, Philip. From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992.

Canby, Henry Seidel. Walt Whitman: An American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.

Catel, Jean. Walt Whitman: la naissance du poète. Paris: Rieder, 1929.

Holloway, Emory. Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative. New York: Knopf, 1926.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Masters, Edgar Lee. Whitman. New York: Scribner's, 1937.

Perry, Bliss. Walt Whitman: His Life and Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Rubin, Joseph Jay. The Historic Whitman. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1973.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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