Selected Criticism

"When I Read the Book" (1867)
Huang, Guiyou
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem exists in two versions. The earlier version was published in 1867 and contains five lines; in 1871, Whitman moved it from the "Leaves of Grass" cluster to the new cluster "Inscriptions," replacing the fifth line with three additional lines.

Acknowledging the later version as a better inscription, Harold Blodgett and Sculley Bradley nevertheless assert that the earlier version expresses "genuine power and insight" in the last line (613). Gay Wilson Allen and Roger Asselineau, on the other hand, both suggest that the new poems in the 1867 edition, including "When I Read the Book," are rather trivial and of minor significance.

Other critics have found more significance in the poem. V.K. Chari observes that the real life of a person is transcendental and eludes the grasp of the empirical mind; as Whitman himself admitted in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," he had not the least idea of who or what he was. Thus, the poem may be viewed as an expression of his constant quest for the self. David Cavitch finds that to Whitman a person's life is not a biography which offers old-fashioned or even deceptive information; the poet is instead objecting to "the distortions of conventional biographies" (Cavitch 4). James E. Miller, Jr., views it as Whitman's warning to scholars who would probe deep into his personal life that obviously defies recording.

The speaker is talking to his soul, which, Whitman asserts in "Song of Myself," is as great as "the other I am," the body (section 5). When a biography is written, only a small portion of the person's life is revealed; the truer and larger character is unseen, unexpressed, and defiant of investigation and probing. Whitman seems to suggest that no biography is accurate or truthful to the person whose life is little known even to the self.


Allen, Gay Wilson. Walt Whitman Handbook. 1946. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Personality. Trans. Richard P. Adams and Roger Asselineau. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1960.

Blodgett, Harold W., and Sculley Bradley, eds. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. New York: New York UP, 1965.

Cavitch, David. My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman. Boston: Beacon, 1985.

Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. New York: Twayne, 1962.


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