Whitman’s spell

by Thomas M. Disch

Worshipping_WaltA review of Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples by Michael Robertson

The best biographies of Whitman reveal what one expects, the self-appointed Bard living in a bubble of self-proclaimed glory. That Whitman is best encountered in his own poems. If he had had any secrets a biographer would like to ferret out, he did such a good tidying up that even a century later the interesting questions about his life are still unanswered. Was he gay, in the sense we use that word today? We can’t say. How much of his grandiosity was an act, and intended to be understood as such? That’s to say, was he a charlatan? He was too canny to be nailed down there either. Sometimes he seems a Holy Fool after the fashion of Parsifal or Prince Mishkin, but he was also a shewd and resourceful self-promoter, who, when Emerson sent him a letter that praised his poems in the highest terms (it concludes, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career”), immediately brought out a new edition of Leaves of Grass quoting the whole letter on the cover. Critics cried foul, for such self-promotion was not gentlemanly, but Whitman’s career caught fire directly, as it might not otherwise have done. Thereafter, though he often had to scrounge for a living, writing newspaper filler for peanuts, he was adored by those who read his poetry, in which he was free to expand on his abiding and favorite theme, namely himself. Cocooned in his career, his life was not that interesting. But the lives of those for whom Whitman became a mission and a faith have the fascination of stories heard for the first time. All the jokes are fresh and the endings full of surprises, both happy and plangent.

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