Walt Whitman, Universal Poet

The first of the many editions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) was an idiosyncratic production in several ways, not least in that it barely mentioned its author’s name at all. A legal notice on the back of the title page recorded in a minute font that “WALTER WHITMAN” was the person who had entered the title in the Clerk’s office of the District Court for the Southern District of New York; but the title page itself bore no name. Instead, facing it was a small engraving of what a reader would presumably, and rightly, have assumed to be the author: a bearded man with a large hat set at a jaunty angle, an open-necked shirt offering a glimpse of his vest, and labourer’s trousers. This was a studied piece of self-invention for a man who was actually a printer, a jobbing journalist, and the author of an ignorable novel. Late in life he was asked why he didn’t have his name on the title page: “It would have been like putting a name on the universe”, he replied.

Mark Doty has written a warm and intelligent account of Whitman, interweaving his personal responses to the poetry with autobiographical episodes, the lives and deaths of partners and friends and pets, and even, possibly, a spooky encounter with young Walt himself, who, at an intense moment, gazes through the features of a lover “with the visionary dazzle of starlight in his eyes”. (“I saw what I saw”, Doty says, a little defensively.) Doty describes Leaves of Grass as “a kind of collaboration with totality”, and totality is a lot to take on, of course: writers more normally choose to write about something and not something else, but Whitman became Whitman when he realized that his subject was everything. “To think that the sun rose in the east … that men and women were flexible and real and alive … that every thing was real and alive”: Whitman’s ellipses aren’t marking something left out so much as indicating everything that could, in principle, be let in.

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