Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself

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9780520214279: Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself

Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself is the first full-length critical biography of Walt Whitman in more than forty years. Jerome Loving makes use of recently unearthed archival evidence and newspaper writings to present the most accurate, complete, and complex portrait of the poet to date. This authoritative biography affords fresh, often revelatory insights into many aspects of the poet's life, including his attitudes toward the emerging urban life of America, his relationships with his family members, his developing notions of male-male love, his attitudes toward the vexed issue of race, and his insistence on the union of American states. Virtually every chapter presents material that was previously unknown or unavailable, and Whitman emerges as never before, in all his complexity as a corporal, cerebral, and spiritual being. Loving gives us a new Poet of Democracy, one for the twenty-first century.

Loving brings to life the elusive early Whitman, detailing his unhappy teaching career, typesetting jobs, quarrels with editors, and relationships with family and friends. He takes us through the Civil War—with Whitman's moving descriptions of the wounded and dying he nursed, the battlegrounds and camps he visited—demonstrating why the war became one of the defining events of Whitman's life and poetry. Loving's account of Whitman's relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most complete and fascinating available. He also draws insights from new material about Whitman's life as a civil servant, his Lincoln lectures, and his abiding campaign to gain acceptance for what was regarded by many as a "dirty book." He examines each edition of Leaves of Grass in connection with the life and times that produced it, demonstrating how Whitman's poetry serves as a priceless historical document—marking such events as Grant's death, the completion of the Washington monument, Custer's defeat, and the Johnstown flood—at the same time that it reshapes the canon of American literature.

The most important gap in the Whitman record is his journalism, which has never been completely collected and edited. Previous biographers have depended on a very incomplete and inaccurate collection. Loving has found long-forgotten runs of the newspapers Whitman worked on and has gathered the largest collection of his journalism to date. He uses these pieces to significantly enhance our understanding of where Whitman stood in the political and ideological spectra of his era.

Loving tracks down the sources of anecdotes about Whitman, how they got passed from one biographer to another, were embellished and re-contextualized. The result is a biography in which nothing is claimed without a basis in the factual record. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself will be an invaluable tool for generations to come, an essential resource in understanding Leaves of Grass and its poet—who defied literary decorum, withstood condemnation, and stubbornly pursued his own way.

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Review:

Despite the general resistance to his work on the part of his literary contemporaries, and their disapproval of his homoeroticism, Walt Whitman experienced incredible success during his lifetime. After the 1855 publication of Leaves of Grass (the first of nine editions of the book he personally saw through the press), he fast became America's national poet. He was asked to write poems commemorating the victims of natural disasters and was offered a free burial plot in exchange for a poem lauding the cemetery's beauty. Millionaire Andrew Carnegie was one of his vigorous supporters.

Whitman's success is most likely the result of the approachability--he wrote often of the immediate: the sounds of the city, men bathing in the river, the mystery around the next corner--and sheer beauty of his poems. He was also an expert self-promoter. Long before the advent of the blurb in contemporary publishing, Whitman would include reviews of his books in the appendices. Many of these were actually written by him and a few were even critical, in order to maintain a sense of objectivity. He carefully controlled his public image, but assiduously guarded his private realm, which is why, more than a century after the poet's death, debate still rages about his sexual proclivity--there simply isn't enough proof one way or another. The Song of Himself, the first comprehensive biography of Whitman in 20 years, is rich with details of its subject's life and times and cogent analysis of his poetry--a book that is sure to increase readers' understanding of the great poet and reinvigorate their interest in his work. --Anna Baldwin

From the Inside Flap:

"The mystical origins and spiritual force of Leaves of Grass—a work that both embodies and defines the American soul—will always remain a mystery. But there's also the puzzle of Whitman himself. Jerome Loving's scrupulously researched and judicious biography fits so many new pieces into that puzzle—about the man who became a poet, and the poet who became a legend."—J. D. McClatchy, poet and critic

"Hats off to Jerome Loving, who combines lucidity and learning in equal measure! Walt Whitman is a testament of fidelity to the embattled cause of accurate, untendentious historical scholarship. Here is Whitman just as he was, for better or worse, in his own time rather than our own. The book is riveting from start to finish."—Frederick Crews, University of California, Berkeley

"A grand, comprehensive, rich, and satisfying biography of America's greatest poet. Loving is one of the pre-eminent Whitman scholars of our time, and with this book he has created the capstone biography of Whitman. By that I mean that it builds on all its predecessors, synthesizes a mountain of Whitman scholarship and criticism, and then goes on beyond it all to create a vast, detailed, panoramic view of Whitman's life, the most complete, by far, of all the Whitman biographies."—Robert D. Richardson, author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire

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Jerome Loving
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Loving, Jerome
Published by University of California Press (1999)
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