The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

I. Whitman.

§ 1. Difficulties in Whitman’s Biography.

WALT WHITMAN once declared his Leaves of Grass to be “the most personal of all books ever published.”
This is no book;
Who touches this, touches a man.
Thus he fits Hazlitt’s description of Montaigne as one who dared to set down as a writer what he thought as a man. This being the claim of the volume, it becomes highly important to determine the character of the author. Evidently Whitman was not, in any conventional sense of the term, that “average man” whose praises he sang, else even his novel form of expression would hardly have sufficed to keep his poetry so long a time from the masses. He was a man and a writer who could be hated as an impostor or adored as a Messiah but who was in any case a challenge to discussion. Much light is thrown on his character, of course, by the autobiographical parts of his writings; but here it is frequently difficult to determine which incidents belong to his outward and which to his inner, or imaginative, life, so deftly do his vicarious mystical experiences blend with the sublimations of his own deeds, and so carefully have many of those deeds been mystified or concealed. 1  Much remains for painstaking research to accomplish. This chapter attempts to set forth only the facts of his biography which are well established or establishable.

Note 1. For instance, a poem, Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City, taken by many biographers to support the theory that Whitman had a romance with a lady of high social standing during his 1848 visit to New Orleans, proves to have been addressed, in the original draft of the poem, not to a lady but to a “rude and ignorant man”; on the other hand, the poem Out of the Rolling Ocean, the Crowd, to which no biographer has attached particular personal significance, can be shown to have been addressed, about 1864, to a married woman with whom Whitman was in love and with whom he maintained for a time a correspondence notwithstanding the jealous objections of her husband. [ back ]