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This review is taken from PN Review 28, Volume 9 Number 2, November - December 1982.

GREAT FATHER, LOST SON Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (Simon & Schuster, N.Y.)
Betsy Erkkila, Walt Whitman among the French: Poet and Myth (Princeton) £11.60
Jay Parini, Theodore Roethke: An American Romantic (University of Massachusetts Press) $13.50

In England, Whitman is still a problem. How do we come to terms with him? Justin Kaplan's biography, the story of an American by an American, will not answer this question, but will bring it urgently to our attention.

Kaplan's first merit is his strong sense of Whitman's American identity. He sets him in the context of his times, taking him from an America over which the spirit of 1776 still presided, through the rendings of the Civil War, to an era of corruption under Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant. Kaplan makes us realize that we cannot understand Whitman without understanding nineteenth-century America. If we judge his poetry without that understanding, we are like those early travellers who judged primitive tribes in ignorance of their culture: the true barbarism is ours.

Against the great backdrop of American history, the local scenes of Whitman's life are vividly, effortlessly evoked: the fast-growing but still half-rural Brooklyn of Whitman's boyhood; the bustling Manhattan where he worked as a young newspaperman; the Civil War hospitals, racked by pain and death, in which he laboured to excess and found his deepest communion with men. In rendering such scenes, Kaplan strikes a good balance between fidelity to facts and imaginative evocation.

Like all good biographers, Kaplan sees his subject steadily and whole. The prophet of spontaneity emerges as a man concerned as a modern politician with his public image; the large-minded democrat as an opponent, first of abolishing slavery, ...


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