Mark Doty’s stunning new book, What is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life (W. W. Norton & Company), begins with thirty-five-year-old Walt Whitman walking through Brooklyn Heights on his way to friend Andrew Rome’s printing office. As Doty imagines it, Whitman is carrying the manuscript of Leaves of Grass under his arm, and “[h]is attention is fixed on the brink on which he’s poised, the condition of about-to-become—himself.” He will enter Rome’s office and begin typesetting his masterwork, a “book of presumption and daring, expansiveness and wild ambition.” None of his work up to this point—a handful of “forgettable” poems and “windy” prose—could lead anyone to suspect that with Leaves he will reinvent American poetry.
By beginning his book this way, telling the story of how the great poet dared to self-publish, Doty invites readers to see Whitman as a human being rather than an inscrutable genius. He also immediately familiarizes readers with what must be the most consequential event in Whitman’s life. Doty doesn’t write about Whitman’s childhood or experiences before the 1855 publication of Leaves; he concentrates on who Whitman was around the time and after Leaves was released into the world. Moreover, he is very selective about the biographical details he supplies. He provides just what is necessary to bring Whitman into focus as the distinctly American poet who offered fresh thinking about desire, selfhood, and the possibilities of language. Which is to say that Doty hasn’t written a conventional, cradle to grave biography of Whitman. He has written something richer and more seductive.
What is the Grass is a book of candid, ardently written meditations that illuminate Whitman’s life as an artist, the poems in Leaves, and what it means to be a desiring human body. Instead of moving chronologically through Whitman’s life, Doty explores the five “sources” of Leaves, the “currents” that give Whitman’s poems their “remarkable freshness.” The first source is a set of experiences that demanded Whitman to “approach what it was to be ‘myself’ in an entirely new light.” The second source is Whitman’s queer sexuality. The third source is a “gift of circumstance,” the fact that Whitman was a citizen of New York City. The fourth source is the energy of a new vocabulary. And the fifth source is an awareness and fascination with death. I don’t think I’m giving away too much here. The surprise in this book is not what Doty identifies as sources but rather how beautifully he rhapsodizes about these influences while distilling the poems in Leaves so that we can grasp Whitman’s essence and vision of humanity.
Whitman’s aim in his writing was “the restructuring of reality.” He wanted us “to acknowledge that the reality we already experience doesn’t conform to the traditional separation of subject and object, but to something more like the flux of being his poems portray.” Although he had only a third-grade education, he proceeded with “absolute confidence” to invent “a cosmogony, a theology” that honored the dignity and beauty of all bodies. Doty shows how Whitman’s poems—from “Song of Myself” to “Calamus” to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—embody two essential human experiences: “the joyous and burning fact of being a desiring body among other bodies, and the sense that, at its core, the self is without boundary.”
There isn’t one section of this book that surpasses another, but those who’ve mainly experienced Whitman’s work aphoristically on murals and inspirational posters may be particularly astonished by the chapters exploring Whitman’s sexuality. Doty writes, “[T]here are a troop of Whitman biographers and scholars—as well as Whitman himself!—who will tell you Whitman was not queer. They are wrong, and he was lying.” Doty observes that Whitman couldn’t keep his mind on women and that he “infuses his descriptions of men’s bodies with such palpable longing that anyone sympathetic to such desires can’t miss his intent.” Doty then points to several homoerotic passages in Leaves as he explores how Whitman “inscribes his sexuality on the frontier of modernity.” If these passages don’t convince you of Whitman’s queer sexuality, then details from Whitman’s life should do the job. At the heart of a chapter exploring same-sex love in Whitman’s poems, Doty tells us, for instance, about the poet’s friendship with a young man named Fred Vaughn. Vaughn lived with Whitman for a while in the Brooklyn house also shared by Whitman’s alcoholic mother and mentally disabled younger brother. It’s possible that Vaughn was “a new sort of muse” for Whitman.
Interwoven with the biographical writing and exegesis are Doty’s personal reflections on desire and on a lifetime of relationships with men. These memoir pieces are unsparing and often immensely moving. Doty reveals that when he was twenty-one years old, he married a much older woman and then proceeded to have an affair with a man. This story (“a painful comedy”) leads into a discussion of “the unsayable” in Whitman’s poetry. In another crucial chapter, Doty writes about his ten-year-long relationship with a younger man who may be the love of his life. “I do believe,” he writes, “that something of what is most true and radiantly alive in the world is made visible to me through him, in his beauty and kindness, and in the ferocious sexual heat of him.” This admission is part of a meditation on the light and heat Whitman’s poems have emitted for more than one hundred and sixty years.
Interestingly, Whitman never published another book. He was so invested in Leaves that he went on revising it and publishing new editions until he died in 1892. Doty highlights many of the differences among editions as he creates a complex, intimate portrait of Whitman. But his book is compulsively readable because he tracks his personal relationship with Whitman’s poems. His mind, heart, and aesthetic shimmer brightly in these pages, which both celebrate and constitute a singular work of art.