More than most poets, Walt Whitman seems to constitute a living presence. His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, has long been available in a multitude of reprintings of the final, deathbed edition of 1891; and now the earlier editions (the first of 1855 and the third of 1860) are being reprinted and widely circulated. Whitman seems to be very much around us, telling of his sweeping plans one moment, gossiping about his grand achievement the next. Rarely has so much of a poet, from youth to old age, been on view simultaneously. And rarely has a poet of the past seemed so immediately present. He means what he says: "Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?"
With Leaves of Grass popularly available in so many versions and so many editions, with Whitman the subject of casual conversations at cocktail parties, of earnest talk on camping trips, and of serious study in graduate seminars, it is time to terminate the stern deferment he imposed on himself when he said: "The proof of a poet shall be sternly deferr'd till his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorb'd it." Although some may withhold the affection, who can deny the mutual absorption?
This book about Whitman is meant to introduce the poet to those who feel the need of such a formality. As an introduction, the book has become something of both an end and a beginning. It is an end in that it has assimilated much of the mountain of material, scholarly and critical, that has accumulated about Whitman through the years. It is a beginning in that it suggests much and hints at more that only the reader can bring to completion and conclusion in his perusal of the Leaves. Although this book is indebted to much that has gone before, it is meant to be more than a synthesis. In intent at least, its voice has remained singular and its view fresh.
The objective of this book is to provide as many entrances as possible to Whitman's poetry. Each individual chapter presents a way of beginning. First, Whitman the man is set forth in a series of vignettes revealing the various roles he assumed and the . . .