- Purchase/rental options available:
American Literature 72.1 (2000) 194-196
[Access article in PDF]
What are significant dates in the life and work of Walt Whitman? In A Whitman Chronology, Joann P. Krieg tacitly assumes that Whitman’s work was the most important event in his life, and for some purposes this is not a bad assumption. Drawing on previously published sources, Krieg disputes several now traditional matters of fact. Did Whitman ever wield a hammer as a housebuilder, as she claims, or was he more probably the business brains in a family of physically robust men? Was he the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times, as has been thought, and if not, how responsible was he for some of the writings that have been attributed to him in his capacity as editor? Krieg raises this latter issue but does not resolve it. Aiming for “balance,” eschewing original archival discoveries, and recognizing that “in Whitman’s life, few of the everyday events were so mundane that they had no bearing on his art,” Krieg seems to me most inventive in describing the [End Page 194] events of Whitman’s later life, and she freely acknowledges her debt to Horace Traubel, the young biographer-friend of the poet’s last years. As she notes, “Trials of old age and illness fill the final years of Whitman’s life [1888–92], but there is activity still.” Overall, the volume is scrupulously accurate in its claims, elegantly printed, and equipped with a user-friendly index, although I looked in vain for Fred Vaughan, the Broadway stagecoach driver who haunted Whitman in the famous 1870 notebook entry, in which he warned himself to “Depress the adhesive nature.” Desire, then, is not really part of A Whitman Chronology, which is one of the reasons I find the treatment of the pre–Civil War years well organized but not compelling. The volume becomes more vibrant with extensive selections from the correspondence of the War, and these excerpts demonstrate the resistance of this painful and passionate material to simplifying classifications. During this period, the public and private Whitmans most fully merge. Overall, then, A Whitman Chronology is most helpful in its nonintrusive interest in Whitman’s historical actions. Opening the book at random, I find the entry for 25 August 1880: “Whitman sends $20 to Louisa [his mother] for Eddie’s board.” Eddie was Whitman’s lame and retarded youngest brother. Krieg adds, “No matter where he is or what his circumstances, Whitman never fails in this responsibility.” She is absolutely right, and it is good to have this reminder that the poet who famously described himself as “one of the roughs” was also a devoted brother and son.
An equally welcome contribution to Whitman studies is the second edition of the esteemed anthology Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, which presents generations of poets “talking back” to “America’s ur-poet.” The widely reviewed first edition (1981) has fallen out of print, and, as Perlman, Folsom, and Campion explain, “Over the years, the editors have kept listening to the spirited conversation that American poets continue to have with Walt Whitman” (xviii). Old favorites remain, beginning with Emerson’s letter—“DEAR SIR—I am not blind. . . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career”—and the organization is still chronological: 1855–1905, 1905–1955, 1955–1980, 1980s, 1990s. Yet a closer look at this apparently sober chronology reveals a witty sleight of hand. Nothing particular happened in 1905. We move from George Cabot Lodge’s “To W. W.” (“Poem, 1902”) to Ezra Pound’s “A Pact” (“Poem, 1913”) and then back to Pound’s “What I feel about Walt Whitman” (conveniently labeled “Essay, 1909”).
Unpredictable subversions of strict chronology distinguish the presentation throughout, and the...