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Walt Whitman: A Biography

Walt Whitman Meltzer, Milton.  2002.  Walt WhitmanA biography.  Brookfield, CT:  Twenty-First Century Books.  ISBN:  0761322728.


This young adult biography by Milton Meltzer focuses as much on its subject's politics as his writing, for which Walt Whitman is most remembered.  Meltzer begins with Whitman's birth and takes the reader step-by-step through the course of his life.  Along the way, the author intersperses poetry written by Whitman that illustrates his feelings, motivations for his actions, and the way he lived his life.  For example, after writing about Whitman's disgust at the gap between rich and poor, Meltzer includes lines from "Song of Myself" that tell Whitman's feelings in his own words:
             "Many sweating, ploughing, thrashing, and then the chaff for payment receiving,
             A few idly owning, and they the wheat continually claiming." (Meltzer, p.67)
This technique gives the reader valuable background information which makes Whitman's words more meaningful, and also seems to turn Whitman's poems into even more of an autobiography.

Meltzer writes in a conversational style that speaks directly to the reader, such as "You can see it in LEAVES where he wrote these lines..." (Meltzer, p.12), "How do you write a poem?  Is it the inspiration of the moment?" (Meltzer, p.78), and "We know how widely he read, and his notebooks show he was responding to the power of the poets." (Meltzer, p.78)  Meltzer's tone suggests that he and the reader, together, are fleshing out Whitman's innermost thought and motivations.  Meltzer further earns credibility with young adult readers by revealing some of Whitman's faults that are shocking in today's society, such as rumors of Whitman's affair with a young boy (Meltzer, p.42) and his strong racist feelings (Meltzer, p.125).  Meltzer also explains differences between modern times and Whitman's society in terms that today's young person can understand, such as "Why would people in great numbers turn out to hear someone make a speech?  The reason is plain:  It was entertainment.  Recall that there were few other ways to be diverted from your work and your worries.  Radio, television, moves were in the distant future.  So were such sports as basketball and football that today draw vast crowds."  (Meltzer, p.75)

Black and white photos of Whitman, his family and surroundings as well as copies of some of his original manuscripts illustrate this biography.  Although sources are not directly noted in the text, the author includes a timeline of Whitman's life, a section on further reading, and an index.  His conversation with his reader continues in these access features as Meltzer writes "For those who have access to the Internet, searching for Walt Whitman with any good search engine will lead to many sites.  Please remember that all sites are sources needing to be checked, evaluated, and compared with other sources." (Meltzer, p.155)

In her review in Horn Book Magazine, Burns writes "As indicated in a short foreword, Meltzer's presentation of Whitman's life is interpretive rather than simply a portrait of the man in the many stages of his life, which, on the whole, was quite ordinary."  She goes on to say at another point in the review, "In her Walt Whitman, Catherine Reef offers a more intimate view, a glimpse into Whitman's daily life rather than an analysis of his politics; taken together, the two biographies offer greater insight into Whitman's work than would each alone."  This is certainly not an exhaustive work on Whitman, but it gives a unique glimpse into his life, the times in which he lived, and how these two things directly affected his writings.

Burns, Mary M.  2002.  Walt Whitman (Book).  Horn Book Magazine 78(5). In EBSCOHost (database online).  Available from http://search.epnet.com/login.asp.  Accessed 08 February 2005.

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Holly S.
Graduate Student at Texas Woman's University