What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life

Image of What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life
Release Date: 
April 14, 2020
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“a fascinating book about Whitman, his poetry, and the ways queer life has evolved in America over the last three centuries . . .”

Mark Doty has written a remarkable book that defies easy classification. What Is the Grass is, at varying times, a memoir, a work of literary exegesis, and a love letter to Walt Whitman.

Such slippage between genres is appropriate, given that Whitman and his work both defy easy classification. As someone who invented free verse, Whitman had simultaneously no literary forbears and many.  Inspiration for his experiments in form has been traced back to sources as varied as vernacular speech, the opera, and the bible. His poetry is, in turns, deeply personal, jingoistic, autobiographical, historical, or based in fantasy. In writing What Is the Grass, Doty follows his master’s lead by refusing to be bound by either genre or convention. If there is a prose equivalent to free verse, this book might be it.

Just as Leaves of Grass, for all its sprawling, apparent amorphousness, has a plan (one which Whitman worked and reworked over the course of five decades), so does Doty’s book. Doty ultimately roots his work in an examination of five creative streams he has traced in Whitman: experience, queer sexuality; urban life (which gave Whitman ample opportunity for both observation and adventure); the 19th century’s rapidly expanding language of American English; and Whitman’s sense of an audience, which Doty sees, in some senses, as an extension of Whitman’s sexuality. “In all [Whitman’s] huge body of work,” Doty writes, “I can find mention of only two things he wants to possess: the love of a comrade and the attention of the reader.” In both cases, Whitman desires contact and understanding.

Though Whitman never achieved a mass audience in his day, Doty demonstrates that he was prescient in envisioning one, even in some senses inventing one. This audience was two-fold; it consisted of generations of readers who would be receptive to the new form of poetry Whitman was inventing, and also included a specifically queer audience to whom Whitman, especially in the earliest editions of Leaves of Grass, was speaking in code. Though many passages are now seen as clearly homoerotic, queer sexuality was so marginalized in the mid-19th century that most early readers (at least the straight ones) did not understand the references. “What scandalized readers in Whitman’s time was his frankness about heterosexual bodies, and his portrayal of women as sexual beings,” Doty writes. 

Indeed, as Doty points out, the word homosexual hadn’t been invented in 1855 (the year of the first edition of Leaves of Grass), and wouldn’t come into print until 1892 (which, coincidentally, was the year of Whitman’s death). However, the awareness of the behaviors related to that word was building in the intervening decades. One paradoxical result is that, as the years went on, Whitman began editing both his book and his life, becoming less forthright and less of a prophet as time passed. 

Doty gives some attention to this retreat, though not as much as one would like.  Perhaps it is because this aspect of Whitman’s life has been treated so thoroughly elsewhere (see, for example, Gary Schmidgall’s biography, Walt Whitman: A Gay Life). Perhaps it is because Doty finds his inspiration as both poet and gay man in the earlier Whitman, not the later.

While What Is the Grass is deeply personal, it is also clearly the result of many years of close study and scholarship. However, it lacks certain features (internal documentation, a bibliography, and a subject index) which would make it more useful for other scholars.  

On balance, though What is the Grass is a fascinating book about Whitman, his poetry, and the ways queer life has evolved in America over the last three centuries, thanks, in no small part, to Whitman’s foresight.