- 19th Century Biographies
Richard Maurice Bucke. Walt Whitman. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883.
This work by R.M. Bucke (1837-1902) is generally considered the first biography of Whitman. A Canadian physician, Bucke was one of Whitman’s most devoted friends and supporters in the poet’s later years.
An unconventional book, it is as much an anthology of documents about the poet as biography. Whitman himself helped to write and edit portions of the text – including playing down Bucke’s inclination to portray him as a demigod.
Bucke served as a medical consultant to Whitman in the poet’s later years. Along with Horace Traubel and Thomas Harned, he was also Whitman’s literary executor.
John Addington Symonds. Walt Whitman, A Study. London: John C. Nimmo, 1893.
John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) was a prominent English scholar, biographer and literary critic who also wrote homoerotic poetry and was a pioneer in the study of homosexuality.
Symonds corresponded with Whitman, and after years of indirect questioning, directly asked the poet in 1890 about the homosexual content of the ‘Calamus cluster’ of Leaves of Grass. This prompted Whitman’s famous retort, in which he denied the “morbid inferences” and claimed to have fathered six children (seemingly unaware that Symonds was a father of four).
This work is part biography and part literary criticism, and Whitman objected strongly to Symonds’ interpretation of the ‘Calamus cluster’. Only 208 numbered copies of this large paper edition were printed.
Thomas Donaldson. Walt Whitman the Man. London: Gay & Bird, 1897.
Thomas Donaldson (1843-1898) was a lawyer from Philadelphia and a friend of Whitman. It was Donaldson who introduced Whitman to Irish author Bram Stoker. He also organised a fund-raising drive to purchase Whitman a horse and carriage when the poet’s mobility became greatly reduced, and was a pallbearer at Whitman’s funeral in 1892.
The strength of Donaldson’s biography lies in the author’s first-hand knowledge of Whitman over three decades, and for its testimony to the way the poet affected his friends.