Global Posts Rotating Header Image


Brian for September 22 — An[other] Observation on “Biography”

Sam Krieg, in his post this week, discusses [well] how lines from When I Read the Book relate to the idea of biography: Whitman “mocks the traditional form of biography in the opening lines”:

When I read the book, the biography famous;

And is this, then, (said I,) what the author calls a

man’s life?

And so will some one, when I am dead and gone,

write my life? (268)

What I would like to point out is that Whitman first publishes these lines concurrently with the publication of the ultimate biography of George Washington, written by the famed Washington Irving. How aware Whitman was of Irving’s work in this instance, I am not sure; but the Washington biography was to make a lasting impression as it would become the primary source on Washington’s life for near a century.

I should also like to point out that Whitman follows by about 70 years Dr. Johnson’s “Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets,” a prime source for literary theory of the time. Whitman’s lines make clear that he is not interested in having the future knowledge of his poetry limited to what someone else writes about his life; instead, Whitman wants to create his own story, both of his work and his life.

Skip to toolbar