Of all American poets, Whitman remains the single most challenging figure. Protean and elusive, Whitman is everywhere and nowhere at once. An unavoidable presence, he still arouses anger, envy, love, and debate one hundred years after his death. To honor his anniversary, Robert Martin has invited the most invigorating and innovative of Whitman’s new readers and critics to respond not to Whitman’s death but to his continuing life as it has marked their own lives and writings. The eighteen essays gathered in this volume testify to the powerful multiple responses that Whitman continues to evoke. They recreate another Whitman perhaps more real than the one we thought we knew.
The “continuing presence” that Whitman’s readers have created is as diverse as those readers themselves. But he is, as he promised, everywhere: “Missing me one place search another / I stop somewhere waiting for you.” The central figure of American poetic history, he has been a formative presence in the work of black writers in America and Europe, in the development of women’s poetry that has learned from him to celebrate the body, and of course in the emergence of the gay literary tradition, all of which can be linked to movements of political change. Whitman helped make it possible to be a black poet, a female poet, or a gay poet, partly because he saw himself not as a model but as an enabler. He still continues to challenge our assessment of our sexuality and the ways we organize it. Martin’s collection is particularly strong on the investigation of Whitman’s homosexuality, his homotexuality, and his influence on gay writers and will clearly become the most aggregative gathering of essays ever published on this increasingly prominent aspect of Whitman and his work.
The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman seeks to be an intervention and not merely a reflection; it is intended to illuminate a response that continues to take place, a constant invention and reinvention, a writing and rewriting that echo Whitman’s own text of Leaves of Grass. Whitman remains an originating force. Once read, he will not go away.