As he was turning forty, Walt Whitman wrote twelve poems in a small handmade book he entitled “Live Oak, With Moss.” The poems were intensely private reflections on his attraction to and affection for other men. They were also Whitman’s most adventurous explorations of the theme of same-sex love, composed decades before the word “homosexual” came into use. This revolutionary, extraordinarily beautiful and passionate cluster of poems was never published by Whitman and has remained unknown to the general public—until now. New York Times bestselling and Caldecott Award–winning illustrator Brian Selznick offers a provocative visual narrative of “Live Oak, With Moss,” and Whitman scholar Karen Karbiener reconstructs the story of the poetic cluster’s creation and destruction. Walt Whitman’s reassembled, reinterpreted Live Oak, With Moss serves as a source of inspiration and a cause for celebration.
Whitman originally collected these 12 romantic, homoerotic poems into a secret handmade book in the 1850s, and they are now brought gracefully to life courtesy of children's book author and illustrator Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret). Selznick writes at the outset that his drawings "are not meant to be illustrations of the poems but a framework, or a lens, through which they can be discovered." The volume is presented in three sections. First, Selznick's vibrantly colored drawings are standalone, forming their own silent narrative of desire and fulfillment. Selznick expertly captures the intensity of Whitman's work, sensually rendering his phallic oak trees, adding collages of the cityscape of New Orleans (where Whitman explored his sexual preferences with more freedom), and dreamy cosmic imagery. In a clever touch, the drawn chronicle eventually fades into white as a lead-in to the second section, in which Whitman's poems appear in their original form. Karbiener's afterword closes out the book, with a compact history and contextualization of Whitman's work. In harmony, the art, the poems, and the analysis all honor while illuminating Whitman's work and make it more accessible to contemporary readers.