In 1869, British writer Anne Gilchrist read the frank descriptions of female sexuality in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and fell in love. To get Whitman’s attention, she wrote an essay praising his work. When he didn’t respond, she wrote him directly: “O dear Walt, did you not feel in every word the breath of a woman’s love?…O come. Come, my darling.” The poet soon returned a couple kind but distant words, and in fact Whitman responded to most admirers (except autograph hounds, in which case he threw out their notes after saving any SASE stamps). It was through the mail that he met more than half of the 12 “disciples” in Michael Robertson’s new book, Worshipping Walt. Gilchrist and Whitman eventually struck up an epistolary friendship, and in 1876, upon hearing of his crippling stroke, she moved across the Atlantic to Philadelphia and tried to convince Whitman to take her as his wife. He protested, but they got along famously when they finally met. “He was kindness itself,” Robertson writes, “but there was…not a glimmer of erotic fire in his greeting. She somehow managed to set aside seven years’ worth of hope and dreams. She and Whitman would be friends, just friends.” Just how Gilchrist “overturn[ed], in an instant, the plans she had been elaborating for years” is something that Robertson, professor of English at the College of New Jersey, never explains. This is odd, because there was an obvious impediment: Whitman was gay, which Robertson addresses in many of the other relationships that he ­documents—in the erotic undercurrents belying Whitman’s friendship with the novelist William O’Connor, who housed him in D.C.; in “sexual inversion” theorist John Symonds’ 22 years of letters attempting to pin down the sexual meanings of Whitman’s poetry; and in the “ex-lover’s cool” possessed by Edward Carpenter, the English writer and social activist with whom Whitman may have had an affair. Robertson needn’t painstakingly reconstruct the interior lives of every character, but his flimsy psychological sketches can be unsatisfying. Whitman’s “magnetism,” for instance, is mentioned on more than a dozen occasions, but Robertson never defines it. Whitman’s fans make a surprisingly fascinating subject, and Robertson was wise to organize his book by disciple rather than chronology. But the frequent repetition of details and settings suggest that the author thought his book would be read only in selections. That’s a shame, for what emerges from the entire text is an interesting, idiosyncratic history. Robertson provides plenty of historical context, making the disciples a lens through which to glimpse a variety of turn-of-the-century movements: gay rights, the rise of American lit in academia, religious reform, psychiatry, and socialism. (Helen Keller even makes an appearance.) But the history of Whitman’s disciples is not Robertson’s sole motive. A believer himself, he has another agenda: to redeem, even resurrect, reading Whitman’s poetry for its spirituality. But that argument would be made more persuasively by examining Whitman’s actual writing, rather than a handful of those obsessively devoted to it. Though he isn’t as bold as to say it, Robertson seems to envision himself a ­latter-day disciple. As such, he stands to learn a little from his master. Whitman published six editions of Leaves of Grass, revising endlessly. In the spirit of apostolic succession, Robertson might consider giving his own work one more pass. —Francesca Mari

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