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Review: Queer authors reinvent the artist biography as revisionist memoir

Walt Whitman, the subject (along with author Mark Doty) of "What Is the Grass?"
Walt Whitman, the subject (along with author Mark Doty) of “What Is the Grass”
(Library of Congress)

Taking a breather during an afternoon romp, poet Mark Doty describes looking up at his lover only to find himself face to face with Walt Whitman. He doesn’t mean this figuratively. “It’s pointless, at this juncture to try and defend or explain myself,” he writes about halfway through his ambitious new book, “What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life.” “I saw what I saw.”

Built around the reverberations in Doty’s life of the long-dead poet he calls “the man I love,” “What Is the Grass” is both a biography and a memoir. Along with Jenn Shapland’s recent book, “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers,” it holds its subject in a tight embrace — affectionate possession but possession nonetheless — describing and experiencing the author’s life through another.

Both books hope to construct their own gay experience out of pieces of their iconic literary forebears. Shapland is working as an intern at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, when she stumbles upon several letters between McCullers and two women: Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Dr. Mary Mercer (Carson’s therapist and later, Shapland suspects, her lover).

Best remembered for her uncanny debut novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” McCullers was born in Georgia but lived most of her adult life in New York. Though she was married to Reeves McCullers (who called her female intimates “imaginary friends”) not once but twice, the facts of her romantic life were willfully obscured and therefore misinterpreted by biographers.

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To Shapland, it’s plainly obvious that McCullers was a lesbian, and the consequences of that remaining unacknowledged feel personal. It’s where the author and subject meld, as Shapland demands, “if Carson was not a lesbian, if none of these women were lesbians, according to history, if indeed there is hardly a lesbian history, do I exist?”

Whitman is more often acknowledged as a gay man, even a gay icon, than McCullers, but more than that distinguishes the two projects. Doty and Shapland belong to different generations: At 66, Doty has published more than 20 books and watched friends and lovers die of AIDS. Shapland is 33, and this is her first book. Though the goals of the books are similar, the paths they take are understandably different.

Jenn Shapland, the author of "My Autobiography of Carson McCullers."
(Christian Michael Filardo)

Doty, buoyed by an incredible fount of information, organizes his book in order of the academic sources: first (the poetry itself), second (criticism on the poetry), third (letters to or about Whitman) and so on. He alternates between a close reading of Whitman’s work, down to the granular — the meaning of the word “recompense” — and events in his own life that reflect the themes of the poetry or run parallel to Whitman’s biography.

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Shapland is working with less from the start. In the critical arena, both Carson’s work and her personal life are less well-mined than Whitman’s. Though her book is composed of vignettes that read like entries in an archive — “Correspondence,” “Item 8,” even a list of “Carson’s Possible Girlfriends” — Shapland is led more by feeling and response. In recounting an episode in which Reeves asked Carson if she was a lesbian, Shapland writes, “I picture them on a swing even though I know no such swing exists.”

Yet for all the distinctions, the books feel as if they were written in conversation. Doty and Shapland bemoan the need for “proof” and “evidence” when it comes to sexuality. Shapland writes, “Historians demand proof from queer love stories that they never quite require from straight relationships.” Doty agrees: “Whatever the dead did or did not do in bed is largely irrecoverable.”

Shapland and Doty aren’t the only writers mining literary traditions to tell queer stories. Carmen Maria Machado’s 2019 memoir, “In the Dream House,” reveals an abusive lesbian relationship through literary tropes. Daniel Lavery’s recent memoir, “Something That May Shock and Discredit You,” relates the story of his own transition with interpretations of the trans in classical literature and Romantic poetry. Though the approaches differ, the goals of these memoir-critiques, published within a strikingly short time span, are remarkably similar.

The works of Doty and Shapland stand out in this micro-genre for being investigative journeys: They play detective in pursuit of queerness. “I am hunting lesbians,” Shapland writes; she stays in Carson’s girlhood home, handling her cigarette lighter and crinkled kimono. Both discover that their relationships to these writers change as they themselves change. As Shapland writes, “alive or dead, the author is a protean form, just as the self slips constantly beneath one’s feet.” Doty insists, “great poets are, by definition, undead.”

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“What Is the Grass” may be the definitive book on Whitman’s life, afterlife and poetry. But it’s the moments in Doty’s own life — his first marriage to a woman, who had a son his age; his joy in his first love affairs with men — that the book truly glistens.

A book jacket for "What is the Grass," by Mark Doty. Credit: W. W. Norton & Company
(W. W. Norton & Company)

Shapland’s intimate admissions are, like her subject, more elusive. She mentions seeing her girlfriend Chelsea at the library after a day of miscommunication. “I walked in prepared to be somewhat irritated with her, there she was looking lovely, her long dark hair, her posture, and she smiled.” Then, in an almost-whisper: “I love her.” I so wished for more moments like these.

Doty’s vision of Whitman’s face might seem kookily metaphysical, but it crystallizes the aims of both books: searching, seeing and recognizing. But recognition can be dangerous. Shapland shares a disturbing episode in which she brings home a girlfriend (a “roommate”) to meet her family. Her mother finds private journal entries containing romantic language about their relationship and outs them at the dinner table, leading Shapland’s girlfriend to suggest they should stop seeing each other.

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“‘You aren’t real,’ I heard,” Shapland writes. “When what is real is never fully public, it ceases in effect to be real. ... If this wasn’t love, what was it? Who was I? And why couldn’t I speak up for it, call it by name?”

For Doty as well, this love still fails to speak its name: “I have the language of pornography, I have the language of anatomy or medicine, I have the language of euphemism, and I’m happy with none of them.”

The investigative work these writers have had to undertake in their own lives readies them to pursue their subjects. As Shapland writes, to “piece” together the broken narrative of Carson’s life, “you have to read like a queer person.” Shapland yearns to recognize Carson and Mary’s relationship for what it is, and then to extend the validation to herself and then all women who love women. “I for one, am weary of the refusal to acknowledge what is plainly obvious, plainly wonderful. Call it love.”

Doty is comfortable looking back to Whitman for solace and recognition. But there are surprises in this kind of book. “Have I looked back to Whitman because he has all my life, though I did not know it, looked forward to me?” As he gazes into the “visionary dazzle of starlight in his eyes,” Doty is not only looking at Whitman. Whitman is looking back at him. “I allowed that face to look directly into my own until I couldn’t. Then I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, he was gone.”

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Ferri is a writer based in Berkeley. Her first book, “Silent Cities: New York,” will be published in May.

What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life
Mark Doty
W.W. Norton: 288 pages, $25.95

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
Jenn Shapland
Tin House: 266 pages, $22.95


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