In place of the slightly persecutory work of biographical detection, then, Doty substitutes the pleasures of reading. And this multifaceted book is among many things a memoir of reading itself: of returning to a body of work that has been of enormous importance to the author and showing not only how astonishing it is, but how much it has shaped his own life. Passages of close reading fill What is the Grass, as they search for the sources of Whitman’s extraordinary invention. Doty identifies five: revelatory experience, gay love, the rise of the American city, the natural world and the demotic freshness of American English.
Doty is particularly good on the way queer writers through the ages have seen themselves in Leaves of Grass, and his line-by-line readings show a fine poet’s ear. He brings in insightful biographical titbits (did Whitman’s visits to a failing Egyptology museum inspire his idea of grass as a “hieroglyphic”?) and surprising comparisons (with, say, Bijou, the 1972 art house porn film). He reads with care, in the sense of both attentiveness and love.