Justin Kaplan, a Cambridge author, died yesterday. He was 88. He said that he moved to Cambridge to have access to the open stacks at Harvard’s Widener Library. I looked into his biography of Walt Whitman today, published in 1980 and on my shelf since about 1985. It’s a dense, layered, conversational, anecdotal telling of a life story in a context of history and culture. One cannot help but admire this kind of substance. The obituaries tell of a literary man immersed in research and conversation, a free agent man of letters. This is a passage from Walt Whitman, A Life which tells of a meeting between Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.
…Thoreau had been so far mainly silent, but he could not have been put off by Whitman’s egotism alone…But neither was he willing to try his strength against the other’s. Observing the edgy traffic between them, [Bronson] Alcott was reminded of “two beasts, each wondering what the other would do, whether to snap or run.” He decided that either Henry was afraid Walt would steal his woods and wild creatures or Walt had recognized that for once he had met his match in Henry, “a sagacity potent, penetrating, and peerless as his own,” and ego unbiddable, an eye as hawklike. p. 220