Walt Whitman’s America (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Nearly everyone familiar with the field of American literary criticism would instantly recognize the name David S. Reynolds. His previous book Beneath the American Renaissance (1988) was widely praised and won the Christian Gauss Award. In that pioneering study, he explored the often piquant relationship between American antebellum writers and the sensationalism of the emerging mass media. Authors such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Dickinson seized upon the bizarre imagery and radical democracy of nineteenth century popular culture in order to create what Reynolds calls “subversive” literature. In the case of Walt Whitman, a fascination with the reform rhetoric of the period led to a rebellious poetic stance.
As this synopsis implies, Reynolds believes that a discussion of a poem should go beyond the poem itself. His approach emphasizes what some critics would call the intertextuality of a work. That is, any given piece of literature—no matter where or when it was written—is a kind of patchwork quilt of other texts that preceded it. Some of these influences (such as the Civil War in Whitman’s case) are readily apparent and easily grasped by all. Other forces—say, cultural fads—-are often missed by readers of later generations. As Reynolds himself states in the biography’s introduction, “Literary texts are intricate tapestries whose threads can be followed backward into a tremendous body of submerged...
(The entire section is 1924 words.)
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Walt Whitman’s America (Magill Book Reviews)
One might well think that the world could get along quite nicely without another biography of America’s most famous poet. But David S. Reynolds is one of those rare critics who can consistently unearth fresh insights from well-trod ground. In the award-winning BENEATH THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE (1988), he demonstrated the close link between the literary imagination and popular culture. Reynolds takes much the same approach here, but focusing instead on America’s most famous versifier. Walt Whitman was in some ways emblematic of his time. He was largely self-taught, went to work at an early age, and eventually became prosperous. Unlike his contemporaries, he passionately strived to unite his strife-torn nation through verse. The 1855 edition of LEAVES OF GRASS sought to quell factionalism in a nation on the brink of civil war. Surprisingly, the homoerotic aspects of Whitman’s writings—particularly in the “Calamus” poems—-prompted very little comment during the author’s lifetime. Reynolds points out that a wide latitude was allowed in same-sex relationships throughout the nineteenth century. Ironically, censorship only became a problem for Whitman in his poems that celebrated heterosexual love.
Reynolds’ solid research is everywhere evident, from his examination of the various “isms” that influenced Whitman’s poetry (mesmerism, harmonialism, and others) to the man who eventually became an obsession for the poet: Abraham Lincoln. Nearly...
(The entire section is 337 words.)