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 biographical and cultural materials.” His work represents an attempt to recover the cultural matrix out of which Whitman and his poems were formed. It was the stance that he employed in Beneath the American Renaissance—with brilliant results—and it is the same tack that he adopts here.
Walt Whitman is the most self-consciously American of poets, and Reynolds sets out to reconstruct what the poet’s America was like. Whitman, like most of his contemporaries, was raised in then-rural areas such as Long Island and Brooklyn. By the time he was twelve years old, he was already apprenticed to a publisher. Reynolds recognizes two facts here that would prove crucial to Whitman’s career: He learned the craft of “artisan publishing,” with its close attention to detail, and he began his work in journalism. It was during his years as a newspaperman that Whitman produced his most popular work—not the masterful book of poems Leaves of Grass (1855-1892) but rather the dark temperance novel Franklin Evans (1842). The antebellum period was noteworthy for its perceived societal evils and the reformers who attempted to purge them from the land. Reformers strived through rhetoric—the art of persuasion—to win over the public. Their descriptions of the so-called evils, however, were often so lewd as to undercut their intended message. Whitman, who immersed himself in the popular diversions of the time, made use of the sensationalized language of the reform movements. In Franklin Evans, a farmer becomes so debauched by alcohol that he abuses his family; the supposed moral message about the evils of drink is couched in a titillating tale designed to please the masses. Reynolds demonstrates that the same tendency is evident in Leaves of Grass. The first edition of that work (1855) was a kind of sensationalized reform book: Whitman sought to unite his highly fragmented antebellum society with themes that were both erotic and sensational.
One of Whitman’s chief innovations in his poetry was his effective use of free verse, eschewing rhyme schemes and metronomic regularity in favor of more natural, proselike speech patterns. When compared with the bulk of the published verse of the time, Whitman’s comes across as bold, even revolutionary. Indeed, the modern reader would be unable to account for it based only on the poetry of the period. Yet Reynolds proves that even though Whitman was ahead of his time in this realm, he was still a man very much of his time. Again, reformist zeal provided the basis for this development. In the antebellum era, especially in the 1840’s and 1850’s, the art of oratory reached its peak in the United States. Successful speakers spoke directly to the people, employed familiar imagery, and extemporized their performances—they did not write their speeches ahead of time. Although Whitman himself never became an accomplished speaker, Reynolds cites numerous examples to show just how the poet absorbed popular oratorical devices and created a distinctive style by exploiting them in his poetry. In Reyholds’ words, “Whitman changed the participatory lecture style into a new participatory poetics. This is Reynolds at his best, shedding new light on the poetry through...
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