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 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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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 as fascinating as the poetry itself is the persona that Whitman constantly refashioned in his desire to achieve fame. The defiant man of 1855 transformed himself into the spotless “Good Gray Poet” of old age. And, though Whitman claimed otherwise, he was regularly published and often hobnobbed with the elite. Reynolds’ elegant text and impressive scholarship are more than a match for his subject.
Sources for Further Study
America. CLXXIII, October 21, 1995, p. 24.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 11, 1995, p. 1.
The New Republic. CCXII, June 19, 1995, p. 33.
The New York Review of Books. XLII, October 19, 1995, p. 23.
The New York Times Book Review. C, May 14, 1995, p. 3.
The New Yorker. LXXI, June 12,. 1995, p. 98.
The Washington Post Book World. XV, April 9, 1995, p. 7.