Reed Whittemore was born in New Haven in 1919 as Edward Reed Whittemore II, named after his physician father. He graduated from Yale in 1941, and he served in the Army Air Force during World War II and was discharged as a captain. He continued his education at Princeton after the war, although he never received an advanced degree. He married Helen Lundeen in 1952, and they had four children. He often depicts himself in his poetry as a middle-class figure, with middle-class burdens of family and job. Although his poetry is not of a confessional nature, a picture of Whittemore as an affectionate and concerned family man does emerge from his poetry.
Whittemore taught in the English department at Carleton College in Minnesota for nearly twenty years beginning in 1947 and was for a part of that time chairman of the department. In 1964, he was consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress. In 1968, he moved to the University of Maryland, eventually becoming professor emeritus.
Whittemore is rightly well known and admired as a magazine editor. From 1939 to 1953, he was the editor of Furioso, one of the liveliest literary publications of the period. What distinguished this magazine from all its competitors was its fondness for comic parody and satire. This tradition was carried on with nearly equal distinction when Whittemore edited The Carleton Miscellany from 1960 to 1964. His work as the literary editor of The New Republic from 1969 to 1974 added some zest to the pages of that venerable publication.