Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Reed Whittemore has published many essays and reviews in magazines, most of them of a literary nature, but also essays on education, science, and television. From Zero to Absolute (1968) consists mainly of a series of lectures he gave on poetry at Beloit College in 1966. The Poet as Journalist: Life at The New Republic (1976) is made up of the short pieces he wrote for The New Republic when he was the literary editor for that magazine. In his literary essays, he often praises, with some qualifications, the early modern poets such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot but is rather critical of most of his contemporaries, particularly the Beat poets, whom he has mocked in his satirical verse.

The publication of Whittemore’s William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey (1975) was a surprising departure for this writer of short personal essays. The biography was criticized by some reviewers for being too casually written and for taking, at times, an irreverent attitude toward its subject, yet the book does give a clear and sympathetic portrait of Williams and, at the same time, punctures some of the more pretentious opinions of Williams and his disciples about free verse and other poetic matters.

Whittemore’s biography of Williams has led him to write books about the nature of biography: Pure Lives: The Early Biographers (1988) and Whole Lives: Shapers of Modern Biography (1990). These wide-ranging, erudite, and lively works trace biographical art from its beginnings (Plutarch, Aelfric) all the way to late twentieth century literary biographers (Richard Ellmann and Leon Edel). As in the Williams biography, Whittemore manages to combine his scholarly matter with a casual manner in interesting ways.