Reed Whittemore Analysis

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.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

The most striking characteristic of Reed Whittemore’s verse is its comedy. As Howard Nemerov pointed out many years ago, Whittemore is not only witty (an admirable trait) but also funny (a suspect one). His most distinctive poems are those about serious subjects—the failure of belief, the difficulties of heroism, the search for the true self—that make intelligent statements while at the same time being very clever and humorous. Whittemore’s emphasis on intelligence, moderation, and comedy makes him a rather unfashionable writer today, but these very qualities account for the success of his best poems. He served as consultant in poetry (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress from 1964 to 1965 and from 1984 to 1985. He received an Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1970.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Twentieth-Century American Literature. Vol. 7. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Contains a short biographical essay on Whittemore that also offers literary criticism.

Dickey, James. Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now. 1968. Reprint. New York: Ecco Press, 1981. Dickey classifies Whittemore as essentially a satirist, but he modifies his praise of his work because of Whittemore’s tendency not to go deeply and personally into his subjects.

Whittemore, Reed. Against the Grain: The Literary Life of a Poet. Washington, D.C.: Dryad Press/University of Alaska Press, 2007. Whittemore relates his memoirs through his alter ego “R,” from his days at Furioso, to his experiences during World War II, and his years at Carleton College and The New Republic. Contains a foreword by Garrison Keillor, a former student of Whittemore.