- Paperback: 671 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; 2nd printing edition (March 19, 1996)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0679767096
- ISBN-13: 978-0679767091
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.4 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 25 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #163,154 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography Paperback – March 19, 1996
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From Publishers Weekly
Literary historian Reynolds's biography of Whitman examines the poet within the broader social and cultural context of 19th-century America.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Winner, Bancroft Prize
Winner, Ambassador Book Award
Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award
New York Times Notable Book of the Year
"Remarkably informative...I marked on page after page things about Whitman and his America I never knew before." --Alfred Kazin, The New York Times Book Review
"Exhaustive...fascinating...an evocative portrait." --Washington Post Book World
"Reynolds stands alone in showing, almost day by day, the finest roots of Whitman's genius...His scholarship lights Whitman from within." --Philadelphia Inquirer
“Reynolds splendidly examines the culture that formed the greatest American poet and the great American poem.” --Time
“Once you have followed Reynolds around the nineteenth-century streets you see Whitman with a sudden new clarity.” --The New Yorker
“Systematic and superbly researched….Reynolds enlists the whole American scene of Whitman’s timed to explain him.” --New York Review of Books
“Essential reading…A fascinating picture of the world out of which a literary masterpiece arose.“ --San Francisco Examiner
“An astounding feat of good scholarly writing.” --Atlanta Journal Constitution
“A compelling narrative…Exemplary scholarship, not just for our time, but for all times.” --Kirkus (starred)
“A highly readable, well researched cultural history of the period.” -- Library Journal (starred)
“An engrossing biographical study that roots Whitman firmly in his time and makes him more relevant to ours.” --Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Better than any previous biographer, Reynolds masterfully charts the changes Whitman went through As he transformed himself into the poet he wanted to be.” --Washington Times
“This book is a godsend. No other work explains Whitmans cultural background or investigates as many facets of the poets times as well as Reynolds.” --The Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star
“Utterly fascinating….A powerful incentive to turn to Whitmans work itself.” --Detroit News
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Walt Whitman was fiercely democratic, he was egalitarian, he was a populist, and he was protean. Above all he was American, probably the most American poet ever. He championed a new form of verse, exploding conventional patterns of rhyme and meter and freeing the poetic line to follow the organic rhythms of feeling and voice. In his poetry he challenged "boundaries between author and reader, between poetry and music and oratory, between high diction and slang, between different religions and social classes". He celebrated working men and women, and later in his career he celebrated technology and industry. He explored erotic themes, thereby contributing to the candid discussion of sex in the larger culture. No matter how one responds to his poetry (I myself am not a big fan), he is a poet to be reckoned with, and not just in the United States.
Still, Whitman was very much a product of the young United States, a country that came of age with the Civil War, which was the central event of his life. (Whitman spent about a decade in Washington, D.C. working in various posts for the federal government; during the years 1863 to 1866 he spent his free time visiting and tending to wounded soldiers, seeing as many as 80,000 of them.) Whitman absorbed his country as one breathes air, and the strength of Reynolds's book is to show this phenomenon in countless instances. I was familiar with some of the influential people of nineteenth-century American culture whom Reynolds discusses, but many others were new to me -- such as Elias Hicks, McDonald Clarke, Mike Walsh, George Lippard, the Hutchinsons, Marietta Alboni, Justus Liebig, William Sidney Mount, and Anthony Comstock. I also learned about some of the intellectual movements or fads that influenced Whitman to varying degrees, such as phrenology, mesmerism, and Swedenborgianism.
One example of the interesting sidebars with which the book is filled: Whitman and Henry David Thoreau were contemporaries. Both "Walden" and "Leaves of Grass" were strong reactions of disgust with the social and political status quo of the 1850s. Whitman and Thoreau, who met several times, "viewed each other with mutual fascination and suspicion". Whitman valued the "anarchist side" of Thoreau, his "going his own absolute road let hell blaze all it chooses" (to quote Whitman). But he also thought Thoreau elitist. He later commented: "Thoreau's great fault was disdain--disdain for men (for Tom, Dick and Harry): inability to appreciate the average life."
WALT WHITMAN'S AMERICA has its flaws, however. Even allowing for the fact that Reynolds covers a vast amount of material, the book is too long, in part because there is some unnecessary repetition; on occasion Reynolds's repeated hammering of a particular point passes from annoyance to insult. For my tastes, Reynolds overdoes the theme of the "Walt Whitman Myth" (the public image that Whitman carefully constructed of himself) and he gives too much attention to the matter of Whitman's homoerotic tendencies and whether they ever were manifested in homosexual encounters. On at least five occasions he introduces a point with the preface that previous biographers had underestimated it or ignored it altogether; such repeated self-back-patting is rather unseemly. Finally, although this complaint is directed at the publisher rather than the author, in my paperback copy there are at least eight instances in which several lines of type or even an entire page are printed so faintly as to be barely readable.
What stands out in this book is the way Reynolds weaves together not only Whitman's life but also the context of the period, which makes it so much easier to understand what Walt was saying. Reynolds is without doubt the best explainer of this period, as it applies to literature, and reading this book is both a pleasure and an enlightening experience, providing a history lesson at the same time as it looks at Whitman's writings.
A must-read book for any Whitman fan.
"have heretofore gone unnoticed by other biographers" Reynold delivers what I most hoped for: A cultural context in which to read and access the old gray man's poetry This Reynolds accomplishes admirably.