A concise and well-considered summary of the forces—biographical, social, cultural—that combined in fashioning our most original and democratic poetic voice.
Reynolds (English and American Studies/CUNY) is eminently equipped for the task of reducing to a sonnet the epic of Whitman’s life. A Bancroft winner for Walt Whitman’s America (1995), Reynolds knows the historical period (and the details of Whitman’s life) so thoroughly that he can find the essence—the quintessence, really—of a vast complexity. After an opening chapter sketching the peripatetic poet’s life (1819–92), the author examines clusters of influences that made Whitman Whitman. Among these are the Temperance Movement (Whitman published a novel on the subject, Franklin Evans, in 1842), the swirl and chaos and cacophony of urban life, the popular arts (especially the theater, oratory, painting, and photography), science and its next of kin (phrenology and mesmerism), philosophy (he read Swedenborg), religion, sex, war, and Lincoln. Whitman loved to hear the preaching of Henry Ward Beecher (who didn’t?) but wouldn’t permit any particular creed to circumscribe him. Reynolds properly credits the poet for his innovations in style and technique (poetry after Whitman no longer looked or sounded the same) and for his ambitious, surely quixotic, desire to encompass all experience in a word, a phrase, a poem. But Reynolds is no mere press agent for Whitman. He recognizes the ambiguities in the man, quoting, for example, a nasty social-Darwinist passage about race (from later in his life) that flatly contradicts the poet’s earlier egalitarian views. And there are other troubling contradictions. Whitman believed, on balance, that the Civil War was a good thing (it cleared the air!) but did see, in grim and red detail (as a volunteer nurse), the horrors of this air-clearing. (Another Dec. 2004 volume from Oxford, Memoranda During the War, a selection from Whitman’s journals during the war, edited by Peter Coviello, shows the range and capacity of the poet’s sensibility.)
Precise and provocative, learned and lucid. (12 b&w illustrations)