A Cultural Biography
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 This absorbing portrait of America's greatest poetic personality contains multitudes, all right. It opens onto a vast panorama of the United States in the 19th century, redefining the horizons of literary biography in the process. Reynolds (American Literature and American Studies/Graduate School of the City Univ. of New York; Beneath the American Renaissance, 1988) completes the project begun by Whitman, who sought to transform himself into the representative man of his America. In a manner that will intrigue as well as inform the general reader, Reynolds maps out historical settings from the Era of Good Feelings, which collapsed in the panic of 1819, the year of Whitman's birth, through to the Gilded Age, in which Whitman's life came to a close. A superb scholarly resource, this study also features a compelling narrative. Reynolds traces the roots of Whitman's appreciation for nature to his rural Long Island upbringing, while exploring his love for city life in Brooklyn and Manhattan. In fashioning a popular aesthetic that he hoped would unify his nation, Whitman adapted innovations from across the arts into a response to the political crises of the preCivil War era. Reynolds treats Whitman's legendarily multifarious sexuality at length, linking the poet's actions, thought, and works to the important controversies of his time over masturbation and free love. He shows how, in life as well as in art, Whitman contradicted himself: as an adept of various religious systems, as a champion of Lincoln and emancipation who all the same harbored deeply racist beliefs. Finally, Reynolds highlights Whitman as a literary celebrity who strategized to sell himself and his inner life for higher ends. On one level, it is disappointing that Reynolds seldom offers close readings that might underline the powerful effect of his works. On another level, however, the work of art on display here is Whitman himself, whose brilliance Reynolds illuminates fully. Perhaps then, this may be exemplary scholarship not just for our time, but for all times. (Book-of-the-Month Club/History Book Club/Quality Paperback Book Club selections)

Pub Date: April 10th, 1995
ISBN: 0-394-58023-0
Page count: 672pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1995


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