Walt Whitman and His America Poet's Story Set against His Times

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WALT WHITMAN'S AMERICA A Cultural Biography By David S. Reynolds 671 pages, Knopf, $35

IN 1879, when Walt Whitman visited his younger brother Jeff in St. Louis, the poet's reputation was well-known among readers in this growing city of 300,000.

Jeff's reputation as a civil engineer was equally well-known. After helping design the Brooklyn waterworks, he was called to St. Louis in 1867 to help construct the St. Louis water system as its chief engineer. (Jeff's water towers still stand in St. Louis, and he designed similar systems for five other Midwestern cities.)

David Reynolds' biography portrays Walt Whitman in the turbulent cultural and social setting of 19th-century America - an America not unlike our own century's in its industrialization, wars, political machinations, social justice (and injustice) and economic problems.

The book traces Walt's life and times from his family's home in rural Long Island, where he was born in 1819, to his last years (1883-1892) in Camden, N.J., where he died in "shabby digs" but with many friends.

Many fine studies and biographies of Whitman are already available, and one of the best of these is still "The Solitary Singer" by Gay Wilson Allen (Macmillan, 1955). Yet, despite the poet's own self-revelations in his poetry, some readers and teachers seem to want more details on his social and cultural attitudes and his behavior.

Reynolds' book should satisfy the curiosity of all but the most biased readers concerning Whitman's attitudes, constant or evolving, on a host of questions including family, marriage, homosexuality, women's rights, racial prejudice, science, politics, religion and other topics. (He was a great believer in phrenology, for instance, after his skull exam resulted in good signs.)

Reynolds' research confirms that Walt was devoted to family and friends, a champion of equality for women, excited about science and its new discoveries, ambivalent on religion and liberal in his beliefs on racial equality.

As for the discussion of Whitman's homosexuality, a topic that too often deflects attention from the poet's work, some readers will be disappointed, others pleased. (The subject has been greatly overemphasized.)

Although Reynolds omits, necessarily, long and serious discussion of Whitman's poetry, he describes well the many editions of "Leaves of Grass," from the earliest in 1855 to the final "deathbed edition" published in December 1891. …