Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography

By Levinson, Martin H. | et Cetera, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography


Levinson, Martin H., et Cetera


David S. Reynolds. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. Vintage: New York, 1996. Walt Whitman said, "In estimating my volumes[,] the world's current times and needs [i.e., nineteenthcentury], and their spirit, must first be profoundly estimated." David S. Reynolds in Walt Whitman's America has done just this in an absorbing well-researched cultural biography of one of America's greatest poets. Reynolds demonstrates how Whitman gathered images from virtually every cultural arena and transformed them through his powerful personality into poetry.

Whitman's theory of poetry was based on the idea of the poet's social function. When he begins Leaves of Grass (1855) with the famous line "I celebrate myself" he is referring to the individual and the nation. He believed that his poetry could save the country from its pre-Civil War fragmentation and impending social collapse. Unfortunately, the Civil War proved him wrong but it also caused him to write two of his most famous poems - -"O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," which are encomiums to Abraham Lincoln.

Reynolds tries to present Whitman's totality, warts included. For example, Whitman never said much about black suffrage, but when he did his remarks were generally derogatory. His racism was informed by phrenology, an ethnological pseudoscience, which divided humanity into distinct races. …

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