It has proven easier for critics to theorize about literary history than to write it. "Cultural studies" are often discussed but are rarely supported by the wide-ranging research that alone can bring alive a culture in its many dimensions. Literary works are intricate tapestries whose threads can be followed backward into a tremendous body of submerged biographical and cultural materials.
Walt Whitman is a case in point. "No one can know Leaves of Grass," he declared, "who judges it piecemeal." The problem with most critics, he stressed, was that they "do not take the trouble to examine what they start out to criticize--to judge a man from his own standpoint, to even find out what that standpoint is." Whitman's best poems do not fall into any single--or even double or triple--historical category. The current book tries to overcome piecemeal approaches to literary history by reconstructing the life and times of America's most representative poet.
With a figure as familiar as Whitman, a certain amount of
recapitulation or synthesis of known information is inevitable, and I am
indebted to many fine studies of him. But the interaction between his life
and writings and their historical background has been reported only
fragmentarily. Whitman constantly called attention to the historical
origins of his poetry. "In estimating my volumes," he wrote, "the world's
current times and deeds, and their spirit, must first be profoundly
estimated." The poet fails, he wrote, "if he does not flood himself with
the immediate age as with vast oceanic tides[...]if he be not himself the
In his own capacious reading, he had an undying fascination for all aspects of various writers' contexts--what he called "the part enacted by environment, surroundings, circumstances,--the man's age, land--all that went before." Criticism failed, he believed, if it did not take into account the details of a writer's times in their specificity and historical fullness. It also failed if it did not make note of the special resonance and artistry of certain works.
Their are countless ways of expressing love for Whitman's poetry. Mine is to recreate his life and art in the historical context of his culture, the way he experienced it as a vital, sensitive journalist and poet. Whitman described himself as a poet "attracting [the nation] body and soul to himself, hanging on its neck with incomparable love,/Plunging his seminal muscle into its merits and demerits." It is this unprecedented intimacy between a poet and his country that is the focus of this book.
In reconstructing Whitman's life and times I have found much to admire as well as certain attitudes that are repellent. Such attitudes are not defensible, but they are historically explainable. In all matters, I have tried to be historically correct rather than politically correct.
Other pieces by David Reynolds:
Prologue to Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography
The Humanities Crisis: Biography to the Rescue
Politics and Poetry: Whitman's Leaves of Grass and the Social Crisis of the 1850s