In his poetry Walt Whitman set out to encompass all of America and in so doing heal its deepening divisions. This magisterial biography demonstrates the epic scale of his achievement, as well as the dreams and anxieties that impelled it, for it places the poet securely within the political and cultural context of his age. Combing through the full range of Whitman's writing, David Reynolds shows how Whitman gathered inspiration from every stratum of nineteenth-century American life: the convulsions of slavery and depression; the raffish dandyism of the Bowery "b'hoys"; the exuberant rhetoric of actors, orators, and divines. We see how Whitman reconciled his own sexuality with contemporary social mores and how his energetic courtship of the public presaged the vogues of advertising and celebrity. Brilliantly researched, captivatingly told, Walt Whitman's America is a triumphant work of scholarship that breathes new life into the biographical genre.
In the first section, Reynolds introduces us to a pretty standard birth-and-growth story of Whitman. This section annoyed me somewhat, I'll admit, because occasionally Reynolds' own desire to be a poet - describing Whitman's Long Island with something approaching
The second section may be the most testing for some readers wanting a stock-standard biography, but it's also the one that delighted me the most. It gives the book its subtitle, "A Cultural Biography". Over numerous, bulky chapters, Reynolds explores the America that Whitman came of age in: that of the '40s and '50s. One of the most trying times in American history, Reynolds explores the cultural, political, religious, philosophical, sexual, ideological and social attitudes of a time (Whitman himself argued that no work of art could really be understood without this kind of knowledge about its context). He is able to raise serious doubts about some of the generally-accepted approaches to Whitman and other artists of the period, but also to explain - or at least elucidate - many of the ambiguities. Whitman's approaches to sexuality, to race relations, to capitalism, to deistic religion: all of these changed over time, but some of them are whitewashed today. Reynolds instead attempts to create a portrait of the multivaried America of the age. The best element is, if a particular chapter isn't interesting to the reader's aims, it can quite easily be skimmed.
(A note: lest I sound like an unapologetic fanboy, I recognise that this is a specific type of biography, but I think it's an important one for a poet who is often grandly declaimed without actually being read.)
(A second note: I was endeared to Reynolds in the prologue, where he took the time to explain the various types of square brackets he uses when presenting direct quotations. It may seem like a little thing to those of us who grew up in the academic spectrum, but it amazes me how often I read books that would confuse the hell out of a layperson, all because at no point does the writer explain what - for instance - "[N]ow" means!)
The final chunk of the book is a decent biography of Whitman's life from "Leaves of Grass" in 1855 to his death in 1892. People wanting an in-depth study of certain elements of the poet should be directed to the bibliography but, again, Reynolds does a lot of good work here. By stripping away some of the Whitman myth, particularly, and by allowing us to see both sides of Whitman. (We often take for granted the poet's claims he was much neglected throughout his career, but Reynolds shows how this was an exaggeration, to say the least.) It's a thoughtful approach to the man and his complex views on life.
Overall, I'd recommend this to anyone wanting to learn more about Walt Whitman the man, and - as much as I may have earlier besmirched Reynolds' own poetic aspirations - it's great to see that this biography also functions as a bit of a primer on Whitman's poetry as well. Reynolds' knowledge and approach are wide in scope, but detailed in design.