- Walt Whitman Historicized
David S. Reynolds takes as his starting point for his “cultural biography” of Walt Whitman the poet’s concluding sentence in his preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” 1 This is precisely the Whitman conceit that his literary admirer Ezra Pound reviled for its making the artist, as Pound wrote in his 1914 exchange over the maxim with his editor Harriet Monroe, “dependent upon the multitude of his listeners. . . . This rabble, this multitude—does not create the great artist. They are aimless and drifting without him. They dare not inspect their own souls.” 2 It is the signal achievement of Reynolds’s biography to demonstrate historically how Whitman could very well have thought such a popular dependence artistically vital in ways that the early twentieth-century, high modernist Pound could never have imagined. Reynolds also reveals what Whitman did to make his country live up to its half of his imagined pact.
Whitman would seem to be the ideal candidate for Reynolds’s style of literary historicizing. Unlike most of the classic nineteenth-century American writers Reynolds surveyed in his previous book, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (1988)—whose popular cultural roots he sought to uncover as a counterweight to their high aesthetic contexts seminally defined in F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941)—Whitman was both professedly and self-consciously popular-minded. Also the Whitman scholarly winds have been lately blowing very much in Reynolds’s direction. In place of the predominantly psychological interpretations of Whitman in the monumental biographies of Roger Asselineau and Gay Wilson Allen, or such brilliant archetypal literary portraits as those of Richard Chase and R. W. B. Lewis, the overwhelming bulk of Whitman scholarship of the past decade has been unabashedly “culturalist.” 3 What these often valuable political, sexual, and other “postmodern” Whitmans lack, however, is an historical dimension through which they might transcend [End Page 238] their particularistic and often presentist disciplinary foci. In his Whitman biography Reynolds provides an exemplary model for just such a historicization.
One way he does this is by showing the potential value of using a single life to mingle the many conceptual strands of a historical narrative that easily get lost in more collective studies. Even more striking, Reynolds uses his justly praised wide reach into the primary sources to narratively historicize Whitman: to let, that is, the surrounding voices, out of which Reynolds builds his historical “context,” speak in palpable, dynamic, and countervailing forms. In this concrete mode he presents a salutary contrast to the often abstract methodological flag-waving that infuses too many “New American Studies” works.
But the principal way Reynolds historicizes Whitman is through the sheer capaciousness of his contextualizations. “I contain multitudes,” Whitman’s “Song of Myself” persona boasts, and so does Reynolds’s book. Radical theology, phrenology, visionary tracts, sensationalist penny presses, violent crime fiction, lurid pornography, and other popular literary genres that appeared in his Beneath the American Renaissance are here joined by a potpourri of political and cultural movements: Jacksonian parties, antislavery politics, popular psychology, sexual reform, mesmeric trances, theater, music, the fine arts—to name just the more important. His procedure is to envelop his biographical narrative in this near plethora of historical backgrounds, and from the mix deduce how they shaped Whitman’s thought and poetry. Reynolds’s book is a testimony to the many gains as well as some of the perils of this sort of broadly cultural contextualist approach.
His sixteen chapters naturally divide into the three major phases of Whitman’s life: before, during, and after his explosion of poetic creativity in the 1850s. Reynolds’s general argument in the first two chapters, on Whitman’s family background and boyhood, is that Whitman absorbed a strong identification with the agrarian, premarket, stem-family...