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QUENTIN ANDERSON Some Notes on the "Reconstructive Criticism" of David S. Reynolds Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Knopf, 1988. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995. An extraordinary chorus of praise greeted the first ofthese books in 1988. When I came to read it, just after the Whitman biography appeared in 1995, I was amazed by these responses since they did not acknowledge basic flaws in the use of the evidence the writer brings forward. The bulk of that evidence is indeed impressive. Reynolds has read and classified an extraordinary number oflargely ignored works ofall sorts and proceeds to associate their themes, subject matter, and the subversive views they display with the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and Dickinson. The extensive selection of publications Reynolds juxtaposes with these major writers has impressed many scholars who did not, or did not at first, recognize the consequences of using Reynolds' method of associating our classic texts with his underworld publications. Reynolds sees the writings he brings forward as lying "beneath" his renaissance writers in more than one sense. He claims that they furnished matter which was used by the major writers, who put it to "literary " or "aesthetic" use. (The reader is left to infer the force of these terms. Apparently, they refer to the qualities ofdie canon as it stands— or, as some would have it, stood.) The second sense of "beneath" arises Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 1996 Copyright © 1996 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 166Quentin Anderson from the predominantly subversive character of the matter which Reynolds claims affected the renaissance writers. Reynolds describes this subversive matter as a body ofwriting which attacks die going order, defies contemporary decency, and often represents power and respectability as masks for theft, sexual transgressions, and even rape and murder—writing, in short, in which the social fabric is represented as torn across, revealing every kind of social disorder. The curious split Reynolds posits between high and low authors doesn't hold up for a number of reasons. First of all, it requires that we flatten the distinctiveness of the work of favored individuals until their work appears to be merely a reflection of specifiable external causes, a tactic I find naive beyond belief. Consider the following summary passage from the Whitman biography (560): In the fifties, his collapsed belief in the party system and presidential power had caused the incredible surge of his omnivorous all-gathering poetic ?,' creating his richest poetry. After the war, in die wake of Lincoln, his "I" was in general retreat, and he looked again to the electoral process and American presidents to resolve social problems on a large scale. The Whitman described here is not merely die puppet of external events, he is left utterly inexplicable, since the widely acknowledged pinnacle ofhis achievement is shrouded by the assertion that it was the creation of a questionably overblown identity, which is nowhere discussed in relation to the qualities ofhis work. Another howler ofan especially revealing sort appears in Reynolds' use of "Poem of the Propositions ofNakedness" (1856), later called "Respondez," a poem in which Whitman set down an inclusive list of utter denials ofhis own practice and belief. Reynolds' blindness to the fact furnishes a leading instance of his incapacity to deal with Whitman's poetry. (The word "Nakedness " in the original title means stripped ofthe significance the poet attributes to our humanity and its place in nature.) Let a floating cloud in the sky—Let a wave of the sea—Let one glimpse of your eyesight upon the landscape or grass—Let growing mint, spinach, onions, tomatoes—Let these be exhibited as shows at a great price for admission ! [1856] "Reconstructive Criticism"167 Whitman comes as close to blasphemy as he can in asserting that the very act of contempfoting the grass is to be sold as a spectacle. Reynolds attempts to employ this sacrilegious demand as an instance of an intrusion from beneath—Whitman in his view is aping a mode of satanism which occurs in the yellow-backed novels, said to have influenced...


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pp. 165-170
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