Walt Whitman’s America

Walt Whitman’s America: a Cultural Biography 

by David S. Reynolds

“Not only the best book on Whitman in over a generation, but also one of the most valuable studies in American cultural history of the last decade.”Charles Capper, Reviews in American History

“Reynolds has given us one of the best portraits of our best poet… He is brilliant in finding so many new contexts for Leaves of Grass. A refreshing and welcome addition to Whitman scholarship.”–Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

“This is a wonderful book…A joy to read. I can do no better than to haul out the old cliché: If there is one book a historian is going to read about Walt Whitman, this is the book.” –Kenneth Cmiel, The Journal of American History

“Walt Whitman’s America is not only my favorite book about Whitman but my favorite for the picture David S. Reynolds gives of 19th-century America in its totality.”  -Sara Gabbard, Lincoln Lore

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Paperback edition published by Vintage Books (New York, 1996). Also available as an e-book and audiobook.


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The only Whitman biography that portrays the poet in the full social, political, and cultural contexts of his day.




About the Book

This award-winning book is the first Whitman biography to portray the poet in the full social, political, and cultural context of his day–the first to do justice to the vital interaction between the great American poet and his America.  We see how the social convulsions of Jacksonian America were mirrored in the tribulations of the poet’s family, and how Whitman’s private anguish, which can be felt in his early poems, was swept up in his growing alarm for a nation riven by sectional controversies, political corruption, and class division. Into the vacuum created by the social and political crises rushed Whitman’s gargantuan poetic “I,” gathering images from every facet of American life in a hopeful gesture of unity: the cocky defiance of the Bowery b’hoys, the rhythms and inflections and actors and orators, the bloodcurdling sensationalism of penny newspapers, the incandescent images of luminist painters, the colorful religious imagery of popular preachers, the zany visions of mystics, the philosophy of the Transcendentalists, and notions about the body, the brain, and nature derived from science and pseudoscience. We see Whitman in a society rampant with illicit sexual activity, which it refused to acknowledge. We see him aligning his passion for young men with the psychological and behavioral customs of a century in which same-sex love was actually common. We see him, when his expectations of a mass audience failed, turning to desperate self-promotion and to a constant reworking of his poems. And Reynolds shows the poet in old age increasingly relying on the kinds of institutions he once spurned, looking backward and forward, idealizing the Civil War while imagining the future.

Critical Praise for Walt Whitman’s America:

“A magnificent achievement. A work of exacting research, painstaking scholarship, multifarious learning, clear prose, sound sense, balanced judgment, and lively, sympathetic imagination.” –Journal of American Studies

“Remarkably informative…I marked on page after page things about Whitman and his America I never knew before.” —Alfred Kazin, The New York Times Book Review

“Reynolds stands alone in showing, almost day by day, the finest roots of Whitman’s genius…His scholarship lights Whitman from within.”
Philadelphia Inquirer

“Reynolds splendidly examines the culture that formed the greatest American poet and the great American poem.” —Time

“Once you have followed Reynolds around the nineteenth-century streets you see Whitman with a sudden new clarity.” —The New Yorker

“Reynolds has produced not only the best book on Whitman in over a generation, but also one of the most valuable studies in American cultural history of the last decade.” –Charles Capper, Reviews in American History

“Systematic and superbly researched….Reynolds enlists the whole American scene of Whitman’s time to explain him.” —New York Review of Books

“Exhaustive…fascinating…an evocative portrait.” —Washington Post Book World

“Essential reading…A fascinating picture of the world out of which a literary masterpiece arose. “ —San Francisco Examiner

“An astounding feat of good scholarly writing.” —Atlanta Journal Constitution

“This book is a godsend. No other work explains Whitman’s cultural background or investigates as many facets of the poet’s times as well as Reynolds.”
The Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star

“Utterly fascinating….A powerful incentive to turn to Whitman’s work itself.”
Detroit News

“A compelling narrative…Exemplary scholarship, not just for our time, but for all times.” —Kirkus (starred)

“A highly readable, well researched cultural history of the period.” — Library Journal (starred)

“An engrossing biographical study that roots Whitman firmly in his time and makes him more relevant to ours.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)

“Better than any previous biographer, Reynolds masterfully charts the changes Whitman went through as he transformed himself into the poet he wanted to be.”
Washington Times

“David Reynolds’ Walt Whitman’s America has been hailed as a major publishing achievement, and the hype is justified…For the flavour of the America Whitman inhabited, one could not do much better than to read this book.” Australasian Journal of American Studies

“Unusually readable and suggestive….This book succeeds in vivifying Whitman’s America and America’s Whitman.” –Journal of the Early Republic

“One might well think that the world could get along quite nicely without another biography of America’s most famous poet.  But “David S. Reynolds is one of those rare critics who can consistently unearth fresh insights from well-trod ground….Reynolds’ elegant text and impressive scholarship are more than a match for his subject.” —Magill Book Reviews

Media Appearances for Walt Whitman’s America :

Television Interview

David S. Reynolds interviewed by Brian Lamb on Book Notes about Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography