Walt Whitman: Lives and Legacies

Walt Whitman: Lives and Legacies

by David S. Reynolds

New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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A concise cultural biography of Whitman.

“A good, enlightening introduction to a still-controversial figure.”

“A compelling portrait of a great American poet.”
Carl Rollyson, New York Sun


About the Book

From the great events of the day to the patient workings of a spider, few poets responded to the life around them as powerfully as Walt Whitman. Now, in this brief but bountiful volume, David S. Reynolds offers a wealth of insight into the life and work of Whitman, examining the author through the lens of nineteenth-century America.

Reynolds shows how Whitman responded to contemporary theater, music, painting, photography, science, religion, and sex. But perhaps nothing influenced Whitman more than the political events of his lifetime, as the struggle over slavery threatened to rip apart the national fabric. America, he believed, desperately needed a poet to hold together a society that was on the verge of unraveling. He created his powerful, all-absorbing poetic “I” to heal a fragmented nation that, he hoped, would find in his poetry new possibilities for inspiration and togetherness. Reynolds also examines the influence of theater, describing how Whitman’s favorite actor, the tragedian Junius Brutus Booth–“one of the grandest revelations of my life”–developed a powerfully emotive stage style that influenced Leaves of Grass, which took passionate poetic expression to new heights. Readers will also discover how from the new medium of photography Whitman learned democratic realism and offered in his poetry “photographs” of common people engaged in everyday activities. Reynolds concludes with an appraisal of Whitman’s impact on American letters, an influence that remains strong today.

Solidly grounded in historical and biographical facts, and exceptionally wide-ranging in the themes it treats, Walt Whitman packs a dazzling amount of insight into a compact volume.

Critical Praise for Walt Whitman: Lives and Legacies

“A compelling portrait of a great American poet….This book conveys Mr. Reynolds’s capacious grasp of the literature about Whitman, his reading of the primary sources, and his own well-considered view of the man and poet.” –Carl Rollyson, New York Sun

“Precise and provocative, learned and lucid…. Reynolds is eminently equipped for the task of reducing to a sonnet the epic of Whitman’s life. A Bancroft winner, Reynolds knows the historical period (and the details of Whitman’s life) so thoroughly that he can find the essence–the quintessence, really–of a vast complexity…. A concise and well-considered summary of the forces–biographical, social, cultural–that combined in fashioning our most original and democratic poetic voice.” Kirkus Reviews

“Reynolds skillfully illustrates Whitman’s transformation into a poet and shows how he transformed various elements of his time (e.g., the Civil War, theater, philosophy, and science) into poetry. Modest but well rounded, this book ultimately delivers a portrait of a fleshy Whitman who sings.”Library Journal

“Walt Whitman found countless sources for his poetry in the astonishingly vigorous culture–high, middle, and low–of his day. No other living scholar is better equipped than David S. Reynolds to illuminate this rich web of connections. In this book, Reynolds takes the reader on a lightning tour of Whitman’s world, from grand opera, phrenology, and political oratory to Bowery Boy fashions and the free love movement.”  –Michael Moon, Johns Hopkins University, author of Disseminating Whitman

“This highly readable introduction to America’s greatest poet by one of his most knowledgeable and insightful biographers is a useful point of entry into Walt Whitman’s work and the world that shaped it such important ways.” –Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Stanford University, author of From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America

“In Walt Whitman, David Reynolds has distilled the key findings of his encyclopedic Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography and now makes Whitman’s cultural life–and his transformation of that life into art–accessible to readers at all levels. Every page contains suggestions, discoveries, and insights that will send students back to Whitman’s poetry with renewed enthusiasm. This is an innovative and illuminating introduction to Whitman and his work.”  –Ed Folsom, Editor, Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

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