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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.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780195170092
ISBN-10: 0195170091
Format: Hardback
(216mm x 147mm x 20mm)
Pages: 176
Imprint: Oxford University Press Inc
Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc
Publish Date: 20-Jan-2005
Country of Publication: United States

Reviews

US Kirkus Review » A concise and well-considered summary of the forces-biographical, social, cultural-that combined in fashioning our most original and democratic poetic voice. Reynolds (English and American Studies/CUNY) is eminently equipped for the task of reducing to a sonnet the epic of Whitman's life. A Bancroft winner for Walt Whitman's America (1995), 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. After an opening chapter sketching the peripatetic poet's life (1819-92), the author examines clusters of influences that made Whitman Whitman. Among these are the Temperance Movement (Whitman published a novel on the subject, Franklin Evans, in 1842), the swirl and chaos and cacophony of urban life, the popular arts (especially the theater, oratory, painting, and photography), science and its next of kin (phrenology and mesmerism), philosophy (he read Swedenborg), religion, sex, war, and Lincoln. Whitman loved to hear the preaching of Henry Ward Beecher (who didn't?) but wouldn't permit any particular creed to circumscribe him. Reynolds properly credits the poet for his innovations in style and technique (poetry after Whitman no longer looked or sounded the same) and for his ambitious, surely quixotic, desire to encompass all experience in a word, a phrase, a poem. But Reynolds is no mere press agent for Whitman. He recognizes the ambiguities in the man, quoting, for example, a nasty social-Darwinist passage about race (from later in his life) that flatly contradicts the poet's earlier egalitarian views. And there are other troubling contradictions. Whitman believed, on balance, that the Civil War was a good thing (it cleared the air!) but did see, in grim and red detail (as a volunteer nurse), the horrors of this air-clearing. (Another Dec. 2004 volume from Oxford, Memoranda During the War, a selection from Whitman's journals during the war, edited by Peter Coviello, shows the range and capacity of the poet's sensibility.) Precise and provocative, learned and lucid. (12 b&w illustrations) (Kirkus Reviews)


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Author Biography - David S. Reynolds

David S. Reynolds is Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Among his many books are Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, which won the Bancroft Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Beneath the American Renaissance, winner of the Christian Gauss Award. A regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review, he lives in Old Westbury, New York.

Books By Author David S. Reynolds

Lincoln's Selected Writings by David S. Reynolds

Lincoln's Selected Writings

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Mightier Than the Sword by David S. Reynolds

Mightier Than the Sword

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Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass by David S. Reynolds

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

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Historical Guide to Walt Whitman by David S. Reynolds

A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman

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