David Reynolds
David Reynolds
Walt Whitman's America:  A Cultural Biography
ISBN: 0679767096
Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography
Professor Reynolds talked about his recent book, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, published by Alfred A. Knopf. He analyzed Whitman's contradictory stances on race, class and gender which came from his close relationship with the social and cultural milieu of contemporaty Jacksonian culture through not only his major poetic works, but his personal correspondence, journalism and other sources. He also examined the the aging process both in the man and his ideas.
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TRANSCRIPT
Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography
Program Air Date: April 28, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David S. Reynolds, author of "Walt Whitman's America," what did it feel like when you were nominated for the National Book Award?
DAVID REYNOLDS: Well, I was totally thrilled. And it was a very tough category because in that category they include both biographies and memoirs, and so mine was really one of the few biographies that was nominated for that award. So I was totally thrilled, and I think that it points to the fact that a lot of people are kind of turning nowadays to Walt Whitman as kind of a -- not only a cultural icon, but also someone that can speak to modern Americans. And I wrote this book in such a way that I discussed issues of American cultural history, not just Whitman's own private life -- I cover that in his poetry -- but also issues of history and society in a way that showed how these issues undergirded our own contemporary America. And I think that that's what has really struck a responsive chord among reviewers and among the prize juries.
LAMB: Not just the National Book Award. By the way, when do you find out if you won it or not?
REYNOLDS: Well, actually, what happened -- that happened last week, and it was a tough category. And it was me and the Emerson biography and a couple of others, and it was nice to be a finalist. But actually Robert Polito's "Savage Art" -- it was a biography of Jim Thomson that won in that particular category.
LAMB: But you did win the Bancroft award.
REYNOLDS: Yeah, I won the Bancroft prize, which also I was awarded last week.
LAMB: What's that?
REYNOLDS: That's perhaps the most prestigious award in American history, or one of the top prizes in American cultural history. And there are two awards given every year, and I won the award for the area of biography and sort of cultural biography.
LAMB: What do you think attracted people?
REYNOLDS: I think what attracted people was -- Walt Whitman has been such a crucial figure in the formation of American culture and the American spirit, but never has he been tied closely to his society, his culture, the politics of his time. And he was a man who, above all, saw himself as absorbing America. He said the proof of the poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed his country. And I think this whole interchange between the man who in many senses was America's greatest poet and his contemporary American society, that whole dialogue, is something that I focus on in this book and that a lot of people responded precisely for that reason. I think a lot of people are tired nowadays of literary criticism that is either off in the theoretical clouds, completely detached from even literary texts, or, on the other hand, criticism that often gets very ideological and political. I think that, more and more, people are kind of thirsting for criticism and biography that just speaks kind of in ordinary language, just to normal, intelligent readers and that kind of reaches out to a larger general leadership. And I think that this is what really has -- people have responded to and why also the book has gone through four printings and is now in vintage paperback and so forth. So ...
LAMB: In the back -- or at the last of the pictures right here is this one that was taken in Camden, New Jersey, in 1891.
REYNOLDS: Yes.
LAMB: And you say you actually started the book in this town.
REYNOLDS: Yes. At the time I was the director of Whitman studies down at Rutgers University, Camden. And the house in which he spent the last 19 years of his life is in Camden, and it's marvelously preserved. It's a very humble home, a two story frame dwelling. And his bedroom is upstairs there with still the bed that he died in, and it was here that he really became famous. Oscar Wilde trekked all the way to Camden to visit the poet, whom he considered the finest poet that America had produced. Longfellow trekked down there. You know, Camden was a relatively a drab town, unimportant town, but Whitman really put it on the map. And I kind of got my -- he's also buried in Camden's Harleigh Cemetery -- and I got my inspiration while I was there, and I said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to kind of recreate his entire world," just as I saw that world almost alive in that little humble dwelling on Mickle Street.
LAMB: 328 Mickle Street. What's it like? What's that neighborhood like?
REYNOLDS: Well, Camden, like many urban centers, has become a kind of a spectacle of urban blight. I think that Camden now is trying -- actually since I was there in the '80s, it's made something of a comeback. But it's now a fairly quiet, almost ghost town kind of a feeling there. Mickle Street now is kind of surrounded. That area's not too bad, but Camden itself has many areas that are kind of rundown and so forth. In Whitman's time, this was a bustling town, a growing town, almost like the Brooklyn of his youth. There was noise in the streets. There were many sawmills along the Delaware River. It's right across the river from Philadelphia. And it was kind of an upcoming sort of urban center. And in modern life it's kind of a pale shadow of what it was then, although I also want to add that I think in recent years, with the new aquarium there and all that, that it is making a comeback, and it still is a fascinating place with beautiful old buildings and so -- although a lot of them are in disrepair.
LAMB: Can you go visit his home?
REYNOLDS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And it's ironic that so many homes in which Whitman lived have been destroyed, that they've just vanished. And yet his birthplace in Huntington, Long Island, and his death place in Camden have survived, and both of them are in wonderful shape. One can travel to his birthplace and, really, the house was largely built by his own father, who was a carpenter -- and then his death place. Both of them are very nicely preserved. They're like little gems of 19th century Americana, and with a lot of the kind of artifacts and so forth that Whitman had.
LAMB: Walt Whitman was born in what year?
REYNOLDS: He was born in 1819.
LAMB: To what parents? Where?
REYNOLDS: Well, he was born on Long Island, and his father was a struggling carpenter who never really -- he just barely made it above the poverty line. His father had kind of struggled in farming on Long Island. Then when Walt -- just before Walt turned four -- that's the house in which he was born and his father took the young family to live in Brooklyn. There's a little shot of Brooklyn on the top right there, which then was basically a country village. When they moved there, it was a little town numbering about 7,000 in population. And his mother was of Quaker stock. Walt was always very, very devoted to his mother, even though she was only barely literate; that is to say, I mean, when she wrote him letters, she never capitalized words, never used -- rarely used punctuation and so forth. And yet he was extremely, actually, tribal in his feelings about his parents, despite the fact that they never really appreciated his poetry. Nevertheless, he said, "I have a kind of tribal feeling about my parents and my siblings." He had many siblings.
LAMB: These are the pictures of his parents that we just showed.
REYNOLDS: Yes, that's right, his father and mother.
LAMB: How many children to his father and mother?
REYNOLDS: Well, there were eight children, one of whom died in infancy. It was in many ways a troubled family. Walt's youngest brother Eddie was retarded from birth and possibly epileptic. His older brother Jesse went insane, and Walt had to commit him to the King's County lunatic asylum. His sister, Hannah, ended up by going, probably, psychotic and was married to a neurotic artist who also ended up in an asylum. He had another brother, Andrew, who became an alcoholic and who died early of, probably, throat cancer. I mention all of these things because Walt Whitman was above all the poet of joy, of optimism, of faith and hope. And too many people nowadays look upon Whitman and say, "He lived in a simpler age. He lived in an age when, you know, people could speak about the miracle of the commonplace in such an easy way." That wasn't at all true. I mentioned his father's near poverty. His father also apparently struggled with alcoholism. I mentioned several of his siblings having problems. And yet Walt stands for us, I think, an example of somebody who managed to overcome incredible -- in some senses, incredibly severe private misfortune to kind of forge a new kind of affirmation in his poetry.
LAMB: By the way, where do you live now?
REYNOLDS: Well, I live not too far from Walt Whitman's birthplace. As I say, he was born and raised in a section of Huntington called West Hills, and I live in a place called Old Westbury on Long Island.
LAMB: What are you doing?
REYNOLDS: Well, I'm a professor at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. I teach American literature and American studies, also general lit classes there.
LAMB: Where's home originally?
REYNOLDS: Well, originally I'm from Rhode Island. I was born in Providence. I was raised in Barrington, Rhode Island. I was raised in a lighthouse. In some ways I had kind of a Whitmanesque love of nature, I think partly because of my physical surroundings. I was fortunate enough to be raised on a point of land in a lighthouse, kind of going to sleep every night with the sound of the lapping waves and so forth. And I think that my parents always had a kind of romantic feeling about nature and so forth, and some of this, I think, underlay my response to Whitman's own love of nature. And ...
LAMB: What about your parents? What'd they do?
REYNOLDS: Well, my dad sold life insurance for years and years. Now he's in retirement. He's in California. He's an artist. He sells his paintings. My mother was an artist who taught for a while on a lecturing basis at Rhode Island School of Design, and she's a very fine watercolorist. And, also, to make a little money on the side, she also painted Hallmark cards.
LAMB: How did you live in the lighthouse?
REYNOLDS: Well, the lighthouse actually discontinued service -- it was built in 1821, and it's a historical landmark. And it's on Nayatt Point in Barrington. And it discontinued service in 1900 because actually it's very shallow in that area, and too many ships were being shipwrecked. So they built a new lighthouse out in the middle of Narragansett Bay. And, actually, the lighthouse is no longer in -- our lighthouse was no longer in operation. They built a regular house onto it. So the lighthouse was mainly a place where one took a guest or something up the winding stairs, or I would occasionally go up there during a hurricane or something just stand aghast at the sight. But, generally, we just lived in the house.
LAMB: When did you first get interested in Walt Whitman?
REYNOLDS: I had a brush with him in high school, as I think many people do. I guess I read "O Captain! My Captain!", the great Abraham Lincoln poem. But it was really in college. I went to Amherst College, and I studied with people like Benjamin De Mott and Leo Marx. And it was in Leo Marx's American literature class as an undergraduate that I first read "Song of Myself." And I never dreamed in a million years that I would ever write a book on Walt Whitman. At the time I was just an English major, an American studies minor. At the time, I thought I would go on and get an MBA and go to law school or something like that. I knew that I loved to read, I loved to read poetry and so forth, but I never dreamed about being a scholar or a biographer or something like that.

But then when I went to graduate school I concentrated in American literature, and I became more and more interested in the American Renaissance, which is the period between 1830 and 1860 in which Walt Whitman wrote. This is the same period that produced Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Poe and Emily Dickinson and also Walt Whitman -- just an incredibly rich period. I think I became fascinated by this. And then I wrote several books, including one called "Beneath the American Renaissance," which came out in 1988. And I became more and more interested in Walt Whitman just as someone who represented American culture so deeply, and so it was kind of a gathering momentum of personal interests.
LAMB: Did your college professor that got you interested -- is he still alive, by the way?
REYNOLDS: Yes, he is.
LAMB: Did he read this book?
REYNOLDS: I haven't heard from Leo Marx about this book. I know that Leo admired my previous book, "Beneath the American Renaissance." I bump into Leo at literary conventions, and he's somebody I've admired a lot. And certain other professors that I've had have admired my work over the years. In general, I've heard from a lot -- this book has made me many new friends, and I presume that some of my old influences, my old professors, my old friends have read the book. But, you know, in our profession, you kind of move on, you get a little bit out of touch with somebody's who's teaching, like on the West Coast or at MIT or something like that, but it's made me so many new friends.
LAMB: Where did this picture come from? What year in his life?
REYNOLDS: That's taken in the early 1870s, after the Civil War, when Whitman was just beginning to dress a little more conservatively. Back in the 1850s he had donned a carpenter's outfit and almost looked like a rough -- a street rough -- the upper right hand picture-- that's when he was producing his great poetry. And then, as you can see just in those four photographs -- the first one, he looks like a dapper dandy. That was when he was a quite conventional writer in the 1840s. In the 1850s, the upper right hand one there, is when he adopted the costume of the laborer and the rough. And this is when he wrote his wonderful, defiant, magical poetry, the early editions of "Leaves of Grass." And then in the lower left is the late '50s when he starts to put on a coat, but still looks like a Bohemian. And then the lower right picture there shows him in the 1860 edition, in which he tries to make himself look more elegant for the middle class parlor. And then the cover photo is when he kind of settles into this somewhat more conservative "good gray poet" posture. Now I think that's a wonderful picture of him, and there's a little unconventionality about the open shirt and the kind of Quaker hat. But, still, there is also something very kind of charming and a little bit almost conservative about it.
LAMB: How much schooling did he have?
REYNOLDS: Well, he didn't have very much formal schooling. He left school when he was age 11, and he got just barely beyond elementary school. He had to help support the family. As I mentioned before, the family was struggling. He had to become a law clerk and then work for newspaper offices in Brooklyn just to help the family keep going. What's really remarkable about people like Whitman, about Melville, a lot of writers back then, there was a certain faith in just self education. Melville once said, "A whaling ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." And for Whitman, too. Even though he had very little formal schooling, he just had this kind of voracious interest in kind of reading; not just reading, but in just sort of experiencing life in general. And I think he can set an example for a lot of people nowadays that there is such a thing as learning by yourself. Yes, going to school is so important, but it's what school does to you, how it inspires creativity in you and the thirst for new knowledge. I think that this is what he really embodied.
LAMB: Did he ever marry?
REYNOLDS: No. He respected the marriage institution, and he actually advised many of his friends to get married, but the presumption is that he was he was homosexual. He had many romantic relationships with younger men. Late in life on the other hand, when he was approached by John Addington Symonds, who was a European homosexual, and said, "Don't your homoerotic poems" -- the "Calamus" poems -- "don't they sort of imply this sexual relationship between men?" And at that time Whitman said, you know, "These are damnable, morbid inferences, and I completely disavow them." And a lot of people have said, "Well, he was just kind of covering up." I think that the truth lies in the middle. The fact that he didn't really perceive -- that word, the word "homosexuality," wasn't used until the 1890s, and he really didn't perceive himself in quite the terms that Symonds, who was this European intellectual, saw him. He saw himself as a working class comrade. He "sold himself," quote, unquote, in much of his poetry as that.

In poetry that today seems quite homosexual, in his day was often reprinted in very proper Victorian anthologies and so forth. And the most scandalous poem -- scandalous poems in his day were his heterosexual poems, which today, frankly, look a little bit tame, but in those days those were the ones that were really banned because they kind of fell outside of the pattern of general behavior. And in a way, this is a sort of long way of answering your question. He did apparently have certain one night affairs with women. There was sort of -- there's a reference in one letter to "that lady who called you such a good bedfellow, Walt." You know, one of his friends wrote that. And supposedly he had what he called a "sweetheart," a woman in the late 1850s or early 1860s. But in terms of becoming close to marriage, he never did that.
LAMB: How many different places did he live besides Camden and Long Island?
REYNOLDS: Well, he started out in Long Island, as I mentioned, and then lived in Brooklyn until -- and then went back out into Long Island, tramped all over Long Island, where he was a teacher. And then spent his young adulthood in Manhattan. And he said, "I spent most of my young manhood absorbing a million people on the Manhattan streets with an intimacy and an abandon never equaled." And that's kind of what my book discusses, his whole contact with the Manhattan street life. And ...
LAMB: Who is this fellow right here?
REYNOLDS: On the lower left there is the Reverend Ralph Smith. When he was teaching on Long Island in what seems to have been that little one room schoolhouse above Ralph Smith there -- that was a very typical schoolhouse on Long Island at that time -- just one room. Supposedly when he was teaching in the town of Southold, Whitman was allegedly denounced from the Presbyterian pulpit by that gentlemen, Ralph Smith, for, again, allegedly having had affairs with some of his male students. And one version of the story runs that Whitman was tarred and feathered and run out of town. I use the word "allegedly" because I don't think today he would be convicted in a court of law on the existing evidence. A lot of the evidence is hearsay.

And in my book, I do as much as possible to kind of reconstruct that story. But at the same time it's sort of like Henry James" "Obscure Hurt." We don't know exactly what it was, and yet kind of everybody has to talk about it. Or Emily Dickinson's "Master." She -- Emily Dickinson fell in love in 1862 with this man. Nobody knows who he was, and yet I think it's important to get these lacunae out on the table so that maybe other people -- I thought by publishing this, maybe that there'd be a trunk in someone's attic in Southold and the guy'd say, "Hey, here it is," or something like that. But anyway, that's what supposedly happened.
LAMB: Just let me read you this back -- this line. "Nevertheless, I have discovered documentation suggesting Whitman's presence in Southold, something neither Whitman himself nor his biographers have mentioned." So what you've written up on pages 70 and 71 and 72, first time it's ever been written up.
REYNOLDS: Well, it has been mentioned in passing. There was a kind of short footnote in Justin Kaplan's biography. There was a little pamphlet published by Katherine Molinoff back in 1966, and she tried to kind of -- that was a privately printed pamphlet. But this particular body of documentation, which was actually a couple of letters -- what happened is that as I went out to Southold, Long Island, near where I live, and I just wanted to place a little -- a square: "Please, anyone who knows about this story, any local person, please get in touch with me." And suddenly I was flooded with these phone calls and so forth. And someone came up with these old letters in which Whitman was mentioned. A couple of ...
LAMB: Where would they find those old letters?
REYNOLDS: They were just passed down through the family, through the family of a man -- I mention him in my footnotes. I forgot his name. He's now deceased. And he said, "I have these letters," and there they were. So it was just kind of interesting that there Walt was. And there were a lot of other kind of rumors and stories and so forth about his presence out there, some of which I kind of threw away. Like there's a house where Walt lived "supposedly," and an older lady is living there now and she said she's lived there ever since childhood. She said, "The room upstairs has always been called Walt's Room. And things like this kind of kept happening, and so I kind of mention these things.
LAMB: Did you worry publishing this story would get more emphasis than you wanted?
REYNOLDS: A little bit, yeah. A little bit. I mean ...
LAMB: Did it?
REYNOLDS: No. I was more worried about it than actually what happened.
LAMB: But go back and I want you to just tell that story in more detail, but then also tell us whether or not this had a big impact, in your opinion, on what he wrote later on.
REYNOLDS: OK.
LAMB: Where is Southold? How far is it from New York City?
REYNOLDS: Southold is about 125 miles east of New York City. It's on the extreme -- it's on the north fork of Long Island. It's a small village on the extreme east of Long Island.
LAMB: And what year would he have been teaching in that little school?
REYNOLDS: He would have been teaching there in very early 1840, probably late 1839, 1840. Usually these teaching terms ran about three months or six months, depending on -- he would go from school to school.
LAMB: What age were the students?
REYNOLDS: The age were probably teenage -- from junior high through high school.
LAMB: How old would he have been?
REYNOLDS: Well, at that time he was about 19, 20 years old.
LAMB: And how much money was he making in those days?
REYNOLDS: Very, very little. Possibly for a year, a year's income might have been about $300 or $400.
LAMB: And you say, "Was the young Whitman run out of town by the enraged citizens of Southold after having publicly been charged with sodomy?"
REYNOLDS: Yeah. That was the charge. The charge was that he had committed sodomy with some of his male students on eastern Long Island, and that this Reverend Ralph Smith got up there on January 3rd, 1841, I guess it was, or 1840 ...
LAMB: '41, yes.
REYNOLDS: Yeah, '41 -- and denounced him from the pulpit, and that this group of citizens supposedly tracked Whitman down in his house and dragged him out and tarred and feathered him and supposedly rode him out of town on a rail. And mainly this was a story that was passed down orally through generations. And when Katherine Molinoff -- who by the way is still living out in Smithtown, Long Island -- I looked her up -- when she, back in the '60s looked up this story, she met 14 citizens whose families had heard this down through the years. I got in touch with the only living relative, the only living descendant of the Whitmans, who is a descendant of Mary, his sister, who was living in Greenport right near Southold. And this descendant lives now down in South Carolina. And she said -- her husband actually is the one who said, "Yes, I have heard this from the word go in my family, that this Southold thing happened, and that Walt Whitman has therefore been considered the black sheep of his family because of this."

And there were other kind of little documentary things that I'm not going to get into right now in terms of trying to prove the story. I think that if he did -- the story was that he was tracked down and that he was beaten and sort of driven out of town -- that a kindly nurse named Selina Danes nursed him back to health and so forth. And I think that those moments of anguish in some of his poems and certain of his "Calamus" poems, which are sort of his homoerotic poems, have -- like there's one called, "Trickle Drops," in which he describes the drops of blood oozing out of him and so forth and being beaten and so on. I kind of pose the theory that maybe -- hey, maybe -- that there was some real trauma here, either in Southold, maybe even somewhere else. Who really knows? Sometimes the moments of anguish in his poetry have a real vividness that might possibly be tied to moments like this in which he suffered some kind of persecution. On the other hand, I also show in my poetry how a lot of his poems, both sort of homoerotic and heteroerotic, tried to take this kind of outer behavior, or behavior that might be considered criminal or sort of abnormal or something. And whether through an act of sublimation or through an act of just poeticizing, transformed it into something life affirming and health affirming. And that's why a lot of the "Calamus" poems, these kind of homoerotic poems, were reprinted in his own day in these very, very proper Victorian anthologies of Whitman's poetry, like "Gems From Walt Whitman," because he managed in many of his poems to present this this kind of love as sort of a healing kind of comradeship for a nation that, after all, was very riven by racial and economic divisions.
LAMB: What were his politics?
REYNOLDS: Well, he started as a rather conventional Democratic loyalist. He was very loyal to Jackson, to Polk ...
LAMB: Andrew Jackson.
REYNOLDS: Yeah, Andrew Jackson. And, in fact, he was sort of a ward politician in Brooklyn in the 1840s. And it was at this time that he towed the party line to the extent that he edited the leading Democratic newspaper in Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He represented the Democrats on a minor level at certain conventions. But one of the arguments I make in my book was that he became suddenly disillusioned by the whole political process in the early 1850s. And in a way I think this is why a lot of people are responding to my book, is that many people today feel alienated from the political process, from government and they look to people like Walt Whitman who responded creatively to a similar kind of disillusion. In the early 1850s, he wrote these transitional poems which are no longer the tame, conventional tow the party line poems of the 1840s.

He had formerly been a very boring conventional poet. And suddenly he erupts in this kind of violent, subversive language in the early 1850s in which he rails against things like the Fugitive Slave Law. What was happening is that the country was on the verge of Civil War. He was totally disgusted by the betrayal of American ideals on the part of party leaders whom he had once revered. And so suddenly this new voice comes in, this brash, defiant, anti authoritarian voice comes in, and this leads directly to the 1855 edition of "Leaves of Grass," and in the preface of which he denounces what he calls "the swarms of cringers, doe faces, lice of politics that infest the whole American government." And suddenly we have this new, fresh voice who is, on the one hand, denouncing sort of these corrupt public figures, but at the same time affirming so many other things: affirming the common man, the common individual; affirming people of all races and all creeds.

So in a way his poetry becomes a replacement for failed politics, and he becomes totally disillusioned by Buchanan, James -- President James Buchanan -- President Franklin Pierce, because of their compromises on the slavery issue. He doesn't totally at first identify with Abraham Lincoln. Ironically, he sides with Stephen Douglas, who was Lincoln's opponent, because he saw Douglas as someone who might keep together the North and the South. And he also doesn't like the abolitionists, ironically enough, because the abolitionists -- I say "ironically" because of course he was a great lover of people of all races and all creeds. And yet the abolitionists were calling for the peaceful disunion of the North and the South because the abolitionists thought that -- barring the emancipation of the slaves -- that the North and the South would have to divide.
LAMB: Let me ask you just a -- in 1849, he would have been 30. In 1859, he would have been 40.
REYNOLDS: Right.
LAMB: "Leaves of Grass," 1855, first edition?
REYNOLDS: That's right.
LAMB: What is "Leaves of Grass"?
REYNOLDS: "Leaves of Grass" is a volume of poems that appeared in six different editions in his own lifetime, and many other versions and reprintings. It started as a collection of 12 poems which revolutionized poetry, actually, because for the first time, in a sophisticated way, poetry no longer had to be written in a tight rhyme, in a tight meter and everything like that, but was free flowing, proselike, rhythmic, following the inflections of the voice, following the passions of the personality. And, also, this was a brand new kind of democratic poetry. He had become so profoundly disillusioned with the Old Party stance that he now ushered a new kind of -- he created a new kind of American democracy in his poetry, bringing together people of all sections at a time when the nation was on the verge of Civil War. And ...
LAMB: So wait. Just let me jump in.
REYNOLDS: Yeah.
LAMB: He's 36 years old when he first wrote "Leaves of Grass," or published it.
REYNOLDS: Right.
LAMB: What was the acceptance at that point? How much of a difference did it make?
REYNOLDS: Well, only -- that Utopian hope that he had, that the country would absorb him as affectionately as he had absorbed it. It was a Utopian hope. That first edition of 1,000 copies, a lot of them he had to give away. They barely sold out. He was appreciated by a select few -- by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord and by certain other discerning people -- Bronson Alcott. But those masses -- he looked upon the "Leaves of Grass" as being sort of the new Bible. He called it once "the new Bible." And he endured a certain amount of ridicule, a certain amount of praise, but worst of all for him quite a lot of neglect in the early going there -- quite a lot of neglect. He came out in 1856 with a second edition in which there were 20 new poems, and he tried to repackage it. He kept on trying to repackage it, to sell his poetry. Unfortunately for him, because of his social agenda, unfortunately, it would be quite a while until his poetry was generally known by American culture. And until it was, he used everything in his power to kind of announce himself in public.
LAMB: You base all your writings on the 1891 version. Is that his deathbed version?
REYNOLDS: 1891 to '92. Well, in my book I actually go through all the different editions, but a lot of my quotations are from this sort of definitive deathbed edition. Yes.
LAMB: Did he change any of his poems over those years?
REYNOLDS: Yes. When it first appeared in 1855, the poems were very free flowing. Instead of commas, there were ellipses, periods, a very unconventional kind of use of punctuation. A lot of times he didn't use any punctuation at all. It was a very radical kind of -- a new, fresh kind of poetry. Also, it was a wonderfully brash, defiant, individualistic, also a very, very loving, open kind of poetry. And then slowly, as he found himself in different cultural conditions and responding in different ways, he changed his poetry. He did retain most of the early poems, but at the same time he added more conventional commas where there used to be these kind of very unconventional ellipses. He somewhat tailored his poetry, his later poetic voice, to more conventional, middle class tastes.

This is not to say that he ever became, let's say, a Longfellow or a Whittier. I mean, he never reverted to what he had been in the 1840s, which was this tame, conventional -- he never did that. Nor did he ever abandon his basic poetic vision or his program. But he did specifically try to more and more reach the middle class reader. And he looked back on the 1855 edition, which had that rough portrait as his frontispiece, and he felt a little ambivalent about some of its wildness, and he tried to tame that as he became the "good gray poet" for a more industrialized America.
LAMB: When did he work for the government? What was his job? How long did he keep it?
REYNOLDS: Well, he worked for the government -- he went to Washington to -- his brother George was wounded at Fredricksburg, and he went to Washington to seek out his wounded brother. And he said, "Well, I'm just going to stay here for a couple of weeks." Turns out that he'd actually stayed there for 10 years working as a government clerk. He ended up in the attorney general's office. He had worked previously at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, mainly as a government clerk. Today he might even be considered a kind of government drudge, sort of a glorified secretary and so forth, but still he ...
LAMB: How old?
REYNOLDS: Well, this was in this 1860s, when he was in his 40s and into his 50s. When he was ...
LAMB: Was he writing during that period?
REYNOLDS: Well, he brought out an edition of "Leaves of Grass." He was writing a powerful prose piece called "Democratic Vistas," which is his most important prose essay. He kept on trying to produce new poems. But, frankly, most of his great, great poems were published before the war. And after the war, in a way, he was looking back on the Civil War. He wrote a volume of poems called "Drum Taps," which is a wonderful volume of Civil War poetry. And also his two greatest poems after the war were about Abraham Lincoln. His most popular poem was "O Captain! My Captain!", which is somewhat conventional, but his great poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
LAMB: Did he ever meet Abraham Lincoln?
REYNOLDS: No, but he saw him very often in the streets, and he said that once or twice Lincoln would nod to him. In Washington in those days it wasn't like today, where the President is usually, for most people, just an image on the TV screen. In those days one could actually even make an appointment with Lincoln and see him in the White House. Whitman himself never did that, but he did see him kind of on the street often, and he gained an incredible admiration for -- almost a fixation on Abraham Lincoln, who became what Whitman called "the martyred chief of America." And Whitman spent much of his later years kind of looking back.

His most popular poem was this "O Captain! My Captain!" And, also, Whitman was asked many, many times to give this lecture he had written called "The Death of Abraham Lincoln," in which he relived the assassination. And he thought that, in this moment of assassination, America in a way came together in grief over the death of its so called "martyred chief." And this is why in a way Lincoln accomplished the kind of social unification that Whitman had hoped in a way that his earlier poetry, his own poetry, might accomplish. And he thought that because Lincoln became such an important cultural icon, that he himself would be the perpetuator of Lincoln's memory.
LAMB: I was looking at one of these portable Walt Whitman with the -- you can buy in the bookstores. This one's edited by Mark Van Doren the father of Charles Van Doren?
REYNOLDS: Yes, that's right.
LAMB: When you go back and look at the history of what's available on Walt Whitman, how many biographies have been written about him?
REYNOLDS: Well, there have been many biographies. I think there have been 15 kind of major ones, shall we say, but there have been a lot of kind of abridged ones or kind of minor ones.
LAMB: When was the last one before yours?
REYNOLDS: There were a couple of biographies that came out in the '80s. Justin Kaplan published in 1980 "Walt Whitman: A Life." And then Paul Zweig in 1984, "Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet." Also ...
LAMB: Did you read all those? Did you ...
REYNOLDS: Oh, sure, yeah. And there was a British man named Callow who, for the centennial of Whitman's death in 1992, brought out a small biography. Sure, yeah, I read all of them.
LAMB: How many years did you spend on writing this book?
REYNOLDS: Well, I officially signed up with my publisher, Knopf, in 1988 for this book, and I spent about six years in the libraries and then about two years of actual writing. So I spent years and years in libraries, and then a couple years of actually just sitting down every day and writing.
LAMB: What's the writing experience like for you?
REYNOLDS: In order to be a writer, you have to be largely self motivated and self driven, which is both exhilarating, but also a little maddening. You have to get up every day and sit at your computer or your desk at 8:00 or 9:00, whenever it is, and just sit there and write and write and write. And I always gave myself a page limit. I said, "Before this week is out, I want to have produced 35 or 40 pages, something like that. And if I haven't done it, I'm just not going to let myself quit." And when you're writing a book of this magnitude, I think you almost have to have this kind of attitude or else it'll just never get done.
LAMB: Did you ever get writer's block?
REYNOLDS: Well, you know, it's funny, the way I do my projects -- and this has been true about my previous four books as well -- the way I do my projects is to do enough research and take enough notes to the point that I feel like the writing is almost the dropping of the apple -- the ripe apple -- off the vine. And I don't really begin my writing per se until that apple is ready to fall. So I don't think I felt writer's block so much as what I call writer's clog. That is to say, I have so much information, so many vast amounts of notes, how do I now simplify it, sculpt it down, make it readable, make it into a narrative?

And the way I do it as a writer is just to sit down in the morning and just ask, "What are the three or four basic points I'm trying to make today?" -- as I sit down here with eight hours in front of me? "I'm trying to say something today." And what I do is I write down maybe about three or four just ideas -- not even sentences -- three or four -- this is how my argument's going to run today. And then I make a larger thing for the week, "Well, what am I going to try to say this week?" And with those sort of general, simple arguments in mind, then I can fill in all the details. That's why I have difficulty writing on the computer, is that my wife, who's written three books herself, is wonderful at the computer, but -- and a lot of people are -- write right at the computer -- but I almost have to have a pad and paper in front of me because I have such reams and reams of notes that I want to be able to simplify it and use my brain as a kind of computer to kind of bring things together in the form of ...
LAMB: Where do you do it?
REYNOLDS: Well, we have a house in Old Westbury and, also, a house in The Hamptons in Sagaponack. A lot of this book was written in -- I'm a professor, and during the year I teach a lot, but I would snatch moments during my teaching quite often to do some writing. And then also in our summer home, I would often just sit there in a room, in a bedroom, and just sit there with a pad on my knee and just write and write and write. And I felt like -- in a way I felt like Walt Whitman, who would sit there with a pad. He had a quill pen; I had a ballpoint pen. And I literally wrote out this whole book in longhand, and then I logged it onto my computer at the end of the week. I would always devote, let's say, Saturday morning or something to typing everything I had written in longhand onto the computer.
LAMB: Why do you do this?
REYNOLDS: I just have an endless curiosity and fascination with American society and American literature and American culture and American history, where it comes from. Whitman once wrote, "Where does my faintest wish come from? I do not know." There is some kind of mysterious upwelling of creativity or whatever it is in any writer, I think, or any artist or any musician. Where it comes from, I'm not sure. Partly, of course, it's also I'm a professor. There is something in our profession called "publish or perish," and I'm interested, like any professor, in kind of getting my name known as an expert in my field. But I think even -- but there's also the ultimate reason: Why did I want to become a a professor? And it goes back to that mysterious wish. When I was at Amherst, why did I suddenly decide I want to go to graduate school in English rather than going into business or to law? I think that that -- and I advise my students to do this, too -- to follow what they really love doing, and that somehow that's going to lead you somewhere.
LAMB: "To my wife Suzanne and our daughter Aline [pronounced AY LEEN]" -- is that right?
REYNOLDS: Aline [pronounced AH LEEN].
LAMB: "Aline, with love and thanks."
REYNOLDS: That's right. Absolutely.
LAMB: What kind of a writer is your wife? And how old is your daughter?
REYNOLDS: She's a professor at Long Island University, and she's an expert in comparative literature. And she's written three books: one called "The Symbol of the Soul: From Holderlin to Yeats"; another called "Seeds of Decadence in the Late Nineteenth Century Novel;" and most recently, "Aesthetic Autobiography," which is a study of Proust, Joyce, of Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin. And she comes ...
LAMB: What do you two talk about for fun?
REYNOLDS: Believe it or not, we actually don't talk too much about our books. We kind of -- we would tap away at our computers or do our writing, then we'd meet at lunch and talk about the weather or talk about the bills or anything else. But -- and Aline is now 10 years old. She's in fifth grade. And she's a pretty fine classical musician. And so in the evenings, my wife, who's also a classical musician, is training my daughter on the piano. So that's what Aline is up to.
LAMB: One of the things I picked up in your book, you had the dates for a number of inventions: the railroad in 1829; the rubber overshoes in 1830; street railway, I guess, trolley cars, 1831; steam press for newspapers, 1835; the icebox, 1839; and the daguerreotype, 1839. Now he was alive during all of that period.
REYNOLDS: Oh, yeah. And we forget just how primitive life was when someone like Walt Whitman was born. You know, until the 1830s, living in most cities, people had to go to street pumps to get their water. There was no sort of central heating. In general, the streets were unpaved. And it was mud soup in the winter and dust bowls in the summertime. And these inventions -- these technological inventions, which later, of course, drove the whole capitalist machine, the whole capitalist economy, were things that at the time Whitman really looked upon with a sense of wonder.

And he later wrote a poem called "Passage to India" in which he talks about things like the laying of the Atlantic cable, the telegraph cable, between America and England, and the transcontinental railroad that met in Utah in 1869 -- all these advances, technological advances, which maybe to us look a little bit primitive -- the rubber overshoe and the icebox and so forth. But he had an almost naive wonder about these things, and he'd -- even though he was the great poet of nature, he was also the great poet of sort of technological advance. And he even wrote a poem in which he discusses "the muse among the kitchenware." Even the modern kitchen conveniences were something that struck him.
LAMB: Here's a quote from your book, "He could hug and kiss the soldiers and feel he was on firm moral ground."
REYNOLDS: Yeah. As I was saying, this same sex intimacy, this was a day before same sex passion was sort of typed as homosexuality. That kind of division between homosexual and heterosexual didn't come until the 1890s. And before that, there was a kind of -- he could sort of get away with that without seeming any way out of the sort of cultural mainstream, especially during the Civil War, which was a time of sort of intense male bonding among the soldiers and so forth. So that was an interesting phenomenon. I think with the whole discussion of that, as with everything else, I try to re create Whitman's own times, his own culture and not impose the kind of views of 1995 upon the past.
LAMB: Here's some more pictures of him. What's this picture with -- who is Peter Doyle?
REYNOLDS: Peter Doyle was a young comrade of his in Washington whom he met in 1865 or 1866, and someone that was his very close friend and comrade until the late 1860s.
LAMB: Who was Horace Traubel?
REYNOLDS: Horace Traubel was a young Socialist and a very ardent fan of Walt Whitman's poetry who in 1888 started to come on a daily basis to Walt Whitman's home in Camden and almost acted as a human tape recorder, recording these endless conversations which are now gathered in seven odd volumes, each about 500 pages long, of Whitman's conversations.
LAMB: Who was John Burroughs?
REYNOLDS: John Burroughs was a close friend of Whitman and an early defender of Whitman at a time when still his overt sexual images were being attacked, and Burroughs wrote one of the early biographies of Walt Whitman.
LAMB: Here's a picture of Walt Whitman in 1878.
REYNOLDS: Yes. All of these later pictures, you can see him starting to conform a little more to the post Civil War, more capitalistic, industrial environment. When he became the "good gray poet," he was consciously tailoring his image for the middle class audience.
LAMB: Where is this 1879 picture from?
REYNOLDS: Those are the children. That's a posed picture. Those are the children of a friend of his who's this rich jeweler named John Johnston in New York City. He often visited the Johnstons, and he kind of set up this picture to show how avuncular he was and how -- the "good gray poet" -- the paternal "good gray poet."
LAMB: At the end, you talk about his death. I mean, when they did the autopsy, what did they find?
REYNOLDS: Oh, just about everything. I mean, he had been pretty badly diagnosed by doctors who sort of generally just said -- they had no understanding of strokes. He had suffered several strokes so -- which had left him partly paralyzed for the last 19 years of his life. He also was riddled with tuberculosis. And this had been more or less undiagnosed. He had huge tubercules that were creating intense agony under his ribs. He had a bad liver, and he had huge gallstones. So he had various illnesses, and it's absolutely shocking that he survived the last four months of his life with only one-sixteenth of his normal breathing capacity. He was lying in bed and his doctor said -- and his doctor thought he would last maybe about three or four days. But he, through almost sheer willpower -- again, this is his powerful will. And I'm also convinced that it was his kind of optimism. He always said, "Cheer: what better religion is there than simple cheer?"
LAMB: He was ...
REYNOLDS: And even toward the end, in spite of the fact that he was rasping and he was covered with these scales on his legs as his circulation ran out and so forth, there was a kind of optimism even as he approaches his deathbed.
LAMB: You open the book with his 70th birthday party. How come?
REYNOLDS: This was a moment when a lot of things crystallized in his life. All his life he had wanted fame and recognition, and finally, for his 70th birthday party there in Camden, these respectable lawyers and bankers and so forth came together and they organized this huge, fancy birthday party in which they charged a $5 admission, which back then was a lot of money -- a very fancy menu, from soup to nuts, with cigars, champagnes. And Whitman had to come wheeled in, in a wheelchair, because he was paralyzed. He said very little, as he often, you know, did on public occasions. And yet he was hailed, not only by the people there, but by telegrams and well wishers who had sent messages. And yet, as I suggest there, there was something a little dissatisfied. Whitman was feted and posed and propped up by a lot of his wealthy friends there late in life, but he really wanted to reach the people, the average American.

Now I think that more and more this has been happening since his death; but in his own time, he remained, as one contemporary called it, "caviar to the multitudes," so to speak. And he wanted to reach right out to the average, ordinary, everyday people. So I described that event as both a kind of apotheosis: on the one hand, he had great celebrity; but on the other hand, almost a source of disappointment that, "Yeah, these fancy types are organizing these great dinners for me, but how about just the average Joe? I want to change American society. Why? I want people to come together through my poetry, my poetry that reaches out to all people." And it's that mission of reaching out that I describe in my book. And that mission was only partly realized by the kind of celebrity gatherings that that birthday dinner represented.
LAMB: Last year we did a book here with Robert Richardson on Emerson.
REYNOLDS: Yes.
LAMB: And your book came out the same time. We're doing it later, but I want to ask you about both of those gentlemen. If they came back today and saw books being written about them and conversations about them, because you say he said that -- and there's a quote in our book here that he never could understand why he wasn't popular. Would he be surprised that we're sitting here talking about him today?
REYNOLDS: He would be immensely pleased, and I think that since his death, the -- the kind of celebrity effect that began his lifetime has sort of snowballed. And I think that more and more people throughout the 20th century have appreciated Whitman, have turned to Whitman for sources, not only for a model of how to write poetry, but also just a model of affirmation of joy and of togetherness. And I think that he would be totally pleased that we were sitting here. Whitman wanted to reach out, and I think that my book, which is really designed for kind of every reader -- I think that he would appreciate my effort to tailor his life and his times for just every reader, so to speak, and, so, yes, he would be.
LAMB: I held up this Mark Van Doren compendium of Whitman poems and all, and the reason I did that is because, you know, it's got "O Captain!" in here: "O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done." We've mentioned that probably more than any other poem. When did he write it?
REYNOLDS: He wrote that in 1865. It was about -- it's imaging Abraham Lincoln as the captain of the ship of state, who is now fallen and bloody on the deck. It was after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
LAMB: Was it popular then?
REYNOLDS: Oh, it was the one Walt Whitman poem that really made it into the school anthologies. It was the one that every schoolboy had to memorize and so forth. But Whitman himself -- of course, it's a wonderful poem, and I love it, but Whitman himself became a little tired of it because he was asked time and time again, "Recite, 'O Captain! My Captain!' Please recite that poem for us." And so after a while, he said, "Damn 'My Captain!' Damn that poem." He became sick of it because in a way it was his least representative poem in the sense that it's more conventional and more rhymed and with a regular meter.
LAMB: You say early in the book that you got support from the National Endowment for the Humanities?
REYNOLDS: Yes.
LAMB: What kind of support?
REYNOLDS: The NEH -- and I want to thank them -- gave me a year-long fellowship which allowed me to take a little time off from my teaching. For a book of this magnitude, for any project of this magnitude, you need a certain time by yourself and the NEH gave me a year off, a fellowship, which was very nice -- a fellowship for college teachers.
LAMB: You say, "I have found much to admire as well as certain attitudes that are repellent." What was repellent?
REYNOLDS: Late in life, Whitman became swept up in some of the racist attitudes of his day. And he got swept up in what was called ethnological science, which predicted the so called extinction of certain allegedly inferior races and so forth. On the other hand, there are many incongruities in people that I think ultimately have a very positive force in American society, and Walt Whitman was one of those. Abraham Lincoln, for example, thought until about 1862 that African Americans, when they were released from slavery, should be colonized in Liberia, should be sent abroad. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," at the end of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" says, "Well, I believe that blacks should be educated and then shipped abroad." Thomas Jefferson was a slaveowner, and yet Jefferson, Stowe and Lincoln in their own ways were forces for freedom. They opened the door. Maybe they didn't walk through that door themselves, but they opened the door. They reflected the inconsistencies of the culture, as did Walt Whitman, ultimately, later on in life, in particular. So that's what I'm mentioning, really.
LAMB: You say that he always wanted to be a lecturer. Did he actually get 10 cents per person to lecture?
REYNOLDS: Yeah, a dime a person for his lectures, and I'm sure he actually let a lot of people in for free. He had this dream about being this great lecturer. Later on in life, when he became famous, he did raise as much money as $868 for a lecture that was given up in Manhattan. People like John Hay and William Dean Howells and Andrew Carnegie -- Carnegie paid $400 for his ticket and so forth. So when he became more establishmentarian, he actually made money from his lectures, but in the early going, only a dime a person.
LAMB: How much money did he have left when he died?
REYNOLDS: Well, he had -- you know, I forget the exact figure, but it was, you know, in the tens of thousands of dollars that he had in his estate. He left a lot of that to his brother Eddie and so forth. But what's important to realize is that even though he was paralyzed for almost the last two decades of his life, he managed to earn roughly about $1,400 a year at a time when the average American worker was earning, let's say, between $700 and $800 a year. So actually he was making a lot of money mainly from these lectures and these celebrity events and a certain amount from his book royalties because his books did sell more and more, the older he got.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like, about Walt Whitman. Born in 1819, died in 1892 in Camden, New Jersey, and our guest has been David S. Reynolds. And we thank you very much.
REYNOLDS: Thank you for having me.


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