When I studied literature both in high school and again in college, the main critical approach was New Criticism. This meant looking at a piece of writing as an object, free from biographical and historical information. By calling itself “New” this method hoped to get away from the biographical and historical emphasis when reading a work which had preceded it. Needless to say, while I loved literature of all kinds, I rarely had a solid understanding of the cultural, biographical and historical influences on the authors.
When I was in Philadelphia, I stumbled across an exhibit in City Hall of contemporary artists reflecting on Walt Whitman for his 200th birthday. Reawakening my interest in Whitman, this display sent me back to his writing once I got home. This time I decided to read Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography written by David S. Reynolds. While I am very familiar with Whitman’s poetry, I had a very limited sense of the milieu out of which he wrote. This book continues to fill out the background and increases my appreciation of Whitman, an author I already truly enjoyed.
And why Philadelphia for the exhibit? It turns out that for the last fifteen years of his life Whitman lived in Camden, New Jersey, a bridge away across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Who knew? Certainly not this literature major!