About the Poets


Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson (Harvard University Press; Reissue edition, 1994).
In a profound new analysis of Emily Dickson’s life and work, Judith Farr explores the desire, suffering, exultation, spiritual rapture, and intense dedication to the art that characterize Dickinson’s poems, deciphering their many complex and witty references to texts and paintings of the day. In Farr’s analysis, the poet emerges not as a cryptic proto-modern or a victim of female repression but as a cultivated mid-Victorian in whom the romanticism of Emerson and the American landscape painters found bold expression.


Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (Modern Library, 2002).Emily Dickinson, probably the most loved and certainly the greatest of American poets, continues to be seen as the most elusive. One reason she has become a timeless icon of mystery for many readers is that her developmental phases have not been clarified. In this exhaustively researched biography, Alfred Habegger presents the first thorough account of Dickinson’s growth–a richly contextualized story of genius in the process of formation and then in the act of overwhelming production.


Building on the work of former and contemporary scholars,
My Wars Are Laid Away in Books brings to light a wide range of new material from legal archives, congregational records, contemporary women's writing, and previously unpublished fragments of Dickinson’s own letters. Habegger discovers the best available answers to the pressing questions about the poet: Was she lesbian? Who was the person she evidently loved? Why did she refuse to publish and why was this refusal so integral an aspect of her work? Habegger also illuminates many of the essential connection sin Dickinson’s story: between the decay of doctrinal Protestantism and the emergence of her riddling lyric vision; between her father’s political isolation after the Whig Party’s collapse and her private poetic vocation; between her frustrated quest for human intimacy and the tuning of her uniquely seductive voice.

The definitive treatment of Dickinson’s life and times, and of her poetic development, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books shows how she could be both a woman of her era and a timeless creator. Although many aspects of her life and work will always elude scrutiny, her living, changing profile at least comes into focus in this meticulous and magisterial biography. 

Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (Orion Press, 2003).
When Wilfred Owen died in 1918, aged 25, only five of his poems had been published. Yet he became one of the most popular poets of the 20th century. For decades his public image was controlled by family and friends, especially his brother Harold who was terrified anyone might think Wilfred was gay. In recent years much new material has become available. This book, based on over 30 years of wide-ranging research, brings new information to almost every part of Owen's life. Owen emerges as a complex, fascinating and often endearing character with an intense delight in being alive.
 

Jarrell, Mary. Remembering Randall: A Memoir of Poet, Critic, and Teacher Randall Jarrell (HarperCollins Publishers; first education edition, 1999).
When Randall Jarrell died in 1965, he left a critically acclaimed body of poetry, fiction, and criticism that has earned him a permanent place in the pantheon of American letters. A Library of Congress Poet Laureate and National Book Award winner, he had a formidable intellect and wit that endeared him to--or infuriated--the finest minds of his day.
 
Now, in the nine essays collected in Remembering Randall, his widow, Mary von Schrader Jarrell, offers a distinctive portrait of the esteemed poet-critic as only she could have known him. Capturing the essence of this complex, brilliant man, she writes knowingly about the wellsprings and character of Jarrell's poetry, particularly his last and best book, The Lost World; his courageous endeavor, after suffering from hepatitis, to create the celebrated children's books The Bat-Poet and The Animal Family; his lifelong friendships with fiction writer Peter Taylor and poet Robert "Cal" Lowell; his commitment during the last eight years of his life to completing his translation of Goethe's Faust, Part One; and, finally, their marriage.
 
From their home in North Carolina to Washington, New York, San Francisco, and London, Mary von Schrader Jarrell vividly describes the restless mind and free spirit they shared in their marriage. As she writes, "To be married to Randall was to be encapsulated with him." This engrossing, intimate collection could not serve as a better tribute.


Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (University of California Press, 2000).
Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself is the first full-length critical biography of Walt Whitman in more than 40 years. Jerome Loving makes use of recently unearthed archival evidence and newspaper writings to present the most accurate, complete, and complex portrait of the poet to date. This authoritative biography affords fresh, often revelatory insights into many aspects of the poet's life, including his attitudes toward the emerging urban life of America, his relationships with his family members, his developing notions of male-male love, his attitudes toward the vexed issue of race, and his insistence on the union of American states. Virtually every chapter presents material that was previously unknown or unavailable, and Whitman emerges as never before, in all his complexity as a corporal, cerebral, and spiritual being. Loving gives us a new Poet of Democracy, one for the twenty-first century. 

Loving brings to life the elusive early Whitman, detailing his unhappy teaching career, typesetting jobs, quarrels with editors, and relationships with family and friends. He takes us through the Civil War--with Whitman's moving descriptions of the wounded and dying he nursed, the battlegrounds and camps he visited--demonstrating why the war became one of the defining events of Whitmans life and poetry. Loving's account of Whitman's relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most complete and fascinating available. He also draws insights from new material about Whitman's life as a civil servant, his Lincoln lectures, and his abiding campaign to gain acceptance for what was regarded by many as a 'dirty book.' He examines each edition of Leaves of Grass in connection with the life and times that produced it, demonstrating how Whitman's poetry serves as a priceless historical document--marking such events as Grant's death, the completion of the Washington monument, Custer's defeat, and the Johnstown flood--at the same time that it reshapes the canon of American literature. 

The most important gap in the Whitman record is his journalism, which has never been completely collected and edited. Previous biographers have depended on a very incomplete and inaccurate collection. Loving has found long-forgotten runs of the newspapers Whitman worked on and has gathered the largest collection of his journalism to date. He uses these pieces to significantly enhance our understanding of where Whitman stood in the political and ideological spectra of his era. 

Loving tracks down the sources of anecdotes about Whitman, how they got passed from one biographer to another, were embellished and re-contextualized. The result is a biography in which nothing is claimed without a basis in the factual record. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself will be an invaluable tool for generations to come, an essential resource in understanding Leaves of Grass and its poet--who defied literary decorum, withstood condemnation, and stubbornly pursued his own way.
 

Morris, Roy, Jr. The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War (Oxford University Press; new education edition, 2002).
On May 26, 1863, Walt Whitman wrote to his mother: "O the sad, sad things I see--the noble young men with legs and arms taken off--the deaths--the sick weakness, sicker than death, that some endure, after amputations...just flickering alive, and O so deathly weak and sick." For nearly three years, Whitman immersed himself in the devastation of the Civil War, tending to thousands of wounded soldiers and recording his experience with an immediacy and compassion unequaled in wartime literature anywhere in the world. 

In The Better Angel, acclaimed biographer Roy Morris, Jr. gives us the fullest accounting of Whitman's profoundly transformative Civil War Years and an historically invaluable examination of the Union's treatment of its sick and wounded. Whitman was mired in depression as the war began, subsisting on journalistic hackwork, wasting his nights in New York's seedy bohemian underground, his "great career" as a poet apparently stalled. But when news came that his brother George had been wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman rushed south to find him. Though his brother's injury was slight, Whitman was deeply affected by his first view of the war's casualties. He began visiting the camp's wounded and, almost by accident, found his calling for the duration of the war. Three years later, he emerged as the war's "most unlikely hero," a living symbol of American democratic ideals of sharing and brotherhood. 

Instead of returning to Brooklyn as planned, Whitman continued to visit the wounded soldiers in the hospitals in and around the capital. He brought them ice cream, tobacco, brandy, books, magazines, pens and paper, wrote letters for those who were not able and offered to all the enormous healing influence of his sympathy and affection. Indeed, several soldiers claimed that Whitman had saved their lives. One noted that Whitman "seemed to have what everybody wanted" and added "When this old heathen came and gave me a pipe and tobacco, it was about the most joyful moment of my life." Another wrote that "There is many a soldier that never thinks of you but with emotions of the greatest gratitude." But if Whitman gave much to the soldiers, they in turn gave much to him. In witnessing their stoic suffering, in listening to their understated speech, and in being always in the presence of death, Whitman evolved the new and more direct poetic style that was to culminate in his masterpiece, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
 
Brilliantly researched and beautifully written, The Better Angel explores a side of Whitman not fully examined before, one that greatly enriches our understanding of his later poetry. More than that, it gives us a vivid and unforgettable portrait of the "other army"--the legions of sick and wounded soldiers who are usually left in the shadowy background of Civil War history--seen here through the unflinching eyes of America's greatest poet.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes (Life of Langston Hughes, 1902-1941) (Oxford University Press; 2nd edition, 2001).

Poet, playwright, novelist, and a grand figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Langston Hughes stands as one of the most extraordinary and prolific American writers of this century. As the first installment of a two-volume biography, this portrait of Langston Hughes depicts his life from his birth in Missouri in 1902 to the winter of 1941.
 
Rampersad recounts Hughes' early days in Kansas as a child of a family steeped in radical Abolitionism, with an ancestor who fought and died at Harper's Ferry in John Brown's band. Taught by his aged grandmother to revere freedom and justice, he nevertheless led a lonely life as a child. His mother left him in his grandmother's care while trying unsuccessfully to launch a career in the theater, and his father—a  black man who seemed to hate blacks—abandoned him to find a business career in Mexico. Hughes grew into a highly disciplined and yet restless adult who found personal salvation in poetry.
 
Inspired by both the democratic chants of Walt Whitman and the vibrant forms of Afro-American culture, Hughes became the most original and revered of black poets. Rampersad's study traces the nomadic, yet dedicated spirit that led him--as a young man--to Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, Africa, Europe, the Soviet Union, China, and Japan, as well as all over the United States. During his travels, Hughes cultivated associations with a dazzling range of political activists, patrons, and fellow artists, including Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston, Carl Van Vechten, Lincoln Steffens, Nancy Cunard, Ernest Hemingway, and Claude McKay.
 
Based on exhaustive research in archival collections throughout the country, especially in the Langston Hughes papers at Yale University's Beinecke Library, Rampersad's masterful work presents a vivid portrait of one of our greatest writers and a sweeping panorama of culture and history in the early twentieth century.
 

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (Vintage, reprint edition,1996).
In his poetry Walt Whitman set out to encompass all of America and in so doing heal its deepening divisions. This magisterial biography demonstrates the epic scale of his achievement, as well as the dreams and anxieties that impelled it, for it places the poet securely within the political and cultural context of his age.

Combing through the full range of Whitman's writing, David Reynolds shows how Whitman gathered inspiration from every stratum of nineteenth-century American life: the convulsions of slavery and depression; the raffish dandyism of the Bowery "b'hoys"; the exuberant rhetoric of actors, orators, and divines. We see how Whitman reconciled his own sexuality with contemporary social mores and how his energetic courtship of the public presaged the vogues of advertising and celebrity. Brilliantly researched, captivatingly told, Walt Whitman's America is a triumphant work of scholarship that breathes new life into the biographical genre. 


Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson (Harvard University, reprint edition, 1994).
The life of Emily Dickinson, Richard B. Sewall's monumental biography of the great American poet (1830-1886), won the National Book Award when it was originally published in two volumes. Now available in the one-volume edition, it has been called "by far the best and most complete study of the poet's life yet to be written, the result of nearly twenty years of work" (The Atlantic).

R.W.B. Lewis has hailed it as "a major event in American letters," adding that "Richard Sewall's biographical vision of Emily Dickinson is as complete as humans scholarship, ingenuity, stylistic pungency, and common sense can arrive at."