David S. Reynolds

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David S. Reynolds
David Reynolds 5 JPEG.jpg
David S. Reynolds
Nationality American
Education Amherst College B.A. magna cum laude
University of California, Berkeley Ph.D.
Occupation educator, critic, biographer, historian

David S. Reynolds (born 1948) is an American literary critic, biographer, and historian noted for his writings on American literature and culture. He is the author or editor of fifteen books,[1] and an expert on the Civil War era—including figures such as Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Lippard, and John Brown—Reynolds is also a regular commentator on the current political and cultural scene. His articles and op eds have appeared in The New York Times, The Daily News (New York), the Hartford Courant, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and Salon. Reynolds has lectured widely and has been interviewed on radio or TV more than eighty times. He is the only author known to have won both the Bancroft Prize, in American history, and the Christian Gauss Award, in literary criticism. His other honors include the Ambassador Book Award, the Gustavus Myers Book Award, and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is a regular reviewer for the New York Times Book Review.

Early life and education[edit]

David Spencer Reynolds, the son of Paul R. and Adelaide K. Reynolds, was born in Providence, Rhode Island on August 30, 1948, and was raised in nearby Barrington, located near Narragansett Bay. He lived there for over a decade in a home attached to the old Nayatt Point Lighthouse. He attended the Moses Brown School and the Providence Country Day School before moving on to Amherst College, where he received a B. A. in 1970.

After teaching high school English at the Providence Country Day School for a year, he pursued his graduate studies in American literature and American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was awarded his Ph.D. in 1979.

Teaching career[edit]

Reynolds has taught American literature and American Studies at Northwestern University, Barnard College, New York University, Rutgers University-Camden, Baruch College, and the Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris III. Since 2006, he has been a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Writings and influence[edit]

Literary criticism[edit]

Reynolds challenges the once-prevalent view—introduced by the New Critics and later promoted by the deconstructionists and other theorists—that literature is divorced from the author's life and contexts. His reconstruction of the cultural and social contexts of literature began with his early book Faith in Fiction: The Emergence of Religious Literature in America, which explores some 250 writers from Puritan times through the late 19th century. In Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville, Reynolds leverages the title of F.O. Matthiessen's best known work and expands his thesis. Here Reynolds combines elements of New Historicism and cultural studies with deep archival research to show that great literature is defined by its radical openness to biographical, political, social, and cultural images, which certain responsive writers adopted and transformed, yielding such rich symbols as Melville's white whale, Hawthorne's scarlet letter, Poe's raven, and Whitman's grass leaves. Contesting the standard interpretation of America's great writers as marginal figures in a sentimental, proper society, Reynolds reveals that they were instead immersed in a culture that was frequently sensational, subversive, or erotic, epitomized by popular novels about city mysteries, such as the lurid best-seller The Quaker City; or The Monks of Monk Hall by the Philadelphia writer George Lippard (the subject of two other books,[2] by Reynolds). The American Studies scholar Sean Wilentz writes, "Some of the richest writing about the period of the American Renaissance have been deeply indebted to Reynolds and the broadening scope of literary history and analysis that his book did so much to advance….In the proliferating revisionist critical approaches that have preoccupied Americanists of late, we can sense the appreciation of the cross-fertilization between major and noncanonical literature that Reynolds charted" (Wilentz, Foreword, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville [New York: Oxford University Press, 2011], xi).</ref>


A proponent of what he terms cultural biography, Reynolds places figures like Walt Whitman and John Brown in their own era. Reynolds is influenced by the “representative men” theory of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who writes, “the ideas of the time are in the air, and infect all who breathe it…We learn of our contemporaries what they know without effort, and almost through the pores of our skin.”[3] Reynolds argues in John Brown, Abolitionist that Brown was not an isolated, crazed antislavery terrorist but rather an amalgam of social currents—religious, racial, reformist, political—that found explosive realization in him. In Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, Reynolds takes seriously Whitman’s declarations that he was “the age transfigured” and that “in estimating my volumes, the world’s current times and deeds, and their spirit, must first be profoundly estimated.”[4] Reynolds shows how Whitman’s growing alarm over political controversies, corruption, and class division led him to try to heal his nation through his poetry, which absorb images from many aspects of social and cultural life, including religion, science, city life, theater, oratory, photography, painting, reform movements, and sexual mores.

American history[edit]

In the field of history, Reynolds highlights the intersection of politics and culture. Enforcing Lincoln’s view that “public sentiment is everything. He who molds public sentiment is greater than he who makes statutes,”[5] Reynolds includes in books like John Brown, Abolitionist, Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, and Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson not only political and social leaders but also influential writers, artists, musicians, reformers, scientists and pseudoscientists, artists, ministers, and self-styled religious prophets who shaped American history. In Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, he traces the impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the rise of Lincoln, the American Civil War, and worldwide events, including the end of serfdom in Russia, down to its influence on race relations and popular culture in the twentieth century.


Reynolds's wife, whose professional name is Suzanne Nalbantian, is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University who specializes in the interdisciplinary relationship between literature and neuroscience. Her six books include Memory in Literature: From Rousseau to Neuroscience and The Memory Process: Neuroscientific and Humanistic Perspectives (coedited with Paul M. Matthews and James B. McClelland). The Reynolds have one daughter.

Awards and honors[edit]


Books (author)[edit]

  • Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America.
  • Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson.
  • John Brown Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.
  • Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography.
  • Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville.
  • Walt Whitman.
  • George Lippard.
  • Faith in Fiction: The Emergence of Religious Literature in America.

Books (editor)[edit]

  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly [The Splendid Edition], by Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.]
  • A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman.
  • Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, 150th Anniversary Edition.
  • George Lippard, Prophet of Protest: Writings of an American Radical, 1822–1854.
  • The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall, by George Lippard.
  • Venus in Boston and Other Tales of 19th Century City Life, by George Thompson (coedited with Kimberly Gladman).
  • The Serpent in the Cup: Temperance in American Literature (coedited with Debra J. Rosenthal).


  1. ^ "Books by David S. Reynolds". 
  2. ^ David S. Reynolds, George Lippard (Boston: Twayne, 1982) and George Lippard, Prophet of Protest: Writings of an American Radical, 1822–1854 (New York: Peter Lang, 1986).
  3. ^ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 627.
  4. ^ Whitman, Poetry and Prose (New York: Library of America, 1996), 23; Whitman, Prose Works, 1872, edited by Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press, 1964), II: 473.
  5. ^ The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, edited by Harold Holzer (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 75.

External links[edit]