Poet, literary critic, biographer, essayist, and short story writer, Edward Reed Whittemore, Jr., was born on September 11, 1919, in New Haven, Connecticut, to Margaret Carr Whittemore (died 1943) and Edward Reed Whittemore, Sr. (died 1945). The elder Whittemore, a medical doctor, and his family enjoyed a comfortable financial situation until the economic difficulties of the 1930s. The younger Whittemore received his education at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he exhibited an early interest in literature.
After graduating from Phillips in 1937, Whittemore entered Yale University. Between 1937 and his graduation from Yale in 1941, he published many of his early short stories and poems in the Yale Literary Magazine. Nearly every issue published during his time at the Yale featured some piece by the hard-working Whittemore. One of his first published poems, which appeared in the March 1939 issue, is titled "Driver, Drive Me." Many of the poetical qualities for which Whittemore was to become known are evident in this early poem, including skillful use of enjambment, varied line length, polished versification, and a focus on personal insight and experience. As a sophomore, Whittemore and a fellow undergraduate founded the literary magazine, Furioso. This quarterly would become a legend among the "little magazines," featuring the work of many giants in twentieth century poetry. The first issue, appearing in the summer of 1939, boasted among its contributors Archibald MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, Richard Eberhart, and James Laughlin. The second issue featured five poems by Ezra Pound.
Upon completion of his bachelor's degree in 1941, Whittemore was drafted into the army. There he served first in the infantry and then as a supplies officer for the Army air corps in the Mediterranean during World War II. For his service, Whittemore attained the rank of Major and was awarded the Bronze Star. Until his discharge from active duty in 1945, he expended much of his literary energy on extensive correspondence with fellow writers and family--most notably Arthur and Rosemary Mizener and his father, Edward Reed Whittemore, Sr. During this time he also managed to produce one issue of Furioso in 1943.
In 1945, Whittemore entered Princeton University as a graduate student in History. The program did not suit his temperament, however, and he left Princeton after a year of coursework. Poetically, this was a productive time for Whittemore. In 1946, the publishers Reynal & Hitchcock published his first collection of poetry under the title Heroes and Heroines. Additionally, the production of Furioso shifted into high gear and was published regularly between 1946 and 1953 under Whittemore's editorial direction. Correspondence between the Mizeners and other members of Furioso's staff illustrate the care that went into each issue as well as some candid perceptions of the submissions.
In 1947, Whittemore took a teaching post in the English Department of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Although a friend, Bill [Weaver?], thought Whittemore was "bereft of [his] senses" for taking a teaching position instead of "just be[ing] a poet," Whittemore went on to become a popular teacher and was well-respected by his colleagues for the quality of his literary output. In 1951, Whittemore took leave from Carleton and briefly worked for the CIA as evinced in the national literary magazine Voyages (Washington, D.C., Spring 1970) and in correspondence with Arthur and Rosemary Mizener, Bill [Weaver?], and others.
Whittemore's years at Carleton were productive and eventful. In 1952, he married Helen Lundeen, with whom he eventually had four children, Catherine, Edward, John, and Margaret. He produced and published three collections of poetry during the Carleton years including, An American Takes a Walk (University of Minneapolis Press) in 1956, The Self-Made Man, and Other Poems (Macmillan) in 1959, and The Boy from Iowa (Macmillan) in 1962. In 1963, he published a miscellany of poems, stories, and essays entitled The Fascination of the Abomination (Macmillan). Whittemore also maintained a grueling schedule as a guest lecturer on literary topics in venues around the country. Additionally, he revived Furioso a second time in 1960 under the new title The Carleton Miscellany. It ran regularly until 1964. Although he experienced many professional difficulties because he did not hold an advanced degree, he was eventually made Chair of the English Department, a position he held between 1962 and 1964.
From 1964 to 1965, while on leave from Carleton College, Whittemore served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. He was offered a second term as Poetry Consultant, but he declined the position in order to take another post in Washington, D.C., as Program Associate at the National Institute of Public Affairs. From 1966 to 1969, Whittemore managed a number of jobs including teaching at the University of Maryland and one semester as the Bain-Swiggett lecturer at Princeton University, and various appearances on the lecture circuit. In 1969, he was appointed Literary Editor for the New Republic and began teaching at the University of Maryland full-time.
Whittemore's years at the University of Maryland were marked by a greater focus on essays, journalism, and literary biography and criticism, rather than poetry. Nevertheless, he managed the publication of no less than four volumes of poetry between 1968 and 1982. These include Poems, New and Selected (University of Minnesota Press) in 1968, Fifty Poems Fifty (University of Minnesota Press) in 1970, The Mother's Breast and the Father's House (Houghton Mifflin) in 1974, and The Feel of Rock: Poems of Three Decades (Dryad Press) in 1982. In addition to his prodigious output of poems and essays for publication in periodicals, Whittemore also published three major works of nonfiction during his time at the University of Maryland. His collection of essays entitled From Zero to the Absolute was published by Crown in 1967. In 1974, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to finish his biography of the poet William Carlos Williams. The biography, William Carlos Williams: Poet From Jersey, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1975 and attracted mixed reviews and controversy. Whittemore also collected several previously printed essays, which were published in 1976 as The Poet as Journalist: Life at the New Republic.
Whittemore retired from the University of Maryland in 1984, but, as professor emeritus, continued to write and publish. One collection of poetry, entitled The Past, the Future, the Present: Poems Selected and New was published in 1990 by the University of Arkansas Press. Johns Hopkins University Press also published two late nonfiction works by Whittemore, including Pure Lives: The Early Biographers in 1988 and its companion volume, Whole Lives: Shapers of Modern Biography in 1989. In 1993, the University of Missouri Press published Whittemore's Six Literary Lives: The Shared Impiety of Adams, London, Sinclair, Williams, Dos Passos, and Tate (although this book was begun in the late 1970s). In 2007, Dryad Press published his memoir, Against the Grain, The Literary Life of a Poet.
Throughout his career, Whittemore has established himself as a tireless and highly polished literary craftsman. His work has appeared in some of the most prestigious literary and cultural journals in America, including New Republic, Nation, New Yorker, Saturday Review, Sewanee Review, New York Times, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Esquire, Hudson Review, Yale Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He has been the recipient of numerous grants, awards, and honors such as the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit Medal (1969), National Endowment for the Arts grant (1968), Guggenheim Foundation fellowship (1974), honorary degree of Litt.D. from Carleton College (1971), and the position of Poet Laureate of Maryland (1985-1988). He currently lives in Washington, D.C.