Who’s Here: David S. Reynolds, Cultural Historian

David S. Reynolds
David S. Reynolds

In 1988, David S. Reynolds and his wife, Suzanne Nalbantian Reynolds, along with her brother Haig, built a home on Daniels Lane in Sagaponack. The home was surrounded by potato fields that stretched to the ocean. Nearby was the former home of Truman Capote, the author who had recently passed away. Elsewhere in Sagaponack had lived authors Irwin Shaw and James Jones. Author Peter Matthiessen lived less than a mile away. George Plimpton and John Irving lived nearby. Author Kurt Vonnegut had recently bought a home on Main Street a mile away.

It was not that the Reynolds were writers of fiction themselves. But it made great sense that they would be around writers. Both taught courses in literature, David American literature at Baruch and later at the CUNY Graduate Center and Suzanne comparative literature at LIU-Post. Both had authored scholarly works about writers of the past, and in fact that very year David’s Beneath the American Renaissance, published by Knopf, won the Christian Gauss Award as the year’s best work of literary criticism. David was also doing research toward Walt Whitman’s America, which, when Knopf later published it, won the prestigious Bancroft Prize, the Ambassador Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination.

The South Fork of eastern Long Island was a summer retreat for not only authors but also agents, publicists, editors, publishers and non-fiction writers who toiled away in ivory towers in colleges from September to June. Sometimes they were all seen together, at the beach, in each other’s back yards, in local restaurants. Many were raising young children. The Reynolds’ daughter was then three. And so they came out from their main residence in Old Westbury and, well, they’ve been here in the summertime ever since.

On a table in the living room, I saw framed photos of their daughter, now grown and studying urban planning in grad school at Harvard, and I saw pictures of the Reynolds with Hillary and Bill Clinton. I asked about it.

“They rented a home a few houses down two summers ago,” David told me. “They invited us over one day. There were bodyguards right across Daniels Lane the whole time, in their black SUVs.”

And there was another reason why they chose to summer here. The eastern end of Long Island is, in fact, a community of villages that were founded by the English settlers of New England in colonial times. Reynolds is a New Englander through and through, born and raised there. The East End reminded him of home.

After a short visit with the two of them in their living room, David and I repaired to the downstairs library to get to know one another.

David Reynolds has become an expert in nineteenth-century American literature, particularly the period just before and during the Civil War when America went through its grand literary renaissance. There was Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and of course Hawthorne and Melville, all writing and destined to receive great recognition in the English speaking world. America had come of age.

The Scarlet Letter came out in 1850,” Reynolds told me. “In 1851, there was Moby-Dick, in 1852 The House of the Seven Gables, in 1854 Walden, and in 1855 Leaves of Grass.”

He has written about them all. He’s won awards writing about them. You may know some of his books. John Brown, Abolitionist. Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson. Mightier Than the Sword: ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and the Battle for America. There are 10 others, including, most recently, Lincoln’s Selected Writings. Reynolds writes of these great authors not just as individuals head-and-shoulders above others, but as products of their times, fully caught up in the issues of the day—with their own opinions about the politics, religions, class divisions, corruption and America’s place in the world weaving in and out in their writings. Today when a new book comes out about that period, editors of literary magazines often call on him to write reviews. He writes regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Review of Books. He writes essays for The Atlantic, The Huffington Post and other journals. He’s currently working on another book about Abe Lincoln.

Reynolds was born in Providence, Rhode Island and was raised in a home attached to a New England lighthouse, erected in 1828. The lighthouse sits on a point of land in the town of Barrington, Rhode Island, 10 miles south of Providence along the shore of Narragansett Bay. “When I was growing up,” David told me, “complete strangers would knock on the door of our home and ask us to give them a tour up the winding stairs to the top of the lighthouse, and we would. Things were much different in those days.”

David’s father and mother were both from families whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower in 1620. “I am a descendant of William Brewster, John and Priscilla Alden, Roger Williams of Rhode Island, Roger Conant of Salem, and the Coffins of Nantucket.”

His dad was a successful life insurance salesman in Providence. His mother was an art teacher, teaching both at the Rhode Island School of Design and at home. She raised David and two older sisters, and she was also a designer of Hallmark Cards. The home attached to the lighthouse was at first built simply, but subsequent owners kept adding on to it. By the time David’s father bought it, it had 15 rooms.

David went to a private school called the Providence Country Day School. He loved to read and write. He wrote stories on his dad’s old manual typewriter, thinking up plots and ideas in the style of Poe, Hemingway and others, calling himself “Spencer Lee.” (David’s middle name is Spencer).

“It was during the era of Harper Lee,” he said. “But I just squirreled them away. Then I threw them away.”

He grew up tall and lean, a classic New Englander, and in school he played football and tennis and was the co-captain of the basketball team. He went off to college, to Amherst, and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in English and American Studies. He played organ in a rock band in college, the A-Men.

“For Amherst,” he said. “The band’s ad line was: ‘The A-men. The last word in music.’”

What was he to do with his life? His father was concerned for him. He was so bright. He should go to law school or to business school. He applied. And he was accepted at many schools. He could be an attorney. But is that what he wanted to be?

“I sat down with a good friend I had at this time, and we talked. When I told him I had no interest in the law, he asked me what did I like to do? I told him I enjoyed reading, writing, history and culture. He said how about a job teaching?”

David had been on the brink of announcing he would be going to law school at the University of Virginia. Now he would decline. Instead, he took a job teaching at the Providence Country Day School, his old alma mater.

“I taught seventh and tenth grade,” he said. “Providence Country Day School was then an all-boys’ school. And from the get go the students tried to take the measure of me. I decided I would try to be Mr. Nice Guy. A mistake. They tended to go wild. Also, the administration told me that, without further compensation, I’d be the JV basketball coach, the assistant tennis coach, and the assistant coach for the football team. I was there every day until 6 p.m. and it wasn’t working. Among other things the basketball team, under my tutelage, won only 1 game out of 14 that year.”

One year there was about enough. He came home to his mother and father. “My father had made some contacts for me at Dun and Bradstreet in their Providence office. They had a job waiting. I went. I got involved in working to find out assets and liabilities of companies D and B was investigating.”

He lasted six months.

“It was really boring. I thought, enough of this, I’m going to grad school, to get a Ph. D. in American literature.” He went to the University of California at Berkeley, where he stayed seven years until he got his degree.

“I missed the East Coast at first, the changes of the season, the New England topography, the Atlantic Ocean. But then I got hooked on Berkeley. Golf, tennis, the professors, the library, my classmates.”

And he got back to playing music, country music—Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Charlie Pride—in small clubs in suburban towns such as Fremont, nearby.

“You sing?” I asked.

“Oh yes.”

He also wrote songs for others. A song called “Mr. Right Just Left” was recorded by country western singer Susan Dodd. “It got airplay around the country. For awhile I was getting these little airplay checks, for 12 or 13 dollars.”

Off the library in this house in Sagaponack, he has a small writing office. He took me there. There was a desk, a chair and a computer. And there were musical instruments.

“I write awhile. I compose awhile,” he said. “It’s such a mess. I hope you don’t mind.”

I told him it looks like where I write. There were stacks of paper, on which he had written things in longhand. Longhand?

“When I’m writing a book, I get up very early, sometimes beginning at 7. I demand of myself that I write 5 pages a day longhand, on a yellow pad and I won’t leave off until I am done. This is how I have always written. I think I see more when I write it down longhand. On Saturdays, I enter it all into the computer. I edit on the computer.”

There is lunch at noon, then back to work and, at 4 o’clock, off to the beach—they have private access down a path to the beach—then dinner, a one mile walk, then work till 11.

I asked David how he had met his wife.

“She and I met at a Modern Language Association literary conference in Los Angeles. It was December 1982, a few years after I got my doctorate. We had both crashed a cocktail party at this professors’ conference. We got to talking. We realized we had something going. We had a few dates and were married six months later.”

Suzanne, who was born in upstate New York and raised in Manhattan, is of Armenian descent on both sides. Her father’s family fled Smyrna during the massacres of 1922 on a French ship to Marseilles, emigrating eventually to the U.S. Her mother was a pioneering literary scholar, and her maternal aunt was a famous editor at The New York Times Book Review. Suzanne’s parents lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and then in Old Westbury, where the Reynolds now live in the wintertime. Suzanne is a professor at LIU-Post, in nearby Brookville, where she teaches Comparative European Literature. She has written numerous books, one of which is the edited volume The Memory Process, a celebrated work which considers the merging of literature with neuroscience.

David told me about the people he writes about. “Andrew Jackson was a fearless man,” he said. “In the War of 1812, he and a small band of men with muskets beat a British regiment many times their size in the Battle of New Orleans and drove them off. He was the first president to be elected twice, in 1828 and 1832. Earlier, in 1806, he was in a duel. A man named Charles Dickinson insulted his wife. Charles Dickinson at the time was known as one of the best marksmen in Tennessee. The two met on a field, standing eight paces apart. Dickinson fired first. The bullet entered Jackson’s chest, shattering two ribs and settling close to the heart. The bullet was in there—it would remain in there all his life—and Jackson was bleeding, the blood running down inside his heavy overcoat. Dickinson couldn’t see this, however. Jackson just stood there, unmoved. Now it was his turn. He raised his pistol and fired. Down went Dickinson, shot in the stomach. He died a few hours afterwards. Jackson later said, ‘I should have hit him if he had shot me in the brain.’

“When Jackson was president, he was leaving the Capitol building one day when a man stepped out from behind a pillar and fired a pistol at him from close range—the first presidential assassination attempt in American history. The man pulled the trigger and the gun fired, but the bullet did not discharge, apparently because the misty weather had dampened the powder. Most people would have ducked out of the way, but not Jackson. Instead, he lifted his cane and ran toward the assailant, who drew out another gun and fired. Again the gun failed. Others wrestled the gunman to the ground. Jackson calmly went on with his day. He said, ‘I was not born to be assassinated.’ That’s what Andrew Jackson was all about.”

He talked about John Brown.

“John Brown was an abolitionist who believed that he and his men could topple slavery by setting off a slave revolution. He thought the whole South was a powder keg of discontent and that the rebelling slaves, urged on by his small band of abolitionists, would create terror and panic and cause the South to free the slaves. Brown and nineteen of his followers made a raid into Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The idea was to free some slaves, escape into the mountains, and set up a chain of what we would call terror cells in the hills in order to create an atmosphere of fright and insecurity among slaveholders. Instead, he and his men were captured at Harpers Ferry by federal troops. John Brown was tried, convicted on three counts, and then hanged on December 1859. It was big news. John Brown became a hero in the North and a demon in the South, and so he fanned the hostility between the two sections, helping to spark the Civil War.”

David talked about Walt Whitman. He was in Sagaponack when he did his research and wrote Walt Whitman’s America, which is probably his best-known work. He had become fascinated with this historic figure.

“Did you ever go up to Southold?” I asked.

David had no way of knowing this, but two years ago, I had written about Whitman in Dan’s Papers, in particular about a dramatic incident in Walt Whitman’s life in Southold and had done much research to get the information about it. I knew a lot about this.

Walt Whitman, at 23, came out to Southold to teach school. He lasted just one semester. Reportedly, word went around the community that he had attempted to have sexual relations with one of the schoolboys he taught, and after a preacher denounced him and his evil ways from the pulpit, an angry mob of citizens gathered on the church lawn, then surged up “tar hill” to get hot tar out of a cauldron there, then continued on to the house where Whitman was staying (sleeping in the attic with the boy he supposedly molested). A servant raced in and warned Walt they were coming, and America’s greatest poet, not quite yet a great poet, fled to a nearby doctor’s house and soon thereafter was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail. As a result, this small one-room schoolhouse became known as the “Sodom School,” and remained as such for the next half a century.

David surprised me by asking, “Did you read Katherine Molinoff’s pamphlet?”

I had. In 1991, while Reynolds was doing research for Walt Whitman’s America, he found that Molinoff, a graduate student at LIU, had come out to Southold and interviewed some of the people there, all of whom remembered being told by their elders that the story of Whitman’s transgressions was true. I had seen this pamphlet in the East Hampton Library.

“I went up to Southold in 1993, to interview the same family that Molinoff interviewed,” David said. “And they told me the same thing. I also interviewed David Swertfager, the great-great grandson of Walt Whitman’s sister Mary.”

Whitman’s sister Mary Von Nostrand lived in Greenport. There are letters between Mary and Walt. Mary had married a shipbuilder.

“Swertfager said his grandparents told him Mary had confirmed the story. He said the story was passed down by his grandmother, Zona Young Tuthill. She said she’d been told that Walt Whitman was the black sheep of the family mostly because he had been gay.”

Later in life, after he wrote Leaves of Grass, when asked where he taught when he was young, Walt Whitman did not mention Southold.

“So we really don’t know if any of this at the ‘Sodom School’ was true?” I asked.

“Right,” he said.

David and I finished our talk and we went back upstairs to the living room so I could say goodbye to his wife. Out the sliding glass, the view was very different from when they had first moved here back in 1988. Many of the potato fields have been sold off, many homes with hedgerows surrounding them have been built, and mostly what you look out at now are these estates, although there remain small spaces where the ocean is in view.

Things change. History happens. It was extraordinary to spend some time with David and Suzanne Reynolds, people who care and write about these times from long ago, as do I.

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