Skip to main content

Allen, Gay Wilson (1903–1995)

For his monumental The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman (1955; rev. ed. 1967), for his highly acclaimed and widely consulted guides, the Walt Whitman Handbook (1946) and The New Walt Whitman Handbook (1975; rpt., with a new introduction and selected bibliography, 1986), for his work (with Sculley Bradley) as General Editor of the 22-volume Collected Writings of Walt Whitman (1961–1984), and for his many other monographs, editions, and articles on America's foremost poet, Gay Wilson Allen became internationally known as the dean of Whitman scholars. His first publication on the poet was an article entitled "Biblical Analogies for Walt Whitman's Prosody," which appeared in Revue Anglo-Américaine in 1933; his last was Walt Whitman and the World (coedited with Ed Folsom), a collection of foreign criticism published in 1995, a few months after his death on August 6.

Born in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, and educated at Duke University (A.B., 1926; A.M., 1929) and the University of Wisconsin (Ph.D., 1934), Allen was a dedicated teacher at both Bowling Green State University (1935–1946) and New York University (1946–1969). He stated in 1991 that he "had not planned an academic career as a Whitman scholar, or even as a teacher of American literature" (Allen 92). Had opportunities presented themselves, he likely would have pursued a career in Middle English. However, certain serendipitous occurrences led him into Whitman studies—a fascination with prosody, an interest in connections between Whitman and French historian Jules Michelet, and, most important, his discovery of a Danish biography, Frederik Schyberg's Walt Whitman (1933; translated into English by Allen's wife, Evie Allison Allen, 1951). Allen was profoundly influenced by Schyberg's analysis of the successive editions of Leaves of Grass and by his discussion of "Whitman in World Literature." In the end, Schyberg inspired Allen to write his own biography of Whitman.

Hailed by critics as perceptive, thorough, and objective, The Solitary Singer has been touted for many years as the definitive biography of Whitman. Allen's genius seems to have resided in the artful rendering of lives, for he also wrote major biographies of William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as biographical studies of Herman Melville, Carl Sandburg, and (with Roger Asselineau) Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. His life of Whitman prompted the U.S. State Department to send Allen, along with William Faulkner, on a 1955 tour of Japan. It also had much to do with his receipt, in 1977, of the Jay B. Hubbell Medallion for contributions to American literature.


Allen, Gay Wilson. "History of My Whitman Studies." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 9 (1991): 91–100.

Blair, Stanley S. "The Gay Wilson Allen Papers." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 12 (1994): 106–108.

Christie, N. Bradley. "Gay Wilson Allen." American Literary Biographers: First Series. Ed. Steven Serafín. Vol. 103 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991. 3–12.

Back to top