Edward Reed Whittemore Jr. was born on September 11, 1919, in New Haven, Connecticut. He graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1937 and then enrolled at Yale University, where he was inspired to pursue poetry by prominent author and critic Arthur Mizener, who was Whittemore’s professor and later, his literary mentor.
During his sophomore year at Yale, Whittemore and his roommate founded the literary magazine Furioso. Though Furioso frequently lacked the funds to pay its poets, through his persistence, Whittemore still obtained submissions from famous Modernists such as E. E. Cummings, Archibald MacLeish, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams.
After earning his BA in English in 1941, Whittemore joined the U.S. Army Air Forces to fight in the Mediterranean during World War II. In 1946, with the help of Mizener, Whittemore published his first collection, Heroes & Heroines (Reynal & Hitchcock). The following year, Whittemore joined the faculty at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he would teach for nearly twenty years. While there, he also founded the literary magazine The Carleton Miscellany, which was in circulation from 1960 to 1980. Whittemore then became an English professor at the University of Maryland, where he established the magazine Delos and remained teaching until his retirement. From 1969 to 1973 he also served as literary editor of the New Republic.
Whittemore authored nearly a dozen poetry collections, including The Past, the Future, the Present: Poems Selected and New (University of Arkansas Press, 1990); The Feel of Rock: Poems of Three Decades (Dyad Press, 1982); The Mother’s Breast and the Father’s House (Houghton Mifflin, 1974); and Fifty Poems Fifty (University of Minnesota Press, 1970). Whittemore also published a number of nonfiction works, including his memoir Against the Grain: The Literary Life of a Poet (Dyad Press, 2007); Six Literary Lives: The Shared Impiety of Adams, London, Sinclair, Williams, Dos Passos, and Tate (University of Missouri, 1993); and the biography William Carlos Williams, Poet From Jersey (Houghton Mifflin, 1975).
On April 28, 1964, Whittemore was appointed U.S. poet laureate (then known as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress) and served in the post from September 1964 until May 1965. Upon the death of Poet Laureate Robert Fitzgerald in 1985, Whittemore held the position yet again. That same year, Whittemore was also appointed to the position of Maryland poet laureate.
Whittemore, who suffered from myasthenia gravis for over forty years, died on April 6, 2012, in Kensington, Maryland. He was ninety-two.