Sizing Up Walt Whitman & Friends

It’s about this time that I’m usually wrapping up my teaching of American Romanticism. We’ve made it through Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we’re just about done with my favorite, Henry David Thoreau. Over the years, I’ve made deletions and additions to the scope and sequence, hoping to keep the material fresh for me and my students. I’m always sizing up the material and my time. And sometimes things are placed aside for a while, like Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which I haven’t assigned to my students to read this year.

I’m always discovering something new about these writers, too, as I dig further into their biographies. For instance, I recently learned that Henry David Thoreau and I were about the same height, 5 feet and 7 inches, which struck me as strange because I always imagined him as a tall, brooding man—Lincolnesque so to speak. But not so, which makes sense. His little house on Walden Pond measured only 10 x 15 feet, and I’d probably feel comfortable there, writing and posting my blog.

Walt Whitman, one of the biggest personalities of the time period, measured four inches taller than Thoreau. 5’ 11”. Not enormous, but a little larger, and perhaps that extra height made him a little bolder, choosing to break the rules by writing in free verse about taboo subjects that labeled him indecent by many of his contemporaries. Over the course of the past year, I’ve been reading Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan, and I learned that Whitman was fired from a government clerk position while living in Washington, D.C., because his superior discovered a manuscript version of Leaves of Grass while rooting through his desk. Not to be daunted, Whitman always stood tall against critics and naysayers, despite repeated requests to tone down the language in the book.

And like his writing, his actions were bold, too. As I teach my students, and as many people familiar with his biography may already know, Whitman hoped to stake out some territory in the literary world by publishing a private correspondence from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which lauded great praise upon Whitman’s poetry, in his second edition of Leaves of Grass. To put this into context, I often tell my students to think of Emerson as the Oprah Winfrey of the time, and with that kind of reputation and renown, you can’t just appropriate his words for your profit without permission. Indeed, much has been made about this episode in Whitman’s biography.

The proportions of Emerson’s anger are not to be underestimated. Kaplan writes, “Friends who visited Emerson when the blazoned second edition [of Leaves of Grass] arrived in the mail claimed that until that moment they had never seen him truly angry.” It wasn’t until I read that sentence and the account in Kaplan’s book that I really appreciated the kind of rage Emerson must have felt after discovering his words had been snatched away from him. Surely, Whitman must have known that his actions were unethical, realizing that something like this could stain his reputation, but Whitman never shied away from taking chances with his poetry. If he needed positive reviews for his book, he often wrote them, published them anonymously, or asked someone else to sign their name.

Nevertheless, Emerson’s interest in Whitman waned over time. Kaplan writes about Emerson visiting him in New York on more than one occasion, despite his anger about publishing the private letter, but years later, Emerson seems to have regarded Whitman more as a curiosity rather than the great American poet, which Whitman aspired to become. In fact, I read that Emerson edited a definitive collection of poetry near the end of his life, but Whitman doesn’t have a single poem included there. He felt spurned, even recanting some of his earlier love for the man he so revered, but perhaps, Emerson was still feeling some of that anger about the unauthorized use of his words. Whatever the case, years after Leaves of Grass came on the scene, Whitman was still working to validate his poetry, even among the greatest intellectuals of America.

From what I can find, Ralph Waldo Emerson measured 6 feet tall—only an inch taller than Whitman, but he was a giant compared with Whitman at the end of his life. Well-respected and comfortably snug as “The Sage of Concord,” he suffered a long decline until his eventual death and burial among the other famous writers in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Whitman, too, suffered in his later years, having survived two strokes and living in near poverty. It’s certainly not the ending I imagined. In my mind, I’d like to think of the two sharing pleasant conversation while the sun sets over a distant horizon, maybe at Walden Pond, both of them secure in their success, having risen to such a height that neither would be forgotten in American literature.

To Walt Whitman, On His 200th Birthday

Although Edgar Allan Poe may have written the most famous American poem, “The Raven,” it’s Walt Whitman, The Father of Free Verse and The Good Gray Poet, who claims the top spot as our most important poet. Born on May 31, 1819, he became a national treasure by the time of his death, though criticism of his book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, remained mixed.  Thirty years after first publishing the book, Whitman, in fact, wrote that its reception remained “worse than a failure.”  But that’s expected for trailblazers and revolutionaries, and naturally, many of this ilk don’t receive their due until after they’re dead.  It took the world time to appreciate Whitman, but here we are, and to celebrate his 200th birthday, I offer some places where Whitman continues to speak to us.

Pen Drawing of Walt Whitman by Kerr Eby

For an English teacher like me, the 1989 film Dead Poets Society earns one of the top spots. My favorite scene is when Mr. Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams, makes Todd Anderson yawp in front of the class.  For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Ethan Hawke’s character, Todd, is supposed to write a poem for English, but comes to class empty handed, and instead of simply moving on to another student, Mr. Keating rallies him, running to the chalkboard to write, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”  It’s one of my favorite lines by Whitman, coming at the end of his epic poem “Song of Myself” and only after about seventy-five pages of poetry.  It’s only fitting that this line earned a prominent role in the film.  The scene continues, when Mr. Keating calls Todd to the front of the class to “yawp,” goading him until he finally barks out a good one. Eventually, Todd improvises a poem in front of the class, under the tutelage of the teacher, and completes the assignment to much applause from his peers.  Sure, it might be a bit contrived, but for any English teacher, it’s also a bit of wish fulfillment.

Like Mr. Keating, Levi Strauss & Company has also paid their respects to Whitman.  It’s interesting, too, that Levi’s jeans and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass were contemporaries, their birthdays dating back to 1853 and 1855, respectively.  No wonder then, that the company, chose an advertising campaign, led by Wieden + Kennedy, who has done ad work for Nike too, that paired a recording of Walt Whitman, supposedly from the 1890s, with their jeans.  Even though many scholars believe the recording to be a hoax, the result, directed by Cary Fukunaga and first aired in July 2009, is a beautiful piece of cinematography where the advertising and the product for that matter, fade into the background to allow Whitman’s poetry—the theme of American democracy—to take front and center. 

Furthermore, in a moment of genius, Fukunaga even accounted for the hiss and scratchiness heard in this antique recording by repurposing the noise as a burning fuse to an explosion, or better yet, a firework. I’ve read in at least one source that the ad premiered on July 4th, making this detail even more befitting to the topic. And the bonus, Levi’s advertising campaign distributed Whitman’s voice to a mass audience that probably would have never bothered to listen to this recording.  And even if it’s not truly an authentic recording, the words remain Whitman’s.  The voice, too, sounds to me like Whitman’s should, which is perhaps why it may not actually be authentic.  Nevertheless, it’s something I show my students every year, and the poem’s imagery and style serves as an interesting contrast to many other poems by Whitman.

Finally, it’s hard to write about Whitman without mentioning another one of my favorite teacher dramas, Breaking Bad. Indeed, the AMC series about a chemistry teacher mixing up the best methamphetamine is all about breaking the rules much like Whitman’s poetry. By far, I think this is my favorite TV drama, better than The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Dexter—many series that I devoted so much time to watching. Maybe it’s because Walt Whitman and  Leaves of Grass take on a role in the show.  Even the name of the show’s main character, Walter White, is eerily reminiscent of Walt Whitman, so much so, that I have often wondered if the writers had the plot worked out so far down the line to include that connection four seasons later to that infamous copy of Leaves of Grass, gifted to Walter White by his diligent assistant, Gale.  Even “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which was referenced directly in Breaking Bad’s plot, recounts a narrator walking away from a classroom to reap the benefits of firsthand experience.  It’s just so wonderful, so apropos, to the series that I can’t help but “look up in perfect silence” while watching the storyline unfold.  

So there you have it, some of the places where Whitman persists, despite calling his book a failed experiment. It’s been interesting, at least to me, to research many of the details that I often discuss with my students, but haven’t completely fact checked over the years.  Of course, an article of this nature requires a proper conclusion, so I’ll leave you with one more detail from my research. For many years, I’ve had the hint, the remembrance, of a directive given by Walt Whitman about reading his poetry.  In writing this article, I discovered that directive in the Preface to the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass, which is a kind of manifesto on poetry.  In later editions, the Preface was cut from the book, but in the first edition, Whitman advises us “to read these leaves in the open air in every season of every year.”  I like it, that advice, because poetry is sometimes sterile, confined to the pages of a book, the walls of a classroom, and if lucky, maybe the audience at a coffee house.  How wonderful to think of it, instead, mingling with nature, the clouds floating overhead and the green grass under our feet.  No, I’ve never done it, but perhaps this year, I’ll finally take my copy of Leaves outside, read a few poems aloud, and celebrate Whitman’s birthday.