Historic Yawp 'American Experience' Confines Rather Than Frees Walt Whitman

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Byline: Ted Cox TV & Radio Columnist


Having just done a lovely job on the little story of a lost Eskimo 100 years ago, "American Experience" now turns its attention to a major figure, Walt Whitman, the nation's greatest poet, its original "Spontaneous Me" and its definitive master of the "barbaric yawp." Yet, while one would expect the subject to be right in the wheelhouse of the PBS series, this Whitman fan can't help feeling a little disappointed by the results.

Debuting at 9 p.m. Monday on WTTW Channel 11, "Walt Whitman" casts the poet first as a historical figure and only then as a literary figure. This is where "American Experience" differs from "American Masters," in that it argues, not quite convincingly, that Whitman based his career on an attempt to unify the nation before the Civil War.

The man who wrote "Song of Myself" was certainly no wallflower, but it defies belief to think that Whitman had any such Quixotic notions about what exactly his magnum opus, "Leaves of Grass," would achieve. Sorry, but I can't accept that in anything but his most fantastic dreams Whitman expected his poems to bind the wounds of a nation already divided by slavery. What seems clear, however, is that he was after a uniquely American style. "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it," he wrote in the introduction to the original "Leavesof Grass" in 1855.

That he achieved - on both sides of the equation. Whitman's openness to any and all things - experiences, thoughts, beliefs, stylistic flourishes - is what makes his poetry so American. In its acceptance it's almost as if it skips modernism, with its dreadful alienation, and goes straight to postmodernism. Not only is there no Jack Kerouac without Whitman, there's no Elvis Presley. Whitman defined and put into words what separated Americans from Europeans - and what, in our best moments and aspirations, continues to distinguish us.

The closest "American Experience" comes to capturing that is in the comments of poet laureate Billy Collins: "Here was the first truly American poet who broke out of the form of formal poetry. 'Leaves of Grass' is a poem without boundaries so that everything can flood into it - people, professions, landscape, memories, engineering, water, children, Native Americans. There's no boundary keeping anything out."

Yet, in trying to fit Whitman into the arc of American history, especially where the Civil War is concerned, this two-hour documentary winds up confining him, limiting his scope and influence. …