To Walt Whitman, America

To Walt Whitman, America

To Walt Whitman, America

To Walt Whitman, America

Synopsis

Walt Whitman "is America," according to Ezra Pound. More than a century after his death, Whitman's name regularly appears in political speeches, architectural inscriptions, television programs, and films, and it adorns schools, summer camps, truck stops, corporate centers, and shopping malls. In an analysis of Whitman as a quintessential American icon, Kenneth Price shows how his ubiquity and his extraordinarily malleable identity have contributed to the ongoing process of shaping the character of the United States.

Price examines Whitman's own writings as well as those of writers who were influenced by him, paying particular attention to Whitman's legacies for an ethnically and sexually diverse America. He focuses on fictional works by Edith Wharton, D. H. Lawrence, John Dos Passos, Ishmael Reed, and Gloria Naylor, among others. In Price's study, Leaves of Grass emerges as a living document accruing meanings that evolve with time and with new readers, with Whitman and his words regularly pulled into debates over immigration, politics, sexuality, and national identity. As Price demonstrates, Whitman is a recurring starting point, a provocation, and an irresistible, rewritable text for those who reinvent the icon in their efforts to remake America itself.

Excerpt

Walt Whitman is a foundational figure in American culture. The inclusiveness of Leaves of Grass resonates especially powerfully in the United States, a country remarkable for its diverse population and for its ongoing struggle to fulfill its meaning and promise. Few writers continue to generate as much interest in the wider culture as the poet of Leaves of Grass. In recent years his words have been inscribed in public areas with increasing frequency: on the railing above the main terminal of Reagan National Airport, in the Archives-Navy Memorial Metro Station and in the walkway of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., on the railing at the Fulton Ferry Landing at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, at the entryway of the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wisconsin (Frank Lloyd Wright insisted that the design should include an inscription from his favorite American poet), on a plaque at the entryway to the Willa Cather Garden at my own university in Lincoln, Nebraska. Whitman was a central voice in Ken Burns's magisterial Civil War series for PBS and again for Ric Burns's PBS series on New York. He has been celebrated in musical compositions from classical to pop and invoked in political speeches, television programs, and, with remarkable frequency, films. He has been featured on postage stamps, postcards, and matchbook covers and in cartoons, including a New Yorker illustration featuring a copy of Leaves of Grass with a zipper down the spine, an allusion to President Clinton's famous gift to Monica Lewinsky. Inexpensive pocket editions of Whitman were distributed to workers and farmers during the Depression, and free copies were given to the American armed forces during World War II. Whitman has been used to sell cigarettes, cigars, coffee (in a variety of ways), whiskey, insurance, and more. Many schools bear the name Walt Whitman, including the first private gay high school in the United States. Hotels, bridges, apartment buildings, summer camps, parks, truck stops, common rooms in guest houses, corporate centers, AIDS clinics, political think tanks, and shopping malls are named after Whitman.

Whitman's importance stretches well beyond U.S. national borders, too . . .

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