10.07.2012

Songs of Himself: Levi's and Whitman, Sampled

Whitman was very conscious of his image-- literally and figuratively. He was among the most photographed men
of the 19th century with something like 125 known extant images. Here he is as audacious "loafer", 1855, on the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass— Even his portrait was an affront

Levi's "Go Forth" ad campaign of a few years ago. This spot features an actual recording of Whitman reading.
A mind-blowing conflation of American transcendent idealism and cynical commercialism.
I'm very gratified to have introduced Professor Alan Trachtenberg (see below) to these on Youtube!

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from,
the scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer...
If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it.
— “Song of Myself” 1855

"No one in this age of [expensive] flour and high rents can afford to be a nobody. Be somebody— biographically, poetically, or historically."– satirical editorial in The Brooklyn Eagle, October 11, 1855

Revisiting an old post, with updates and edits:
As I noted a few years ago, I'm disturbed when I come across glaring gaps in my education—something that stops me short as I think, Wait, how do I not know this?
Whitman: Titan of American literature, Leaves of Grass, "body electric," repressed homosexuality, beard—that was nearly the sum of what I knew. At that time, I got the Penguin Classics Collected Whitman and started on a mini research mission. In this current Whitman endeavor I've signed myself up for a course taught by the venerable Alan Trachtenberg, essayist and Professor Emeritus of English and American Studies at Yale. I now know I'm far more interested in Whitman as cultural-social catalyst and influence than I am in his works per se.

I do not like reading Whitman's poetry (prose, like Specimen Days, is more agreeable). Considering the sweeping vistas and universalism he invokes I find the reading experience leaves me clammy and oddly claustrophobic. (I'm guessing that Whitman was a close talker....) He does however, conjure a mystical rawness, an uninhibited immediacy, blatancy even, that is astounding. Especially when one thinks of his being published at a time when "Victorian" morality was in ascendance. (Emily Dickinson evidently wrote in a letter, "I have never read his book– but was told that he was disgraceful," which I find enormously funny.) Despite not actually enjoying his work, I'm finding the idea and persona of Whitman pretty compelling.

In Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity, David Haven Blake places the self-styled "good grey poet" against the backdrop of America's developing intellectual identity and popular culture. A very good read. The 1850s was a time of an expanding awareness of a specifically American intellectual identity. The search for a "native American" literary style, independent of European models, was a cultural imperative. Whitman felt he was the answer to that call. It was also the time of Barnum and the rise of consumer culture. Whitman offered himself, seemingly, as an entity (or commodity) that could effect happiness and harmony with the world.

Whitman's sheer audacity is amazing; he craved attention. He self-published Leaves of Grass then published reviews of his own work anonymously ("An American bard at last!"). Later he compiled various laudatory comments and reviews as well as pans and included these as an addendum to later editions of the book. Throughout his life, it seems, Whitman was compelled to ceaselessly promote himself. "The public is a thick skinned beast," he confided to a friend,"and you have to keep whacking away it its hide to let it know you're there."

David Haven Blake's point, which was a new angle to me at least, was that celebrity in the mid-19th century could be seen as a true democratic phenomenon. Fame (and possible subsequent wealth) created and bestowed by the people– rather than by birth, class or inheritance–was, in a sense, sanctioned by popular vote. The celebrity was the embodiment of a culture sanctioned by the people, and an affirmation of the great American experiment.

In my current readings, Trachtenberg in “Walt Whitman Precipitant of the Modern” makes what I believe is the key to my interest in Whitman: the case of the poet's influence on the American avant garde-- ie the rise of Modernism in art and literature. Ezra Pound said of Whitman: “He is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America.” I paraphrase Trachtenberg: Whitman breaks through constraint to say exactly what's on his mind, he sanctions desire, rebellion, individualism with an unprecedented openness of form and emotion.

IMAGES: the infamous frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, 1855. Virtually all reviews at the time commented on the "defiant", vulgar quality of the portrait. Whitman knew exactly what he was doing; Levi's Jeans "Go Forth" tv ad campaign by Weidan + Kennedy featuring Whitman's poems. Some of the comments on the Youtube page are interesting: “Is this some genius speaking through satire or has consumerism become this crass? The American dream of independence and self-actualization has become a pair of over-priced jeans....”;2/3 length with hat outdoor rustic”--This 1877 photograph was Whitman's favorite and caused much to-do with acolytes and early scholars who argued about this butterfly. Whitman tried to foster the idea that the creature was real and had somehow alighted upon his finger... in the midst of a photo studio. In 1995, someone found the butterfly in a cache of Whitmaniana that had gone missing from the Library of Congress in 1942.

2 comments:

daniel said...

although i have to admit that he is an admixture of both aloof and has an insight of the American working class (he has many predecessors), how can you surmount his poetry down to the statement "he did it all for celebrity status"? Whilst yes, there was a demand for an American voice, I think you desperately need to re-read.

angela said...

As far as Whitman's poetry: I never said, nor implied, "he did it all for celebrity status".
"I think you desperately need to reread" my post :-)

I was merely saying that A: I do not enjoy WW's poetry all that much-- that is my philistinism B: I found David Haven Blake's theory about celebrity in 19th c America fascinating and C: as an ADJUNCT to creating his venerable works, I think WW played that celebrity game well— likely for many reasons.

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