Lecture 14:
Whitman in the 20th and 21st Century

Walt Whitman affected most of the major American writers who followed him: William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets (who lamented the loss of Whitman's vision in modern America), John Berryman, Galway Kinnell, Langston Hughes, Philip Levine, Kenneth Koch, James Wright, Joy Harjo, Bernard Malamud, Bob Dylan, Jerry Wemple and June Jordan, to name only a few.

Whitman was also respected by international writers--in fact, his reputation flowered in Europe much sooner than it did in the United States. Pablo Neruda, Rimbaud, D. H. Lawrence, and Federico García Lorca, among others, acknowledged his influence.

In his book, To Walt Whitman, America, Kenneth Price talks about early filmmakers, as well, who were indebted to Whitman. In 1913, he appears as a character in The Carpenter, serving as a nurse and healer of the country. Three more films from the same time--D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), Manhatta (1921), and King Vidor's Street Scene (1931)--all present Whitman as one who will unify America and the rest of the world.

Whitman again begins to appear in films in the 1980s, to serve as an icon of homosexuality. Price says that in Sophie's Choice (1982), Down by Law (1986), Bull Durham (1988), Dead Poets Society (1989), and Beautiful Dreamers (1990), "Whitman has now become a convenient shorthand in American film culture, in a way analogous to his function for British readers at the end of the nineteenth century, when ... a picture of Whitman or a letter from him served as a homosexual badge of recognition" (137-138).

Michael Cunningham and Specimen Days

Michael Cunningham was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and raised in La Canada, California. He now lives in New York City. He teaches writing at Brooklyn College.

As with all authors, certain themes and ideas recur. In an interview with Dave Weich of Powells.com in 2005, he said,

I seem to be interested in whatever love and hope the love of life that hope implies can survive. I feel like my books always end happily, even though a lot of readers don't agree. But they always end with life going on; they always end with something still ahead; they always end with somebody moving into some uncertain future that may be terrible or may be great or may be some combination of the two. Human happiness is only interesting to me in its ability to survive disaster, so I write about people who are either undergoing some kind of terrible change in their outer lives or some kind of inner crisis.

In the same interview, he describes reading Whitman for the first time in college:

I was reading Leaves of Grass in college and got to a particular passage, which is something like, and I'm paraphrasing, "Reader, wherever you are in the future, know that I am as alive and present in the world now as you will be when you read this book, even though I and my world are gone. Is it night where you are? Is the lamp lit?" It was, and it was! Time collapsed, and Walt Whitman rose up off the page in his full aliveness, though he was not alive in the present. I think I understood deeply for the first time at that moment how great literature can transcend mortality.

Speciman Days is divided into three sections, each in a different time, and each a different genre: a Victorian ghost story, an urban thriller, and science fiction. Whitman's ideas and poetry infuse each section. The novel celebrates Whitman's vision; it also shows how far we have strayed from it.

And Cunningham is, of course, doing even more, as Laura Miller points out in her review of the novel for Salon.com:

Cunningham's intention is clear (although some critics have inexplicably missed it): He sees Whitman as the inclusive, expansive, loving and slightly crazed spirit of what's best about America. Whitman refused to acknowledge the differences of sex, race and class as differences in people's worth, and Cunningham, the quintessential contemporary literary novelist, aims in this book to embrace three literary genres that are usually considered "beneath" his own: historical fiction, police thriller and science fiction. If we want to know what America really is, he (by implication) exhorts his fellow literati, we need to explore what America really reads. The result, taken story by story, and especially in the last two, is rather wonderful.

Caleb Cain, of New York Magazine, sees the novel differently:

It isn’t clear that Cunningham likes Whitman, for one thing. The three novellas—a ghost story, a neo-noir tale, and a turn at science fiction—feel rather like attempts at exorcism. When characters quote the poet, they’re displaying not an affinity but a symptom. A self-destructive boy blurts out lines of Whitman’s verse as if they were the expletives of a Tourette’s patient or the calculations of an autistic. Terrorists cite Leaves of Grass to justify suicide bombings. A robot with runaway emotionality is irritated by an implanted poetry chip, which causes him to say, “I understand the large hearts of heroes, the courage of present times and all times,” to a surveillance drone considering whether to zap him into molten titanium and gobbets of artificial flesh.

David Weigand, writing for The San Francisco Chronicle, has yet another perspective:

Specimen Days, which, by the way, takes its title from Whitman, is ultimately a meditation on life and death that celebrates the spiritual connection that Whitman and Cunningham see as the stuff that links us not only to each other but also to those who have gone, as well as those who are yet to be. Loss underlies each one of the three stories in the novel, or rather seems to. In each case, though, loss is somehow redeemed through the acknowledgement of the whole of life, the human continuum that transcends time and mortality itself.

For more information on this topic, go to the Links page.

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:

1. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1
2. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature.
3. "Walt Whitman." Show China. http://www.showchina.org/en/Exchange/03/200705/t114128.htm
4. Kenneth M. Price. To Walt Whitman, America.
5. "Same Old, Brand New Michael Cunningham." Powell's.com Author Interviews. http://www.powells.com/authors/cunningham.html

--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.

--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.