Walt Whitman in Popular Culture: When Can We Buy a Bobblehead?

The following guest post is by Abby Yochelson, Reference Specialist in the Main Reading Room, Researcher & Reference Services Division. The Library of Congress will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birthday in spring 2019 with a series of exhibits, public programs, and a digital crowdsourcing campaign to showcase the Library’s unparalleled collections of Whitman’s writings and artifacts.

A special Whitman Bicentennial display, on view in exhibit cases in the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress from May 16 to August 15, 2019, is a chance to see original Whitman objects from the Library’s special collections, including Whitman manuscripts and rare books, printed versions of Whitman poems, rarely seen photographs and art works, musical compositions inspired by Whitman, and book design and popular culture items. Don’t miss our Whitman Open House on June 3 for even more Whitmania.

[Walt Whitman commerative 5 cent postage stamps]. [Bureau of Engraving and Printing], [1940]

[Walt Whitman commerative (commemorative) 5 cent postage stamps]. [Bureau of Engraving and Printing], [1940]

While Walt Whitman did not invent the American ”cult of celebrity,” his self-promotion and late-in-life popularity as “The Good Gray Poet” undoubtedly qualified him as a prime 19th century example. He would have been pleased to know that schools throughout the country, a bridge, a shopping center, and even a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike would all be named for him years after his death.

In his early years, he published anonymous reviews in newspapers praising his own works to garner the kind of attention he believed he deserved. In his 1839 poem “Fame’s Vanity” (later revised as “Ambition”), published in the newspaper the Long Island Democrat, he contemplates the negative consequences of the pursuit of fame.

Shall I build up a lofty name,
     And seek to have the nations know
What conscious might dwells in the brain
     That throbs aneath this brow?

And have thick countless ranks of men
     Fix upon me their reverent gaze,
And listen to the deafening shouts,
     To me that thousands raise?

Clearly Whitman relished and encouraged “the deafening shouts” and “reverent gaze” throughout his life. And while he was originally more popular in England than in the U.S., by the 1880s he was visited by foreign and American notables such as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Thomas Eakins who paid homage to his genius.

"Good Gray Poet" [article excerpt]. The Evening World (New York). May 31, 1889.

“Good Gray Poet” [article excerpt]. The Evening World (New York). May 31, 1889.

More than 12,000 newspaper articles attesting to his fame can be found by searching Chronicling America, a collection of historic digitized newspapers from across the United States. A topical page on Walt Whitman created by staff in the Library’s Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room links to highlighted articles and explains how to search Chronicling America effectively for additional articles about Whitman.

For example, on May 31, 1889, newspapers reported that more than 200 enthusiastic admirers from across the country attended a 70th birthday celebration in Camden, New Jersey. Sadly, Whitman was too ill to attend.

Newspapers described his March 30, 1892 funeral in detail, although those details weren’t always consistent. According to these stories, anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 Camden neighbors, friends, and literary illuminati filed through Whitman’s tiny Mickle Street house to view his body prior to its interment at the Harleigh Cemetery.

After Whitman’s death, his friend and biographer Horace Traubel gathered a group of enthusiasts into the Walt Whitman Fellowship, which established branches in U.S. cities and abroad to produce annual birthday festivities. The centenary of Whitman’s birth in 1919 was celebrated worldwide, though some U.S. newspaper articles still complained that his free verse and pornography ruined poetry. The literary journal The Bookman published a special Whitman Centenary Issue in May 1919, while other magazines were filled with recognitions of his genius or reminiscences by those who knew him.

Anniversaries of Whitman’s birth, death, and Leaves of Grass publication dates continue to be celebrated with exhibitions, readings, poetry festivals, and birthday parties. As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth here at the Library of Congress and across the United States, it is evident that his fame continues to take many forms in popular culture.

The Library holds the most extensive array of Whitman collections in the world, including manuscripts, rare books, and more than 1,000 books about Whitman and his writing. In addition to the print medium, his words have continued to inspire actors, musicians, and artists, and have been translated into popular culture in a variety of ways.

In a recent blog post by Paul Sommerfeld we learned that Whitman has “inspired over 500 composers to write over 1,200 works.” Composers such as Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, and Kurt Weil have all set his poems to music. Inspired by Whitman’s Civil War diaries, Matthew Aucoin composed the opera Crossing in 2015.

Isadora Duncan, dancer.

Isadora Duncan, dancer.

While fewer Whitman-inspired dance pieces have been choreographed, his influence was no less profound on dance history. Isadora Duncan is acknowledged as one of the pioneers of free or modern dance. In her autobiography My Life she describes Whitman as the supreme poet of our country. “I have discovered the dance that is worthy of the poem of Walt Whitman. I am indeed the spiritual daughter of Walt Whitman.”

Federal Dance Theatre presents Salut au monde adapted from a poem of that name by Walt Whitman.

Federal Dance Theatre presents Salut au monde adapted from a poem of that name by Walt Whitman.

In 1936, Whitman’s poem “Salut au Monde” was adapted as a dance drama by Helen Tamaris for the Federal Dance Theatre, a division of the Federal Theatre Project. The Library of Congress holds the fascinating records – scripts, costume and set sketches, posters – of the Federal Theatre Project, a program of the Works Progress Administration to employ actors, dancers, writers, and directors during the Great Depression.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company’s “Beloved Renegade,” a piece based on Whitman’s life and his line, “I am the poet of the body and I am the poet of the soul,” was labeled the best new choreography in 2008 and has been an audience favorite whenever it is performed.

A current display at the Library of Congress (on view through August 15) includes a case showing a wide variety of popular and sometimes unique portrayals of Whitman.

Whitman is most frequently associated with the Civil War, but his popularity during World War II is demonstrated through an Armed Services Edition of A Wartime Whitman edited by Major William A. Aiken. Armed Services Editions (ASEs) were specially-designed, pocket-sized books of fiction and nonfiction distributed to soldiers and sailors from 1943 to 1947. About 122 million copies of more than 1,300 ASE titles were sent overseas. Not only was an edition of Whitman’s poems included in this series, but a biography by Henry Seidel Canby, Walt Whitman, and his significant inclusion in the anthology Great Poems from Chaucer to Whitman, edited by Louis Untermeyer, attest to the popular demand for Whitman.

"Popular Portrayals" of Walt Whitman. One of five cases in the Whitman Bicentennial Display, available for viewing in the Thomas Jefferson Building through Aug. 15, 2019. Photo by Kathy Woodrell.

“Popular Portrayals” of Walt Whitman. One of five cases in the Whitman Bicentennial Display, available for viewing in the Thomas Jefferson Building through Aug. 15, 2019. Photo by Kathy Woodrell.

Artist Eric Gurney’s 1966 cartoon drawing of “Walt Whitman Toasting Himself” brilliantly captures Whitman’s reputation for having a gigantic ego. Whitman’s life coincided with the steep rise of commercial advertising in the United States and he undoubtedly would have been pleased by a cigar box depicting his famous face. In this same display, that renowned face is interpreted in a woodblock print by artist J. Mark Nuccio. In addition to numerous portraits, the Library is also displaying a bronze life-cast of his hand made by artist Truman Howe Bartlett in 1881. Life- and death-casting was a popular art form in the 19th century, even if we’re a bit more squeamish in this century.

Parodies on Walt Whitman [cover]. New York, American Library Service, 1923.

Parodies on Walt Whitman [cover]. New York, American Library Service, 1923.

And while many poets have inspired a parody or two, few have an entire volume devoted to parodies of their works. Henry S. Saunders collected them into Parodies on Walt Whitman; you can find these amusing poems through the HathiTrust Digital Library.

While the artist and date of carving are unknown for the wooden Walt Whitman figurine on display, it stands alongside a 21st century Walt Whitman finger puppet. A Walt Whitman finger puppet produced along with other “magnetic personalities” such as William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin would have appealed to Whitman’s expansive sense of humor.

Although we haven’t obtained one yet, a bobblehead Walt Whitman as the ultimate representation of popular culture might be on display when we next celebrate the Good Gray Poet!

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