This essay by Kelly Scott Franklin about the bicentennial of the birth of Walt Whitman, a longtime Camden resident, first ran in the Summer 2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Franklin teaches American literature and the Great Books at Hillsdale College. This excerpt is reprinted with permission.
Two hundred years after his birth, Walt Whitman is still alive and well. “[L]ook for me under your bootsoles,” he once intoned, “Missing me one place search another.” And he isn’t that hard to find: we’re all familiar with his best-known poem “O Captain! My Captain!” from the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. In 2009, Levi’s advertised blue jeans using the one audio recording believed to be of Whitman’s voice, reading some lines from his poem “America.” You can read a 2016 detective novel starring Whitman. This year, Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery began releasing a seven-beer series honoring Whitman’s poems. The U.S. Postal Service has announced a new commemorative stamp, and I even found a Whitman magnet at a street market: a cartoony Walt broods over a bowl of breakfast cereal, the box labeled “O Captain! My Captain Crunch!”
Amidst our cultural polarization, Whitman’s bicentennial could also be a moment of ceasefire.
For the bicentennial, scholars have gathered in New York and Paris, and Americans have hosted public readings, performance art, and festivals to celebrate his life and works. But for some conservatives, Whitman remains something of a pariah for his unorthodox poetics, his questioning of organized religion, and his expressions of same-sex desire. It doesn’t help that he has been adopted as the poet laureate for the Left. But amidst our cultural polarization, his bicentennial could also be a moment of ceasefire. He was an innovator who celebrated equality and dignity, who helped our nation grieve during the Civil War, and who beautifully articulated the experience of being human. These are things on which we should all agree, and it’s time for all of us to return to our American Bard.
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