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In Walt We Trust

In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself

John Marsh
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 256
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    In Walt We Trust
    Book Description:

    Life in the United States today is shot through with uncertainty: about our jobs, our mortgaged houses, our retirement accounts, our health, our marriages, and the future that awaits our children. For many, our lives, public and private, have come to feel like the discomfort and unease you experience the day or two before you get really sick. Our life is a scratchy throat. John Marsh offers an unlikely remedy for this widespread malaise: the poetry of Walt Whitman. Mired in personal and political depression, Marsh turned to Whitman-and it saved his life.In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itselfis a book about how Walt Whitman can save America's life, too.

    Marsh identifies four sources for our contemporary malaise (death, money, sex, democracy) and then looks to a particular Whitman poem for relief from it. He makes plain what, exactly, Whitman wrote and what he believed by showing how they emerged from Whitman's life and times, and by recreating the places and incidents (crossing Brooklyn ferry, visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals) that inspired Whitman to write the poems. Whitman, Marsh argues, can show us how to die, how to accept and even celebrate our (relatively speaking) imminent death. Just as important, though, he can show us how to live: how to have better sex, what to do about money, and, best of all, how to survive our fetid democracy without coming away stinking ourselves. The result is a mix of biography, literary criticism, manifesto, and a kind of self-help you're unlikely to encounter anywhere else.

    eISBN: 978-1-58367-477-2
    Subjects: Political Science, Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. A Note on Editions of Whitman’s Poems
    (pp. 7-8)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Walt Whitman—A Poetic Comfort
    (pp. 9-30)

    On the night of July 15, 1979, Jimmy Carter sat down in the Oval Office, stared soulfully into the television camera, and delivered one of the most honest, passionate, and imprudent speeches in American history. Carter began by outlining the problems Americans currently faced: an economic recession, spiraling inflation, unemployment, and, most urgently, energy shortages and gas lines. He argued, however, that “the true problems of our Nation are much deeper.” Sounding more like an existential philosopher than a president, Carter observed that Americans had more and more doubts about the meaning of their lives, and less and less faith...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Congratulations! You’re Dead!
    (pp. 31-62)

    In the first centuries of the Roman Empire, you took your chances being a Christian. Occasionally, some far-flung Roman prefect would rouse himself long enough to bully you or one of your brethren, which could mean anything from exile to, more grandiosely, an appointment with the lions.

    In the early years of the third century, a Christian theologian, Tertullian, sought to win religious tolerance from the Roman Empire for his persecuted fellow Christians. InApologeticus, Tertullian explains that though Christians respected the emperor—at the time, the unusually brutal Septimius Severus—they could not worship him since he was no...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Walt Whitman’s Credit Report Looks Even Worse than Yours
    (pp. 63-98)

    Today Zuccotti Park is an open, inviting patch of ground buried beneath the cavernous skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. On a recent May morning, crowds of freshly showered office workers, bubbling up from the Cortlandt Street subway station across Church Street, spilled through the park, turned down Broadway, and then streamed toward the glass and granite wonders of Wall Street proper, a few blocks away.

    In the fall of 2011, Zuccotti Park looked far different. Back then it served as staging area and campground for the Occupy Wall Street protests that, thanks in part to cops with quick pepper-spray fingers, briefly...

  7. INTERLUDE I: Was Walt Whitman Socialist?
    (pp. 99-108)

    Late in his life, after he had retired to Camden, Walt Whitman received a copy of the socialist journalTo-Day. Published in London, this July 1888 edition of the journal carried a long essay by the British writer Reginald A. Beckett titled “Whitman as a Socialist Poet.”¹ “I read every word of it,” Whitman told his friend Horace Traubel, “not, however, because of its literary quality (though that is respectable enough) but just to see how I look to one who sees all things from the standpoint of the socialist.”²

    As Whitman’s comment suggests, he did not think of himself...

  8. CHAPTER 3 With Walt Whitman, Making It Rain
    (pp. 109-148)

    In the late 1850s, Walt Whitman wrote a series of poems celebrating what he called “manly love,” the love men had for other men.¹ Whitman included the poems in the 1860 edition ofLeaves of Grassunder the heading “Calamus,” a plant with a suggestive, phallic-shaped flowering spike growing out of it. As I discuss in the next chapter, the exact nature of this manly love—essentially, whether it involved genitals or not—remains very much unsettled. In any case, Whitman wanted a series of poems that would counterbalance the “Calamus” ones. Whereas “Calamus” would celebrate the love of men...

  9. INTERLUDE II: Was Walt Whitman Gay?
    (pp. 149-178)

    Several years ago, Ph.D. in hand, I went looking for a job as an English professor. Usually, hundreds of candidates apply for a job, ten are given initial interviews, and then three are invited to campus. On campus, you give a talk based on your research to the rest of the department or, at schools where teaching matters more than research, you teach a class while a few members of the department look on. For a job at a public university in the South, I was asked to teach a class on Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” What luck, I...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Affection Shall Solve the Problems of Freedom
    (pp. 179-224)

    In an 1863 letter to his brother Jeff, Walt Whitman called the Battle at Fredericksburg the “most complete piece of mismanagement perhaps ever yet known in the earth’s wars.”¹ At times, Whitman could be rather easily excited, so you have to take his claim about military history with a grain of salt. Still, if you wander the battlefield at Fredericksburg, Virginia, as I did one sunny, chilly day in February, you can almost see what he means. Even if, like me, you know less than nothing about military strategy, from the vantage of the sunken road at the top of...

  11. CONCLUSION: At Whitman’s Tomb
    (pp. 225-231)

    I love Walt Whitman. I hate Walt Whitman’s tomb.

    A few months shy of his seventy-third birthday, Whitman died on March 26 in 1892. He died from so many different maladies—pleurisy, consumption, tuberculosis, nephritis—that no single cause of death could take credit. At his funeral, seemingly all of Camden turned out. Thousands streamed through his Mickle Street house to view his body. Just as many joined the procession of Whitman’s coffin to nearby Harleigh Cemetery, where the poet was laid to rest in a stone mausoleum along with the bodies of his mother and his father and, eventually,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 232-248)