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Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity

Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity

Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity
    Book Description:

    What is the relationship between poetry and fame? What happens to a reader's experience when a poem invokes its author's popularity? Is there a meaningful connection between poetry and advertising, between the rhetoric of lyric and the rhetoric of hype? One of the first full-scale treatments of celebrity in nineteenth-century America, this book examines Walt Whitman's lifelong interest in fame and publicity.Making use of notebooks, photographs, and archival sources, David Haven Blake provides a groundbreaking history of the rise of celebrity culture in the United States. He seesLeaves of Grassalongside the birth of commercial advertising and the nation's growing obsession with the lives of the famous and the renowned. As authors, lecturers, politicians, entertainers, and clergymen vied for popularity, Whitman developed a form of poetry that routinely promoted and, indeed, celebrated itself.Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrityproposes a fundamentally new way of thinking about a seminal American poet and a major national icon.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13481-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Frontispiece
    (pp. 1-20)

    SPEAKING WITH THE photographer Mathew Brady, Walt Whitman once speculated that history could best be absorbed through a series of photographs. Compared to the contradictory accounts that eyewitnesses and historians had provided of men such as Caesar, Socrates, and Epictetus, it would be much more beneficial, Whitman surmised, to “have three or four or half a dozen portraits—very accurate—of the men: that would be history—the best history—a history from which there could be no appeal” (WWC,3:553). Of the more than 120 photographs we have of Whitman, I am particularly drawn to a photograph that appeared,...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Celebrity
    (pp. 21-58)

    CELEBRITY CAME LATE TO WALT WHITMAN. An old man, half paralyzed by strokes, he could hardly appreciate the attention he attracted during the height of America’s Gilded Age. From around the world people wrote the poet asking for his autograph, and on at least one occasion, he used a pile of such requests to light the kindling in his fireplace (WWC,4:351–52). Admirers frequently traveled to Camden, hoping to meet the author ofLeaves of Grass.When Oscar Wilde arrived in 1882, the poet was living with his brother and sister-in-law in a respectable working-class neighborhood. The two drank...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Personality
    (pp. 59-97)

    OF THE MANY PROCLAMATIONS Whitman made throughout his career, perhaps the boldest was his conclusion to the Preface for the 1855Leaves of Grass:“The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it” (24). Whitman wrote the Preface as he was seeing the manuscript through press, and its final sentence was less the guiding principle of his grand poetic experiment than its culminating act. Revolutionary in its bravado and inventiveness, the statement was predicated on Whitman’s belief that the public’s embrace was vital to his own poetic identity. Throwing out conventional...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Publicity
    (pp. 98-137)

    IN AUGUST 1888, Whitman’s health was in serious decline, and his nightly meetings with Horace Traubel took on a new sense of urgency. Although they focused on planning a final edition ofLeaves of Grass,the two friends closed almost every evening with Traubel reading from a pile of editorial correspondence the poet had received over the years. The experience left Whitman feeling overlooked and unwanted by the nation’s most prominent literary magazines, though as Traubel pointed out, a majority of the letters plainly announced their authors’ admiration and support. Among the letters was an 1884 message from Sam Walter...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Intimacies
    (pp. 138-173)

    WHITMAN’S FONDNESS FOR PUBLICITY was so well known that even in death he was vulnerable to charges of garishly courting the spotlight. A year after he died in 1892, the poet’s admirers publishedIn Re Walt Whitman,a commemorative book meant to proclaim his unique contribution to the world. The book was edited by Whitman’s literary executors: Horace Traubel, Thomas Harned, a Philadelphia lawyer, and R. M. Bucke, the Canadian physician who would later describe Whitman as having a finer moral consciousness than that of either Jesus or the Buddha. Gathering a wide variety of materials, the volume began the...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Campaigns
    (pp. 174-216)

    AMONG WALT WHITMAN’S PAPERS at the time of his death was an 1849 article from theEdinburgh Reviewtitled “The Vanity and the Glory of Literature.”¹ The article describes the explosion of print culture in the first half of the nineteenth century and speculates on the possible consequences it would have on British society. The author lamented that facing an astonishing number of choices, people might read in a desultory manner, moving from book to book without design or purpose. Worse yet, they might indulge in the desire to gain “encyclopedic knowledge” and simply sample the learning represented across a...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 217-240)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 241-251)