A figure both lauded and criticized during his time, Walt Whitman’s poetry and genius has endured for over 150 years since the first publication of his seminal work, Leaves of Grass. His artistic legacy looms large over modern American poetry and his influence can be found everywhere, from contemporary best seller lists to movies on the big screen. It is undeniable that Walt Whitman has left an indelible imprint on American letters.
Whitman’s legacy grew first not just out of the popularity of Leaves of Grass, and the thousands of readers that gravitated towards the great work during the poet’s lifetime, but also through a core group of devotees that sought to emulate and spread Whitman’s unique genius throughout the literary world. These individuals, known as “Whitman’s Disciples,” were a large and diverse group, spread all over the world. These Disciples - the poets John Burroughs and Horace Traubel were two of the most well known – were attracted not only to Whitman’s innovative use of free-verse and engagement of taboo themes, but also the diverse spirituality within his poems. Whitman can be considered a descendant of the Transcendentalist movement, a religious and social movement that gained some notoriety in nineteenth century New England through figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson and the famous Unitarian minister George Putnam. Transcendentalism was largely an offshoot of the most liberal factions of Unitarianism. They sought to see the divine in nature and within the human soul. Whitman’s poetry often fits within the scope of this transcendentalist belief; a journey through the human body and soul to see a higher realm of being within physical reality. Whitman’s disciples extolled this vision of a spiritual self, a religious notion that often did not have a strong presence in American culture both during Whitman’s lifetime and after his death.
It was not only Whitman’s spirituality, however, that captured the attention of Whitman devotees. One of the most controversial aspects of Whitman’s poems – his intense sexual metaphors and descriptions – captivated a contingent of admiring poets. John Addington Symonds, an English poet, often corresponded with Whitman during his lifetime and was enthralled with Whitman’s use of male friendship within “Calamus.” These controversial topics in Whitman’s poetry were often subjects of derision amongst critics, yet Symonds, as well as other Disciples, reversed the interpretation of Whitman’s poetry. Where critics often saw a void of morals within Whitman’s poetry, his Disciples interpreted these erotic desires as a manifestation of the search for wholeness. Whitman refused to separate the masculine and the feminine and saw each as a part of the individual whole. His Disciples found a particular genius within this interpretation of sexuality and gender and Symonds, in particular, devoted much of his life’s work to interpreting and deciphering the meaning of true relationship in “Calamus” and the rest of Whitman’s poetry.
Whitman’s legacy was not confined to the decades immediately proceeding his death. His style and his vision of America were very influential in later literary movements as well, including the Beat Generation. The Beats were a loose affiliation of writers, musicians, and political activists based largely out of San Francisco and New York who gained notoriety in the 1950’s and 60’s for their counter-cultural lifestyles and controversial publications. Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg were a few of the best known Beats. Whitman’s influence can especially be seen in Ginsberg’s poetry. Ginsberg’s use of free verse, and the structure of several of his longer poems, including “Howl,” often mimics Whitman’s original use of the technique. In Ginsberg’s poem, “A Supermarket in California,” Ginsberg imagines walking down the streets of Berkeley, California at night and entering a grocery store. In the aisles of pre-packaged food and imported produce, Ginsberg imagines a conversation in which he asks Whitman if the soul of America is being transformed by consumerism and a perverted understanding of individualism. Whitman’s poems often extolled the patriotic virtues of a collective population, and Ginsberg looked back to the poet to try and understand the transformation of the society around him. The Beats also followed Whitman’s spiritual legacy. Figures such as Kerouac intensely sought out spiritual meaning in the world through Buddhism, Christianity, and other religious forms, seeking to alleviate the spiritual void that Whitman sought to combat during his own time.
Whitman has not only been a fascination of literary devotees and disciples. His legacy has also seeped into the general consciousness of American culture and he and his poetry often make appearances in popular culture. This is most apparent in American film, where many recent filmmakers have appropriated Whitman’s work into their movies as a symbol and signifier of themes of emotion, love, and searching. The homosexual themes of Whitman’s poetry are especially evident in many modern films. One of the best known films of recent decades to use Whitman’s poetry was the 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society. There are numerous references to Whitman in this film and the underlying themes of homosexual relationships undergird the tension felt between the young characters. Masculine friendships and the need for masculine bonding, one of Whitman’s most controversial themes, are evident throughout. The climactic scene of the movie is a recitation of Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”
Whitman’s poetry also provides the context to one of the best known sports movies of recent years, Bull Durham. In this film, Whitman’s poetry becomes the backdrop for a love triangle between two minor league baseball players and a woman. In one particular scene, the main female character reads Whitman’s “The Body Electric” to one of the men after making love. The intense eroticism of Whitman’s poetry often expresses itself in sexual desire and love in films such as these and is used to convey the complicated emotions and feelings that characters feel towards one another.
From academia to Hollywood, Whitman’s legacy lives on in American culture. Perhaps it is the vastness of the themes that Whitman chose to engage in Leaves of Grass that captivates artists, religious leaders, and scholars. Perhaps it is Whitman’s singular genius of form and function that allows his work to remain meaningful and vital even generations after his death. It is without doubt, however, that Whitman’s poetry lives on in culture and will continue to do so for generations to come.