I really love reading the Whitman Blog every week, but lately I’ve noticed a trend among Whitman Nation: as the weeks go by, our posts seem to get more and more serious. I’d like to take a more lighthearted step back and explore something I have dubbed “The Uncle Walt Phenomenon.” I mentioned to one of my friends the other day that I am taking a class about Walt Whitman this semester. He smiled and said, “Oh I love Uncle Walt.” “Uncle Walt?” I asked. “Yeah, Uncle Walt. That’s what I call him.” I laughed and asked why. He chuckled as he said, “I don’t know. He just seems like he could be the weird uncle in my family, or in anyone’s family. The uncle who never marries, or showers, and who’s a little misunderstood but very wise, and really weird but in kind of a cool-weird way.
I love this idea. I’ve asked a few of my friends about their families, and the general consensus seems to be that most people have an uncle or some other family member who is like that. In fact, I can honestly say that one of my older brothers fits that description perfectly. It’s just too bad that he doesn’t have a super crazy Whitmanian beard!
For me, thinking of Walt Whitman as Uncle Walt makes perfect sense. I feel like I have a personal connection with him. Even though Uncle Walt is a larger-than-life figure that can sometimes be very grand, prideful, and prophetic, he can also be a very personal and candid old sage. Each reader can feel their own personal connection to Uncle Walt, whether they care for his poetry or not. I think that’s why his influence is so vast, and why so many poets talk to and about Uncle Walt in their work. Some poets build on themes and images from Whitman’s work, others, like Frank O’Hara, seem to resist Whitman. Some look to him for guidance or reassurance, especially the “Old Whitman.” I see Ginsberg and Hughes each invoking their idea of Uncle Walt in their poems to Old Whitman. Either way, these poets find Whitman accessible enough to call out to him, or just to call him out. Perhaps Harold Bloom was on to something when he wrote about poets slaying the Father Poet. But maybe it’s less about the Father and more about the Uncle?