Expanding Whitman’s Influence

We had a truly great class this semester, in which we expounded upon and investigated in depth just how far-reaching Walt Whitman’s influential scope extends.  Essentially, we can thank the American Bard for the magnum opuses of a large number of the most celebrated poets of the past 100 years, whether they agreed with Whitman or not.  We found that those who are influenced by the Good Grey Poet and his ruminations on life, the nature of poetry, politics, and spirituality reach further than the confines of America, proving that there is something to be found in Whitman that can speak to us all.  This class definitely helped not only to shed light on Whitman, but to carve out a new kind of niche in which we can see the ways that the common collegiate literary canon functions as a web of connections — a godsend for students and scholars of English.

I would like to end with a kind of addendum to the syllabus.  Being an English Special Topics course, obviously the content is going to be mostly literature based.  However, I think there is something to be said for the way that Whitman’s influence and ideals expanded beyond the literary, assimilating gracefully into poltics, social theory, and art, just to name a few.  An entire companion class could be constructed for any of these topics.

For instance, I believe that the art of Frederic Edwin Church exemplifies on canvas many of the emotions that Whitman felt towards his country.  Church saw the beauty and the promise of America, reflected in the country’s unique and sweeping landscapes.  He often painted humans into his pieces, but as a miniscule part of something much greater, and whose responsibility it was to be the keepers of the magnificence.  His painting, “At Home By the Lake,” for example, is thought to be a “testament to the country’s pioneer spirit,” built on a love for and connection with the land, and a belief in hard work.

As a born-and-bred Virginian, his painting of Virginia’s famous natural bridge also comes to mind as a painting near to my heart.  I am sure the fact that our founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and George Mason revered and marveled at this beautiful natural creation would not have been lost on Church.

Further, Church and Whitman were contemporaries, fashioning their masterpieces around the same time in history.  Below are a few examples of Church’s works that remind me of Whitman in subject, style, and content; just a taste of Whitman’s legacy as it plays out through other, non-literary mediums.

At Home on the Lake - Frederic Edwin Church

The Natural Bridge, Virginia - Frederic Edwin Church

The Old Boat - Frederic Edwin Church

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One Response to Expanding Whitman’s Influence

  1. Nicole Monforton says:

    I love the shift to Whitman’s influence on art, as so much of American art (especially portraying nature, the open land) feel to me to be an artistic representation of everything Whitman writes about. Church, in particular, is a good example of this. The people in the paintings are small in comparison to the elements of nature that surround them, but they are not insignificant- each person seems to be doing something that contributes to the workings of society.

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