Walt Whitman is the most influential poet America has yet produced. He expanded the boundaries of what a poem could do and what a poet could represent. He envisioned Leaves of Grass as a "new American Bible," and he presented himself as the long-awaited "American bard" sounding his "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." Through period of traumatic change, Whitman and his book reflected the tensions between the ideals of freedom and equality and the harsh realities of building a nation. For Whitman and future generations, the outcome of these struggles would define what it means to be an "American."
This seminar will examine Whitman's life and writings in the context of 19th-century American culture (with due attention to our 21st-century concerns). Literature will be our primary focus, but we will also consider film, painting, photography, advertising, the built environment, and books as physical objects. Along the way, you will also become familiar with a variety of critical approaches, including New Historicism, cultural studies, postcolonial and national studies, gender-and-sexuality studies, visual-culture studies, literary history, urban studies, history-of-the-book studies, and literary sociology. You will also improve your research skills, using the latest electronic technology as well as the most reliable traditional sources.
In "Walt Whitman's America" you will find out whether the "graduate-school experience" appeals to you. The format of this seminar will be similar to what you might encounter in graduate school (though the reading and writing assignments are less extensive). There are no exams, but you will be expected to perform the assigned reading and participate in seminar discussions. You will also present a "mini-lecture" once during the semester. Most of your efforts, however, will be aimed at producing a substantial work of scholarship: a 15-20 page research paper, hopefully of nearly-publishable quality. This will be accomplished in stages: 1. You will brainstorm in seminar and arrange at least one consultation meeting with me; 2. You will research and write a prospectus that describes your project; 3. Your prospectus will be critiqued and supplemented by two peers and by me; 4. You will present your major findings to the seminar and receive immediate group feedback; 5. You will meet with me at least once as you prepare the final manuscript for evaluation; and 6. I will return the annotated manuscript return to you with suggestions for future use in applications and/or publications.