[This is the full transcript of the video essay “Whitman on Film” that tops this page, but as an interactive feature, when you click on any of the still frames below (twice, please), only that relevant portion will play back.]
Walt Whitman might be the best known poet in print, not to mention in film and television through the years. In 2019, we’re celebrating his 200th birthday, reconciling his legacy across two centuries of American history, and his influence on media beyond the printed word. From silent movies of the early 20th century, to episodic dramas on television today, I’m focusing here on the poet showing up in cinema and television – and since the lines are blurred by now, I’m just calling this “Whitman on Film” (and I’ve created a companion site for this video essay too, at whitmanonfilm.com, adding my new Whitman trilogy of original poetry films).
Born May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman came of age surrounded with new technology and American enterprise, something he celebrated with joy, taking full advantage as a writer. His lifetime magnum opus “Leaves of Grass” started out as a true “song of himself,” self-published and launched with rave reviews that he wrote anonymously about himself! Sometimes-professor James Franco once wrote an article suggesting that Whitman was the original Kanye West. And there’s no doubting that Walt would have just loved the Internet, if he had it.
But photography was the newest thing in his time, and so we have lots of pictures of the bearded poet, and also the Civil War that most dramatically defined his era. Movies weren’t invented yet, so we can’t see him that way – but we can hear his actual voice in a wax cylinder recording that was probably captured personally by Thomas Edison in 1890.
When I made my own trilogy of Whitman poetry films, I started out with that recording of his voice in “America” – and it’s a curious bit of trivia that Daniel Day-Lewis studied the recording to estimate a New Yorker’s accent mid-19th century.
But it wasn’t until the 20th century, after Whitman’s death in 1892, that cinema came of age – the ultimate medium of sight, sound and word. Much of that birth was ugly, consummated in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 “Birth of a Nation” that reflected back on the Civil War of Whitman’s time, filled with Lost Cause racism that actually inspired protests from day one. Ever the provocateur, Griffith followed that up casting himself as a sort of victim with “Intolerance” one year later, and the first thing seen is a direct allusion to the Whitman poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” So technically, that’s the first big example of Whitman on Film.
But really, it starts with the masterpiece called “Manhatta” in 1921. It’s the kind of film that I love the most, called “city symphonies,” and this one arrived even before the seminal German and Russian archetypes, leading up to our time with modern American examples like “Koyaanisqatsi.” Living somewhere between narrative and documentary cinema, and before the arrival of sound and much else, “Manhatta” uses intertitles to excerpt Whitman’s famous New York poems: “A Broadway Pageant,” “Mannahatta,” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”
It was just six years later in 1927 that the first sound film arrived, “The Jazz Singer,” and by 1931, we get Whitman in spoken word. “Street Scene” was an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that dug into the urban and cultural dramas of immigrant New York, using the transcendent longing found in Whitman’s poem “Passage to India.”
Street Scene (1931)
Sail forth—steer for the deep waters only,
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.
And then in 1942, still in sea-faring metaphor, Bette Davis reads from “The Untold Want” in “Now Voyager.”
Now Voyager (1942)
The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.
It’s almost as if Whitman is giving these not-fully-actualized characters, permission to become whole.
But even Whitman’s transcendent qualities could manage to kindle an old romance, adding a bit of melancholy to Joan Crawford’s performance in the 1951 film “Goodbye, My Fancy” that’s named directly after Whitman’s poem.
Goodbye, My Fancy (1951)
Good-bye my Fancy!
Farewell dear mate, dear love!
I’m going away, I know not where,
Or to what fortune, or whether I may ever see you again,
So Good-bye my Fancy.
Twilight Zone: Season 3, Episode 35 (1962)
Also getting its name from a Whitman poem, but much less direct in allusion, is Ray Bradbury’s one script that he wrote for “The Twilight Zone” and later adapted into a literary short story that became his legend. Much like the year of its broadcast 1962, the story was innocent to technology, happy to “Sing the Body Electric” if only that could be a manifestation of the human soul.
But heading into the 60s and 70s, America went into a period of soul-searching, which explains a certain long absence of Whitman on film. It might be that his romanticism went out of fashion too, against the rise of beat poets and politicized art.
So then it’s almost a cry for help, by the time we get to 1980, when the musical “Fame” goes back to that “Body Electric” poem in a very different world than mid-century Twilight Zone. With “Fame,” after stories of suffering and identity crisis, the film ends with a bombastic musical arrangement of Whitman’s body celebration – maybe heralding a more self-obsessed version of the poet’s transcendent humanism. And that was way before Twitter and Facebook.
After 1980, Whitman gets back in fashion. Maybe it’s Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” or just that the war is over, but his poetry starts serving many functions.
Sophie’s Choice (1982)
In “Sophie’s Choice,” reflecting on America’s past, Whitman is treated with a sort of archival reverence.
But what also began to blow open around that time, after the fall of the studio system, was the emergence of more independent cinema, like this peculiar film by Jim Jarmusch called “Down by Law” where Roberto Benigni recites “The Singer in the Prison,” in his native Italian.
Down By Law (1986)
So movies didn’t have to be epics, and could live in those long silences between words. They could even put Whitman’s poetry into the most unexpected places – until you realize that the poet actually wrote a lot about the sport of baseball, as Susan Sarandon explains in the opening and closing minutes of 1988’s “Bull Durham.”
When she comes around to reciting “I Sing the Body Electric,” it’s a kinkier way of addressing the poetry, setting the stage to say things about gender that even Walt, way ahead of his time, probably couldn’t touch.
Bull Durham (1988)
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists…
…love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching,
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous…
But for better or worse, every appearance of Whitman on film up to this point, added together, couldn’t come close to the impact of just one movie.
For a few generations, “Dead Poets Society” became the entry point into Walt Whitman. But its use of “O Captain! My Captain!” wasn’t quite an homage to Abraham Lincoln; it just became the nickname for a teacher who subverted authority, in a place of exaggerated authoritarianism.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer. That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Even if it was hard to sympathize with, or relate to privileged kids “suffering” at an elite boarding school, the film warmly depicted that spark when creativity sets loose, surrounded with a climate of adolescent male ambiguity that just barely started becoming permissible to examine in the late 80s.
And far away from rich boarding schools, was Northern Exposure’s small-town Alaska. It was an early example of episodic television starting to look like cinema, challenging mass media’s safest boundaries.
Northern Exposure: Season 1, Episode 2 (1990)
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night…
What felt special here, compared to D. W. Griffith’s loud and ironic call for tolerance, is how common folk rose up and embraced the enlightenment of old Walt.
Around this time, mainstream Hollywood sometimes gave us reminders that Whitman is among America’s giants.
A long string of formulaic comedies in the 90s sometimes just appropriated the poet for comic opportunity.
Doc Hollywood (1991)
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows…
Other times, they’d manage to add character gravitas, whether you’d call it homage, or just writer’s block.
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.
In “With Honors,” Joe Pesci is a party animal, poet-philosopher, and tragic character all in one.
With Honors (1994)
To drive free! to love free!
…To court destruction with taunts—
To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fulness and freedom! With one brief hour of madness and joy.
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others…
Bouncing back to historical drama, “Little Women” depicts contemporaneous adoration of the poet in his lifetime.
Little Women (1994)
Keep your woods, O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods;
give me the streets of Manhattan!
But then all of a sudden, Whitman shows up as an actual character for the first time. In a pair of low-budget short films, actor Rip Torn played the poet in very speculative historical dramas, that gravitated towards the idea of a banished immoral man.
Beautiful Dreamers (1992)
What left little to the imagination anymore, was Whitman’s widely known companionship with other men, being directly portrayed.
And then, reaching a much bigger audience, “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman” dedicated one whole episode to a made-up story of Walt Whitman recovering from a stroke, in their Colorado town.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my [love] more precious than money…
Part of that recovery works out to be a visit from Peter Doyle, whom historians believe Whitman loved later in life. And of course, the town gossip rises to a boil.
It’s tough not to snicker at the clichés of this network television drama; but to see Whitman visually personified, portraying boundless optimism this way, it’s sort of irresistible.
Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman: Season 5, Episode 21 (1997)
By the end, some more tolerant folks in the community attend a makeshift reading where the poet recites that idealized paean to the Western frontier, “I Hear America Singing.” When you consider the time and the context of Jane Seymour’s wholesome family drama, credit’s due where this episode got a huge audience thinking about something they normally wouldn’t.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
There was a child went forth every day;
And all the changes of city and country, wherever he went.
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.
But for a different kind of audience entirely, independent filmmakers kept doing their thing, ever more liberated. “Love and Death on Long lsland” is a 1997 film about a gender-fluid love triangle, including a recitation of “The Untold Want.”
The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.
L.I.E., or Long Island Expressway, is a disturbing 2001 film starring a young Paul Dano being pursued by an old man, but in this scene, he manipulates back, reciting “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it mostly to me?
For I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping,
Now I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for—I awake,
Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me, Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before…
[What there] under the yellow and sagging moon,
The messenger there arous’d—the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.
Right up there with “Dead Poets Society,” another film reached a massive audience, maybe hearing Whitman’s words for the first time too, but since then, time hasn’t been friendly. “The Notebook” was a hyper-romanticized melodrama, and it ultimately makes people swoon, or just cringe.
The Notebook (2004)
The real poems, (what we call poems being merely pictures,)
The poems of the privacy of the night, and of men like me,
This poem, drooping shy and unseen, that I always carry, and that all men carry…
From Ryan Gosling’s brooding read of “Spontaneous Me,” to the senior moment in “Continuities,” Whitman seems to fix everything. Or, doesn’t.
Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
The body, sluggish, aged, cold—the embers left from earlier fires,
shall duly flame again…
But in 2009, we get a movie that’s simply about getting high. Or so you’d think from the title, a play on words, where Edward Norton oddly plays two characters. He finds his muse in an earthy Keri Russell, who recites Whitman’s poem “To You.”
Leaves of Grass (2009)
You have not known what you are, you have slumber’d upon yourself all your life,
Your eyelids have been the same as closed most of the time,
What you have done returns already in mockeries,
The mockeries are not you,
Underneath them and within them I see you lurk…
But if Whitman on film is a generational thing, I’ve noticed that most people recently say they heard him in “Breaking Bad.” It was an arc across multiple seasons and episodes, adding an air of mystery. The main character’s name Walter White clearly shadows the name Walt Whitman, and he gets a copy of “Leaves of Grass” after hearing “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
That book shows up again when things are looking up for Walt, affirmed by “Song of Myself.”
Breaking Bad (2011-2013)
Another episode has the name “Gliding Over All,” the name of a Whitman poem too, where the book adds more plot intrigue.
Somewhere more brutal, we can guess that a vision of birds in the sky, allude to the poem “The Dalliance of Eagles”; and in the last episode of the whole series, there’s a moment of escape that sounds like the “barbaric yawp” from “Song of Myself.”
And with that, we’re more or less up to date in 2019. For this bicentennial, I wrapped up a trilogy of poetry films that set Whitman’s “America,” “The Wound Dresser,” and other Civil War poems. And no doubt, it won’t be long before another Whitman poem sneaks up on you somewhere, in this new world of endless options from streaming platforms to movie houses. If this video essay has managed to sum up almost every appearance of Whitman on Film to date, you could rightly say it didn’t look very diverse – it didn’t portray all the faces of America that Whitman prophesied. In “Poets to Come,” visualized here by my student Sara Wolfley in film school, the poet wrote:
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.
Poets to Come (2019)
So it’s well and good to honor Walt Whitman on his 200th birthday. But what he really wanted to know is, what poem is there within you, waiting to tell?