Aired Monday April 14th, 2008 at 8:00 pm
He is one of the most-recognized figures in American literary history: poet, patriot and faithful advocate of democracy. His name graces shopping malls, highway rest stops and local high schools. He has adherents around the globe. But in his own time, critics denounced Walt Whitman as a "lunatic raving in pitiable delirium." They pronounced his signature book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, "slimy," "vile" and "beastly." He was famously "banned in Boston."
Even by his own measure, Walt Whitman failed in many ways in his own lifetime: failed in his attempt to reach a vast audience of ordinary men and women; failed to achieve the laurels he craved; and most painfully, failed to talk the nation out of an impending civil war.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE "Walt Whitman," from acclaimed filmmaker Mark Zwonitzer featuring Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper as the voice of America's first great poet, airs Monday, April 14 at 8 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, novelist Allan Gurganus, poet and essayist Martin Espada and former poet laureate Billy Collins recite some of Whitman's most important works and reflect on his influence. Actor J.K. Simmons narrates.
Whitman despaired as tensions between the North and South intensified in the 1850s. He began to search for a poetic voice that could bind America and Americans - a voice that was of, by and for the common people. In the summer of 1855, Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass. He hoped for large sales and critical success, but he got neither. His third edition was published on the eve of the Civil War. "I think that Whitman believed that Leaves of Grass was going to prevent a civil war. I think he had that much faith in the 1860 Leaves of Grass," says Whitman scholar Ed Folsom.
In the first years of the war, Whitman abandoned poetry to volunteer in hospitals, spending the last three years of the war comforting sick, wounded and dying soldiers. The experience wrecked Whitman physically, but led him to revise and renew his commitment to Leaves of Grass, which, today, continues to stand the test of time.
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