American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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For those few who have not read . . .

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Partridge-SimonLegree1a

Click on the image for a legible view.

Once upon a time, everyone under the sun — and a few in the shadows — knew a certain great novel so well, its characters’ names served as figures of speech. One still does, the very figure of servitude. Here’s a dictionary definition for another; it attests quite well to the novel’s ubiquity a century after publication. The definition was written by Eric Partridge and comes from his Name into Word: Proper Names That Have Become Common Property (London: Secker and Warburg, 1949):

Simon Legree tends, in American writing, to mean, literally and figuratively, ‘a cruel, sinister, relentless slave-driver’. …

For those few who have not read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared in the early 1850s and did much to precipitate the emancipation of the Negroes in North America, it is necessary to mention that Simon Legree hounded Uncle Tom and his fellow-slaves and came to a somewhat gruesomely sticky end.

And for those few who have not read the novel, Legree’s comeuppance is precipitated by a certain Gothic tomfoolery, performed by two of the slaves, who prey on Legree’s mind by playing ghost. Here’s the sticky end as Stowe gives it:

… finally, there came over his sleep a shadow, a horror, an apprehension of something dreadful hanging over him. It was his mother’s shroud, he thought; but Cassy had it, holding it up, and showing it to him. He heard a confused noise of screams and groanings; and, with it all, he knew he was asleep, and has struggled to wake himself. He was half awake. He was sure something was coming into his room. He knew the door was opening, but he could not stir hand or foot. At last he turned, with a start; the door was open and, he saw a hand putting out his light.

It was a cloudy, misty moonlight, and there he saw it! — something white, gliding in! He heard the still rustle of its ghostly garments. It stood still by his bed; — a cold hand touched his; a voice said, three times, in a low, fearful whisper, “Come! come! come!” And, while he lay sweating with terror, he knew not when or how, the thing was gone. He sprang out of bed, and pulled at the door. It was shut and locked, and the man fell down in a swoon.

After this, Legree became a harder drinker than ever before. He no longer drank cautiously, prudently, but imprudently and recklessly.

There were reports around the country, soon after, that he was sick and dying. Excess had brought on that frightful disease that seems to throw the lurid shadows of a coming retribution back into the present life. None could bear the horrors of that sick-room, when he raved and screamed, and spoke of sights which almost stopped the blood of those who heard him; and, at his dying bed, stood a stern, white, inexorable figure, saying, “Come! come! come!”

I say “as Stowe gives it” because the dramatizations that flourished in the nineteenth century and after often altered the details. Legree is shot, for instance, in the most popular of the stage versions, that of George L. Aiken.

Oddly, Partridge has no entry at all for Tom or Uncle Tom, though this epithet has had much a longer shelf life than Legree. Go figure.

Written by Ben Friedlander

January 25, 2013 at 11:57 am

Whittier Blvd.

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The farmhouse, built by the poet’s great-great-grandfather in 1688, has been preserved by the affectionate solicitude of the Whittier Homestead Association. After the ravages of fire and of time it has been scrupulously restored. The old-fashioned garden, the lawn sloping to the brook, the very stepping-stones, the bee-hives, the bridle-post, the worn door-stone, the barn across the road, even the surrounding woods of pine and oak, are all, as nearly as may be, precisely what they were a hundred years ago.

— Bliss Perry, “John Greenleaf Whittier: A Sketch of His Life” (1907)

Gus Reusch, curator of the John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead

When you pass Haverhill, Mass., on I-495, there’s a sign that says something like Birthplace of John Greenleaf Whittier. Every time I drive that route I think to myself, “I really ought to stop and see what’s on offer.” This time I did, and I’m glad I did. “Snow-bound” (link) is one of my favorite poems. Every year, when the snow comes down, I reread it, ritually. And that’s the best thing I can say for winter! Also, Whittier was a mentor to Lucy Larcom, and I’ve been thinking a lot about her lately. Also, I love the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers visiting the poet, who heard their serenade with head bowed and tears rolling down. So I had to stop.

As it happens, the poem was written in June, so June was a good time to visit.[*] Gus Reusch, the curator, stood before the fireplace remembered in the poem, and told the story of Whittier’s life. After he was done, he gave a tour of the house, telling more stories about the artifacts. And after the tour, he took a picture of my wife and I sitting before the fireplace, in the chairs that belonged to Whittier’s mother and father.

It was a strange recompense. Just the day before, an old friend told me about seeing The Steins Collect at the Met, a show I never managed to see, to my regret. But tel me: Does the Met have Stein’s rocking chair? And if they do, would they let you sit in it? And if they did, would the curator take your picture? I’m pretty sure the answers to these questions are no, no, and no. Besides which, it wasn’t Stein looking down at me when I learned my ABCs. I’m old enough, God help me, to have had engravings of the Fireside Poets in my classroom.

It’s a paradox: time moves forward unceasingly and you can’t go backward; yet the past has attractions that you can visit. The Haverhill Homestead (link) is one of those attractions.

The best thing I learned at Haverhill was that Whittier kept a pet squirrel, Friday, who would take nuts from Whittier’s pocket, cracking them open on the poet’s shoulder. The two would go on walks together through Amesbury, which made Whittier a big hit with the kids.

When I got home, I googled “Whittier” and “squirrel,” just to make sure the story was genuine (I had the dreadful feeling, born of a lifetime’s gullibility, that my leg was being pulled). But it’s true! In fact, you can see the squirrel, stuffed, in the Whittier College archive, which collects Whittier memorabilia. A Quaker college, the school was named for the great Quaker poet, as was the California town where the college is located. I’ve long known that Richard Nixon, also a Quaker, was born in Whittier, but I never put two and two together.The sum in this case is not four but Friday.

By odd coincidence, Friday was featured in the Whittier Daily News exactly one week before my visit to Haverhill (link). The paper induced the president of the college, Sharon Herzberger, to pose with the creature, as the president cheerfully admits on her blog (link). There’s even a video:

These days, when I think of Whittier, California, my first association is not Richard Nixon but Thee Midniters, said to be the first Chicano rock band to have a hit in the U.S. They recorded on the Whittier label, and went to high school in that town, and had a hit in 1965 with the instrumental “Whittier Blvd.” My old roommate Oliver had one of their albums, which we listened to a lot.

Once again, I failed to put two and two together. Though Wikipedia and other sources report that the band was “Thee” rather than “The” Midniters to avoid confusion with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, I realize now that’s the Quaker thee.

You can hear the original “Whittier Blvd” on YouTube (link) — and you should! But here’s the band in 2011, great as ever. I’m going to guess for symmetry’s sake that they’re about the age Whittier was when he wrote “Snow-bound.”

Note

* [Back to text] Or if not written in June, then assuming June as its vantage point on the past: “The birds are glad; the brier-rose fills / The air with sweetness; all the hills / Stretch green to June’s unclouded sky; / But still I wait with ear and eye / For something gone which should be nigh, / A loss in all familiar things, / In flower that blooms, and bird that sings.”

Written by Ben Friedlander

June 3, 2012 at 9:37 am

Of True Work

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Lucy Larcom (1824-1893)

To celebrate May Day and mark a tentative return to the pleasurable labor of this blog, I thought to share a passage from Lucy Larcom’s unjustly neglected An Idyl of Work (1875), a long poem in blank verse — or mostly in blank verse; a small number of ballads, hymns, sonnets, and the like are embedded in the narrative.

For a few weeks now, I have been rereading the Idyl, taking notes on the complexities generated by its simple story — a simplicity long denigrated by those who judge a narrative entirely by its plot — and I hope at a later date to write about the text at length. For now, let me introduce and comment upon a single passage, a quiet moment in the story, in which a great many of Larcom’s themes — labor, poetry, memory, nature, religion, vocation — are woven together, with an ease that is at once a crucial aspect of the narrative and a fitting confirmation of the justness of Larcom’s argument.

Set in the 1840s, An Idyl of Work concerns the material, moral, intellectual, and emotional lives of five women laboring in one of the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. To speak of a weaving of themes in this context is thus to situate the labor of writing within a factory of the imagination; is to equate Larcom’s narrative facility with the skills of her mill girls. Saying so might seem to be a cheapening of what the poem celebrates, a generalizing of the factory that empties out mill work — and the poem — of its historical specificity. But this equation of one kind of work with another is how Larcom celebrates factory labor. Lowell’s mills were famous in their own day as sites of literary activity, as represented in The Lowell Offering, “A Repository of Original Articles, Written by Females Employed in the Mills.” The journal was founded in 1840 and continued for five years, “a life span” — as Sylvia Jenkins Cook notes — “almost identical to that of the Dial.”[1] Nor was the former journal overshadowed by the latter, not during their years of mutual operation. Praised by Charles Dickens in his American Notes, the Offering was as much a part of transatlantic literary culture as the organ of Transcendentalism, a fact alluded to in the Idyl in Book X, in a conversation that moves easily from Brook Farm to the equally profound experiment of Lowell.[2] Thus one of the five women, Eleanor Gray, says of another, Esther Hale: “Esther, and our one little room, is more / To me than ten Brook Farms.”[3] And soon after, another of the five, Minta Summerfield, says this in support of Eleanor’s statement — addressing the aristocrat Miriam Willoughby, “[a] lovely gray-haired … / … single woman with a mother’s heart” (104-5):

“[D]o you know, Miss Willoughby,,
[Esther] studies History, and German, too,
And Moral Science, somehow, between work;
And — do not mind her threatening shake of head —
She can write prose and poetry; I’ve seen both
In the ‘Offering’ — you know the magazine
That the girls publish. …”

Dedication page for An Idyl of Work

Larcom knew whereof she spoke: she herself had been a contributor to the Offering, having gone to work in the mill at age 11. But her equation of writing and factory work was not limited to formal publication; active reading, energetic conversation, and the life of the mind were also involved. As Mary Loeffelholz notes in her fine essay on the poem, “it is the mill girls’ improvised technologies of literacy, not the technologies of manufacturing, that occupy the foreground of An Idyl of Work.”[4] In this sense, the poem, untroubled by the ordinary concerns of labor literature — and so apolitical to some readers — is implicitly engaged in seizing the means of production. Not the production of cloth, but of people; a democratic nobility of working-women.[5]

This seizing occurs above all through education, in language. Larcom’s use of protest words is pointed when she has Esther say, in the midst of the conversation cited above:

“I came to agitate this very theme, …
I long for — what I know not! — to strike out
For something new, — to learn what’s in me. Work?
As well quit living as quit work, and yet
Heads like to be employed, as well as hands” (138, emphasis added)

— which is Larcom’s argument in nuce.

But the conversation in Book X is not the passage I wanted to give for May Day. In keeping with Larcom’s emphasis on mental occupation, I thought instead to share a still moment from Book III. Here Esther, who, in addition to her intellectual virtues, looks out for the other women, has gone to comfort Ruth Woodburn, first met in Book II, a stranger whose “words, /[whose] every tone, showed culture” (we learn in Book VII that Ruth writes poetry), and who seems to Esther and the others “as one by trouble stupefied” (30). At this point in the narrative very little is known of Ruth, but the biblical origin of her name — made explicit in the passage below — suggests a story of loss, fidelity, and wandering.[6] As if in response to the biblical suggestion, Esther, contemplating the stranger, lets her mind wander, so that “Ruth” becomes quite naturally a quality of existence that pertains to Esther’s own life:

Poor Ruth! There was no need
Of many words. To Esther’s pleasant voice,
She yielded, like a child, and let herself
Be dressed, and led to Esther’s room, and laid
On Esther’s bed, who sat beside her there,
With kind pretence of book and sewing-work…,

Ruth lightly dozed. Esther, intent to keep
The slumberer undisturbed, let drop her work,
And yielded herself partly to her book
(Poems of Wordsworth, Eleanor’s New-Year’s gift),
And partly to the south-wind’s tenderness,
While memory led her back beside the sea,
Where she had played with many little ones
In childhood, on a sunny homestead-slope.
The deep, eternal murmur of the waves
Upbearing on its monotone the song
Of bluebird, wren, and robin, blending all
In a wild, sweet entanglement. Home-dreams,
As in all womanly souls, made undertone
To her life’s music. But her hopes and plans
And fancies were a garden builded in
Behind great walls of duty. Her true work
She sought the clew of, here, ‘mid endless threads
Shaped from crude cotton into useful cloth.

Not always to be here among the looms, —
Scarcely a girl she knew expected that;
Means to one end their labor was, — to put
Gold nest-eggs in the bank, or to redeem
A mortgaged homestead, or to pay the way
Through classic years at some academy;
More commonly to lay a dowry by
For future housekeeping. But Esther’s thought
Was none of those; unshaped and vague it lay, —
A hope to spend herself for worthy ends.
Aliens were in her childhood’s home. No past
Could be revived for her, and all her heart
Went forth into the Future’s harvest-field,
A Ruth who never of a Boaz dreamed.
Whatever work came, whoso crossed her path,
Lonely as this pale stranger, wheresoe’er
She saw herself a need, there should be home,
Business, and family. She raised her eyes,
As her soul said Amen to this resolve,
And saw Ruth languidly peruse her face
Through mists of thought; who murmured “Read aloud.”

A smile from Esther answered. (33-35)

Mind amongst the Spindles: A Selection from The Lowell Offering, a Miscellany Wholly Composed by the Factory Girls of an American City (London: Charles Knight & Co., 1844)

Reading Larcom’s poem through our own mists of thought, we might surmise, before coming to the end of this passage, that Esther, wisest among the girls, is the biblical Naomi to Ruth’s Ruth, though Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, is not figured, or not primarily, as a caregiver, but is featured instead as one to whom care is given. In this sense, Esther — a queen in the Bible — is more Ruth-like than Ruth Woodburn. Which is precisely what makes Esther a queen among the mill girls: her ability to establish “home, / Business, and family” wherever she sees “a need.” She is a queen who labors, without thought of the reward Ruth receives in the Bible. As Larcom puts it in a passage that gives me a pang whenever I read it, “No past / Could be revived for her, and all her heart / Went forth into the Future’s harvest-field, / A Ruth who never of a Boaz dreamed.”

How noteworthy that “Business” comes between “home” and “family” in Esther’s resolution (a prayer of sorts, since her soul says amen to it). Work in this Idyl (a pun, as Loeffelholz notes, on idle) has an ambiguous role, at once dividing life and joining its different parts together. One way to read this poem, then, is as a pilgrim’s progress in which the search would lead from work as division to work as joining. That quest is hinted at in the passage above, in Esther’s dropping of her “sewing-work” to muse upon the nature of her own “true work,” a musing that is itself modeled on sewing-work: a search for clues “‘mid endless threads / Shaped from crude cotton into useful cloth.”

Esther’s prayer-like resolution brings a similar moment to mind from Book VI, a more literal entangling of manual and mental labor. Here Eleanor, sitting by her factory window, turns from troubled thoughts (inspired, like Esther’s, by concern for another) to her work at the loom, taking comfort from some surreptitious reading:

The shuttles clattered on. The red rose leaned
Out toward the wonder of the open sky;
And Eleanor leaned out too, and longed for light
That souls might see by. Bending then again
Over her work, she spread a little book
Open, beneath a warp-fringe from her loom, —
A book of hymns she loved; and as she toiled,
Her voice made music, hid within the noise, —
A bird’s note in a thicket; and her heart
Rose, with her voice, in singing that was prayer. (83)[7]

Notes

1 [Back to text] Sylvia Jenkins Cook, Working Women, Literary Ladies: The Industrial Revolution and Female Aspiration (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), 41. Reading the Offering and Dial in relation to one another (Cook neatly calls them “two regional yet curiously cosmopolitan little magazines”) rectifies the more partial accounts of literary and labor historians, the former represented for Cook by Lawrence Buell, the latter by Philip Foner. Her book also includes a chapter on Larcom’s Idyl.

2 [Back to text] Charles Dickens visited the mills during his 1842 tour of America, noting in his subsequent account: “I brought away from Lowell four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.” And he adds: “Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary production, I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the articles having been written by these girls after the arduous labours of the day, that it will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals.” American Notes, ed. Patricia Ingham (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 78-79.

3 [Back to text] Lucy Larcolm, An Idyl of Work (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1875), 139. Further references to the poem will be given parenthetically.

4 [Back to text] Mary Loeffelholz, “‘A Strange Medley-Book’: Lucy Larcom’s An Idyl of Work,” The New England Quarterly 80.1 (March 2007): 22.

5 [Back to text] This democratic nobility is the first subject of conversation in the poem. In Book I, the girls argue playfully over the meaning of lady, with Esther — described as “a walking dictionary” — citing the original meaning, “Giver of loaves,” so as to give “excellence and sweetness” as he definition: “‘Lady,’ though / Can slip its true sense, leaving an outside / Easy to imitate” (15).

6 [Back to text] Like Ruth in the Bible, who supports herself and her mother-in-law by going to work in the fields, Ruth Woodburn, who describes herself when first met as “homesick,” is, in her own words, “a hireling” (30).

7 [Back to text] There is a passage in Larcom’s autobiography that reads like a postscript to this passage; it speaks, in any case, to the poetry-labor relationship so central to the poem:

Since I am writing these recollections for the young, I may say here that I regard a love for poetry as one of the most needful and helpful elements in the life-outfit of a human being. It was the greatest of blessings to me, in the long days of toil to which I was shut in much earlier than most young girls are, that the poetry I held in my memory breathed its enchanted atmosphere through me and around me, and touched even dull drudgery with its sunshine.

A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1889), 134.

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 1, 2012 at 11:12 pm

Variation on a Historical Theme

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I’ve been trying to get a fix on antebellum popular song, something that’s hard to do when you can’t read music. Something that’s probably hard to do anyway, since there aren’t any recordings. But even without reading music, it’s fun to nose around through the sheet music of the time. Something that’s easy to do thanks to American Memory, the Library of Congress website, which has an endless supply of it (drawn from the archives of Brown, Duke, and the Library of Congress itself).

What sort of stuff can you find there? Stuff like “Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe” (1853), an anti-abolitionist minstrel song with words by Charles Soran, music by Charles M. Stephani. I posted a page of the sheet music the other day, with a transcription of the lyrics. What follows are some contextual comments, of the sort I might make in the classroom … a first attempt to assimilate song to my account of the period’s poetic cultures.

I singled out this song in part because there’s a recording (link here) at one of my favorite websites, Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture; in part because the song illustrates so nicely the way art takes shape in response to historical events. And by “events” I don’t mean the overarching events like slavery and class stratification that gave shape to minstrelsy as a whole (a subject treated extensively by scholars, my favorite of these being William T. Lhamon in Raising Cain). I mean the more easily forgotten episodes that produce topical songs. “Topical” as in a medicine: something applied to the surface of the social body. Of course, when hucksters sell medicine, the result is often poison, and that’s the case here.

I won’t be speaking of the song as song, only of the sheet music as literary artifact. Not that I lack interest in the music. Rather, I feel inadequate to the task, not knowing, for instance, how accurate the recording might be in its instrumentation, performance style, or adherence to the score. I will say, though, that the available rendition — by Japher’s “Original” Sandy River Minstrels — reminds me of a record I had as a boy, from which I learned a number of classic children’s songs, among them two minstrel numbers that outlived blackface: “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “Oh! Susanna.” But to the sheet music… Read the rest of this entry »

Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe

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Words: Charles Soran
Music: Charles M. Stephani

A blackface minstrel song, and a good indication of the controversy stirred up by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. For a modern recording, go here. Lyrics below, as transcribed from the sheet music, racist language and all. Brief commentary to follow.

Image courtesy the Library of Congress (click for link to collection)

Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe

I went to New York city, a month or two ago,
Hunting for dat lady, Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe;
I see’d de Abolitions, dey said she’d gone away,
Dey told me in de city it was no use to stay.
She take away de dollars, and put ’em in her pocket,
She laid her hand upon it, and dar she safely lock it.
Dey said if Massa come for me, den dey would quickly meet;
Dey’d make a Lion of me, and gib me ’nuff to eat.

Chorus.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
How could you leave de country, and sarve poor niggers so.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
How could you leave de country, and sarve poor niggers so.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
How could you leave de country, and sarve poor niggers so.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
How could you leave de country, and sarve poor niggers so.

2.

Dey treated dis ere child, as doe I was a Turk,
Den told me for to leve dem and go away to work;
I couldn’t get no work, I couldn’t get no dinner,
And den I wish de Fugitive was back in Ole Virginny.
Oh! when I was a picanin, Ole Uncle Tom would say,
Be true unto your Massa, and neber run away.
He told me dis at home, he told me dis at partin,
Don’t trust you de Ab’litions, for dey seem quite unsartin.

Chorus.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe, &c.

3.

Ole Massa’s very kind, ole Missu’s kind at home too,
And much I love my Dinah, in ole Virginny true,
Now I’ll go back and stay dar, and neber more will roam,
Lor bress de Southern Ladies, and my ole Virginny home,
But don’t come back, Aunt Harriet, in England make a fuss,
Go talk against your Country, put money in your puss,
And when us happy niggers, you pity in your prayer,
Oh! don’t forget de White slave, dat’s starvin ober dare.

Chorus.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe, &c.

4.

Now de rules of dis here house, don’t admit of no encore,
So afore we go just listen, I’ll sing you one verse more,
Aunt Harriet Beecha Stowe, she tried to see de Queen,
But Victoria was too smart for her, and could not be seen;
She den went o’er to France, and tried to come it dere,
But de Empress and Emperor, know’d ‘xactly what dey were,
So de best way to fix it, and hab it understood,
Is dat she left de Country, for her own Country’s good.

Chorus.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe, &c.

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 12, 2009 at 10:55 pm

While Shoddy’s on the Brain

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shoddy
To mark Maine’s ignoble defeat of the Gay Marriage law, here’s a song from another era, about another war that extended “from Gulf to Maine” (the war stretches even further today). As partial explanation of what’s meant by the chorus — and why it pertains to the present moment — here are some passages from an article by E. P. Whipple in The Atlantic Monthly (1871). The article begins in the Civil War, with the profiteers who grew fat on government money:

Soon came the cry from the camps that cheats at home were thriving on the miseries of the volunteers; that the soldier starved in order that the contractor might feast; especially that the defenders of the nation, hurrying from their homes to insure safety to the homes of their plunderers, were so sleazily clothed that they were literally left naked to their enemies and a word of ominous and infamous significance, a word in which is concentrated more wrath and wretchedness than any other in the vocabulary of the camp, the word shoddy, flew into general circulation, to embody the soldiers’ anathema on the soldiers’ scourge.

Then Whipple continues:

But it seems to us that a word of such ill repute should not be confined to one class of offences, but should be extended to follies, errors, vices, and policies which, though they boast of softer names, illustrate the same essential quality. For what is the essential characteristic of shoddy clothing? Is it not this, that it will not wear? In its outside appearance it mimics good cloth, but use quickly reduces it to its elemental rags. Now; it might be asked, have we, in our experience during the past ten years, been deceived by no other plausible mockeries of reality than shoddy uniforms? Have we not all, more or less, been wearing shoddy clothing on our minds and consciences? … The essential mischief of this shoddy clothing for the popular mind is due, in a great degree, to the name it assumes. It eludes the grip of thought by calling itself common sense. If its object were to distinguish itself thus from real sense, its modesty might be commended; but when its purpose palpably is to point the finger at all clear perception and sound thinking, its impudence merits the rod.

And more:

The meaning of common sense, then, is plain; but how often do we use the term as a cover for common nonsense, the nonsense which one mind has in common with others; or, what is worse, as a convenient phrase to impart dignity to any narrow opinion or obstinate misjudgment or foolish crochet, which we may personally pamper and pride ourselves upon, and thus give to our private whim the character of a universal belief. This shoddy common sense is the most detestable of all forms of nonsense.

— Detestable thinking certainly won yesterday.

“Shoddy on the Brain” is not exactly “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In denouncing the profiteers, it more or less dismisses the aim of stamping out slavery. Or anyway, it dismisses the notion that this is the actual aim. But after two editorial verses, the song veers elsewhere.  The song itself is shoddy! Ending in a church, in marriage.

Anyway, for me today, shoddy is indeed on the brain.

The image comes from the Library of Congress American Memory website, from the collection America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets. I found the Whipple article in a second collection: The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals.

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 4, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Go Forth

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levis-suits

Walt Whitman is so much a part of our world, even still, I’ve not felt the need to mark his occasional appearances in popular culture. But yesterday, in a blog post for the Poetry Foundation, Edwin Torres drew attention to the use of Whitman by Levi’s, and I found myself getting more interested than usual in this sort of appropriation. His post is called “Brand World Atheist,” and in it he describes one of the company’s Whitman ads — which uses the text of “America” — as follows (you can see the ad here):

It’s a 60-second spot that uses a wax-cylinder recording of Whitman reciting the poem, black & white footage, jittery camera-work, and synthed-operatic soundtrack to create a manifesto-themed gauntlet thrown at America’s youth with the phrase “Go Forth” emblazoned as a nicely designed logo on a flapping banner at the end. The spot is basically a poetry video, using beautifully filmed images of the disenfranchised reflecting the poem’s tone without literal interpretation. [1]

And later, after mentioning the company’s “Declaration Gallery” (for leaving your own manifesto; Torres: “but isn’t that what Twitter’s for?”), he writes:

The Go Forth campaign has a patina of self-seriousness in its, “getting a platform to sound out,” …very Rebel Without A Cause. Expertly designed around a unifying theme: to be heard and seen, not even understood, just acknowledged so that you may go forth and discover your voice. Core values in America’s heartland of equal chances, right? Re-imagine America as a teen. Use language in the reinvention of American youth that reflects each generation’s media-drenched libido. And the retro-hooligan implied under the layers of a smoothed-over-DIY-aesthetic is what obscures the poem that tries to mix rebellion with business. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 2, 2009 at 2:55 pm