To Walt Whitman, America by Kenneth M. Price. The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
I come back to Walt Whitman,
What in the hell happened to him,
Wasn’t he a white man?
--June Jordan (1)
Here is something rare these days, like spats or an Edsel: a review of a book about a poet in a popular press publication. No worries though, this is not primarily about poetry but rather the arts, culture and social change in America. I might venture a review of a book of poems next time, if AnythingArts invites me back.
Kenneth Price’s slim volume is not hot off the press. It is two years old, and viewable in its entirety, including photographs and notes, online. How’s that for a bookseller subverting his own business? I went ahead and procured the trade paperback anyhow; for me, reading online gets old quick, and I never tire of the sensual experience a real book provides.
If you have ever wondered about the persistent hype regarding the 19th century poet in question, this is one of the three books I recommend-(2). Price reveals one surprising connection after another between Whitman, art, novels, film and even a speech by Muhammad Ali. With the sparse elegance of a poet, the author pinpoints the profound influence Walt’s writing had on developments in gender relations, sexuality, race and creative expression over the last 150 years. Price emulates his subject, and calls up the marginalized identity in America and abroad, deftly empowering each distinctive voice.
It makes sense that, in this town, enamored as it is with art and films, readers will find To Walt Whitman, America engrossing. Perhaps the only thing some may find problematic about Price is that he has a way of making a reader hungry for more. That is a clue to the great thing about this cultural document. It satisfies but does not stupefy. He effectively advances the 21st century exploration of Whitman’s influence and endorses a renewal of the artistic quest of reinvention. Price reminds us that Whitman's malleability, explorations of passing, and centrality as an icon have made him irresistible for writers [artists and filmmakers] who, in extraordinarily creative ways, reinvent him for their purposes.
(1) quoted in To Walt Whitman, America, Chapter 1.
(2)-The others are Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, Edited by Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom & Dan Campion; and Walt Whitman: A Cultural Biography, by David Reynolds.