Date of this Version
Mass media, the various means of communication designed to reach a large portion of the public, include but are not limited to film, radio, television, advertising, popular music, the internet, newspapers, and magazines. Whitman’s appearances in mass media have not been studied much, though they deserve attention because the evolving uses of his image and words can illuminate important aspects of his cultural afterlife. Until the 1960s, Whitman was invoked with surprising frequency as an icon of high literary stature. Advertisers in particular relied on his fame – not on his challenges to orthodox thinking and ordinary social arrangements – to sell a host of products that used him, paradoxically, to bolster the respectability of everything from containers to insurance to whiskey. As the twentieth century progressed, however, the use of Whitman’s image began to change. Writers of teleplays, magazines, and music began to evoke Whitman with more complexity, ambiguity, and playfulness. No longer was he simply a symbol of cultural authority; instead, he often signaled irreverence and daring, and he became an iconic presence in widespread efforts to push mass media beyond traditional limits of decorum. The change over the last half-century is underscored by the difference between the confident stride and dignified look of Whitman as depicted in an advertisement for the John Hancock Insurance Company in 1952 and the animated television character Homer Simpson bellowing “Leaves of Grass, my ass!” in 1995.
In discussing the evolution of Whitman’s image in the mass media from his lifetime to the present, we analyze a representative sampling of his varied popular culture appearances. Certain emphases are worth noting: we have chosen not to focus on Whitman’s appearances in film so as to avoid duplicating Kenneth M. Price’s recent chapter “Whitman at the Movies” in To Walt Whitman, America (2004), and we have also not analyzed Whitman’s impact on classical and jazz music (which is discussed elsewhere in this volume) but have instead focused on forms of music that have more consistently reached a wide popular audience. Our selective treatment of Whitman images in mass media highlights the recent proliferation of images that are often ironic, funny, and rich with sexual overtones.