Selected Criticism

Media Interpretations of Whitman's Life and Works
Britton, Wesley A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's verse and biography are subjects captured on film, television, CD-ROM, and recording media for both educational and entertainment purposes. Musical composers, both classical and popular, have set his verse in a variety of languages, and many actors have lent their voices to Whitman's words. Below is a listing and analysis of these efforts, emphasizing the most important and useful projects to date.


Hemdale Films's Beautiful Dreamers (1992, directed by John Kent Harrison) starred Rip Torn as Whitman visiting Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke at an insane asylum in London, Ontario. Set in 1880, the film explores Bucke's use of Whitman's ideas and poetry in what would become modern occupational therapy. (Available on video.)

The 1994 sixteen-minute film Yonnondio, inspired by Whitman's poem, consists of readings, music, and visual imagery blended by Ali Mohamed Selim into a montage of mankind. Peter Buffett's musical score merges various voices, emphasizing the film's themes of hope, joy, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding. (Available on video.)

Whitman is frequently quoted in director Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society (1989), is the subject of a question in Robert Redford's Quiz Show (1994), and is alluded to in Little Women (1994, directed by Gillian Anderson). He figures notably in Fame (1980, directed by Alan Parker), Bull Durham (1988, directed by Ron Shelton), The Road Scholar (1992, directed by Roger Weisberg), and With Honors (1994, directed by Alek Keshishian). In the documentary The Road Scholar, poet Andrei Codrescu visits Whitman's home in Camden, New Jersey.


Whitman's verse has been quoted in both educational and entertainment shows, such as the 1960s series Room 222, set in the Walt Whitman High School. The CBS series American Parade produced Song of Myself (first broadcast 9 March 1976), starring Rip Torn as Whitman and Brad Davis as Peter Doyle. Many episodes of the CBS series Northern Exposure featured disc jockey Chris Stevens reading passages and discussing "my mentor, Walt Whitman," on fictional KBER radio. The 28 January 1995 episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman included two characters discussing seeing Whitman at a New York Lyceum. Whitman is one of many contemporary voices in Ken Burns's PBS miniseries The Civil War (1990) and his subsequent series, Baseball (1994).

The best video is a 1988 episode of PBS's Voices and Visions series entitled Walt Whitman, produced by the New York Center for Visual History. Directed by Jack Smithie for the South Carolina Educational Television Network, the hour blends biography, literary criticism, and modern responses to Whitman, most notably by Allen Ginsberg, Galway Kinnell, and Donald Hall.

Educational Video, Film, and CD ROM

Educational filmmakers have repeatedly explored Whitman's relationship with the Civil War. WITF, a Hershey, Pennsylvania PBS affiliate, produced the thirty-minute Walt Whitman and the Civil War (1976) featuring the First Poetry Quartet. Churchill Media's Walt Whitman's Civil War (1972) is a fifteen-minute color discussion. Films for the Humanities' twelve-minute "Walt Whitman: American Poet," from the "Against the Odds" series (1988), is a well-produced introduction discussing Whitman's place in literary history and his reactions to the Civil War, using period photography, animations, and modern film footage.

The bizarre, fanciful Walt Whitman: Endlessly Rocking (1986) is a twenty-one minute film (or video) showing Whitman teaching students to read "Out of the Cradle" by way of rap (Syracuse University Classroom Films). American Bard (1981) features a reading by poet William Everson from his book American Bard (1981), a setting of the 1855 Preface as a poem.

The "Time, Life, and Works of Whitman" (1995) is a CD-ROM educational tool combining visuals with lengthy passages from Whitman's verse and emphasizing his important themes (Filmic Archives).

Other educational media: Poems of Walt Whitman, readings of Whitman poems, McGraw-Hill, Lumin Films, 16 mm; Walt Whitman discusses Whitman's poetic language, Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1988, twelve minutes, color; Walt Whitman, Poetry by Americans Series, biography, with poetry narrated by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., AIMS Media, 1972, color; Frost and Whitman features excerpts from the two poets' works performed by Will Geer, New York State Education Dept., 1965, thirty minutes, b/w.; Walt Whitman: Poet for a New Age explores Whitman and democracy, mystical truths, mortality, primacy of the personality and love, Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation, 1971, thirty minutes, color (award winning program); Walt Whitman: The Centennial presents a discussion of Whitman's life and work by Milton Kessler, Streetlight Productions, 1992, fifty-six minutes.


One frequently recorded setting is Paul Hindemith's 1948 "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd; A Requiem for Those We Love" in both English and German. "Lilacs" has been set as a cantata by Roger Sessions (1974), Frank Shallenberg (1967), and by George Crumb ("Apparition," 1980). Karl Amadeus Hartmann composed "Symphonie: Versuch Eines Requiems nach Worten von Walt Whitman" in German (1957), and Per Norgard's "Den Himmelske og den Jordiske Kaerlighed [Sacred and Profane Love]" is sung in Danish (1978). Harry T. Burleigh used the words from "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" on his collection of spirituals entitled Deep River, and Ralph Vaughan Williams used Whitman as an inspiration for "Toward the Unknown Region" (1907), "A Sea Symphony" (1909), and "Darest Thou Now O Soul" (1925). Charles Wuorinen's "Unseen Leaves for Oboe, Soprano, and Electronic Tape" (1977) set the stage for future experimental multimedia uses of Whitman's text, such as Anita Kerr's 1988 In the Soul (Gaia Records), which set Whitman's verse to original synthesizer music.

In 1995 playwright Alan Brody and composer Peter Child, both MIT professors, staged a Boston production of their dramatic oratorio "Reckoning Time: Song of Walt Whitman." The chorale takes place in the moment between Whitman's last breath of inspiration and his last exhalation, with dialogues between Whitman and Peter Doyle. Whitman encounters four ships representing four periods of his life with lyrics taken from "Starting from Paumanok," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and "Passage to India." Allen Ginsberg, who partially inspired the work, appears in the production, beckoning Whitman onto the fourth ship of immortality.

Various musicians and actors have also responded to Whitman. Folk singer Joan Baez used Whitman materials in her "I Saw the Vision of Armies" on her Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time (Vanguard, 1968), and the Gregg Smith Singers sang Whitman on An American Triptych (1965). Actor John Carradine performed "Poets to Come" with a jazz setting for vol. 1 of An Anthology of Poetry and Jazz (World Pacific), as did actor Stacy Keach with "Low, Body and Soul" on Earth Day (Caedmon). Former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham released a solo CD in 1992, "Out of The Cradle" which included a booklet of facsimile excerpts from "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." In 1983, Irish singer Van Morrison invoked Whitman in his song "Rave on John Donne," recorded on the album Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.

Many other musical settings are readily available in CD, LP, or cassette formats, many performed by more than one artist. Others are published only as scores.

Spoken Word Recordings

Cassettes, record albums, and CDs of readings from Whitman and lectures about him are available from a variety of sources. The Library of Congress recorded the significant 1955 Leaves of Grass Centennial Series, including Gay Wilson Allen's "Whitman, the Man," David Daiches's "Whitman, the Philosopher," and Mark Van Doren's "Whitman the Poet." Poet Robert Duncan's 1979 lecture, "Whitman's line . . . ," for the 80 Langdon Street talk series is available on tape, as is his lecture on Whitman's homosexuality on "Poetry Reading" which includes Allen Ginsberg reading Whitman's verse (1970).

Ginsberg's own poetry album, Howl and Other Poems (1959, Fantasy Records), includes his reading of "A Supermarket in California," an imaginative meeting between Ginsberg and his ghost-mentor, Whitman. Whitman is also invoked in Ginsberg's "Ode to Failure," read with musical background on the 1989 CD The Lion for Real (Island).

Alexander Scourby, the most famous voice on spoken word records, has been a frequently used reader of Whitman's verse. He is featured on the 1961 An Introduction to Great Poetry (Pan-Harmonic Musical Educational Society). Louis Untermeyer's script cites Whitman as an example of a free-verse poet celebrating the "divine average" in "I Hear America Singing." Scourby, and Nancy Wickwire read Enjoying Poetry: 19th Century American Poets (1966), an album including Whitman and others (Listening Library). Scourby reads Whitman's verse in Golden Treasury of American Verse (Spoken Arts), Treasury of Great Poetry (Listening Library), and several editions of Treasury of Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass, a two-record or cassette set featuring selected poems (Musical Heritage Society/Spoken Arts).

Jeff Riggenbach read the abridged Specimen Days Journal on two cassettes (Audio Scholar), a spoken word Whitman autobiography describing his life as nurse, poet, and philosopher during the Civil War and subsequent years.

Numerous other recordings are listed in the Hoffman index.


Among filmstrips available are the following: The Living Tradition: Ginsberg on Whitman, featuring Beat poet Allen Ginsberg discussing Whitman's life and literature, 1980, one filmstrip, two cassettes, teachers guide, forty-eight minutes (also on videocassette); The Civil War, filmstrip 2, unit 6, edited by Reginald Gibbon, discusses Whitman's relationship to the war both personally and philosophically, Films for the Humanities, 1978; Whitman: The American Singer, written and produced Thomas S. Klise, critical assessment of Whitman's literary standing with biographical notes, 1971 (also on videocassette); Walt Whitman's Civil War, Will Geer as Whitman, Magus Films, 1969, sound/filmstrip; and Walt Whitman: Poet for a New Age, Encyclopedia Britannica Films, 1971, sound/filmstrip.


Bowker's Complete Video Directory: 1994. Vol. 3: Education Titles S-Z. New Providence, N.J.: Bowker, 1994. Annotated listings with rental information on selected Whitman videos.

Hoffman, Herbert H., and Rita Ludwing Hoffman. International Index to Recorded Poetry. New York: Wilson, 1983.

Kummings, Donald D., ed. Approaches to Teaching Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." New York: MLA, 1990. List and discussion of available audio-visual tools for the classroom, including photographs, filmstrips, films, and music: 20–22, 186–187.

Padgett, Ron. "Whitman Resources." Teachers and Writers Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1991. 197–206. Annotated listing of selected educational tools.

UCAL Melvyl On-line catalogue. Detailed listings of videos and 111 musical settings and lecture media, including all known recordings and formats.


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