Chapter Two: WALT WHITMAN: Mediation, Affect, and Authority in Celebrity Culture
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51 Chapter 2 �������������� WALT WHITMAN Mediation, Affect, and Authority in Celebrity Culture If Barnum established the practices of publicity that dominate nineteenth-­ century celebrity culture, Walt Whitman repurposed those practices for personal advancement, rhetorical power, and aesthetic effect. Whitman is rightly regarded as the most enthusiastic promoter of his own authorial vision , celebrating and singing himself to all who would listen. Late in his life, however, he doubted whether his songs of himself had been heard. In the 1888 essay “A Backward Glances o’er Travel’d Roads,” he wrote, “That I have not gain’d the acceptance of my own time, but have fallen back on fond dreams of the future . . . that from a worldly and business point of view ‘Leaves of Grass’ has been worse than a failure—­ that public criticism on the book and myself as author of it yet shows mark’d anger and contempt more than anything else . . . is all probably no more than I ought to have expected.”1 In assessing his reception , Whitman characteristically relates his book to his self, and he associates both with the commercial marketplace. His disappointment registers the book’s purchase as an expression of approbation and even desire for the author himself. This view is consistent with celebrity, a condition of public life in which “the body becomes a commodity . . . an object of consumption, designed and packaged to generate desire in others and achieve impact in public.”2 For Whitman, this consumption is an intimate act that would return the “affection” the poet has lovingly bestowed on his audience through his close observation of public life and inscription of it into his poems.3 Were this exchange of affections to take place as Whitman imagines, it would of course be uneven: granting even the largeness of the poet’s affections, he imagines a mass audience. Such large-­ scale reception resembles the dynamics of celebrity, in which mass audiences bestow on a particular public figure an amount of interest disproportionate to any attention that that individual could ever repay. The period in which Whitman came of age is the same period in which mass culture and celebrity emerged and transformed the critical public sphere. In the first half of this chapter, I examine Whitman’s journalism from the period 1840 to 1842, the primary expression of his developing vision of a public life that is equally committed both to the model of critical discourse associated with the 52  chapter two public sphere and to the close attention to public individuals that characterizes celebrity. Journalism provided Whitman’s training as a writer and instilled in him a keen sense of publicity. Although his poetry is generally written in a much different tenor than his bombastic journalism, the two forms share an understanding of the public sphere as a site of both critical discourse and personal feeling—­ as a site where the union of critical discourse and personal feeling is politically productive. At the same time, Whitman’s Aurora journalism reveals that the personal public sphere challenged the ambitious journalist who sought public acceptance as a voice of authority. The challenges of public reception and authorial control are on display in Whitman’s “Calamus” poems as well, to which I turn in the second half of this chapter. Considered Whitman’s most personal poetry, the “Calamus” poems reveal Whitman as he wishes to be read: “Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me,” he writes.4 Using Lacanian gaze theory, I argue that in the “Calamus” poems Whitman objectifies himself and shapes an affective response to his own persona and to his work. Turning, finally , to Whitman’s great Lincoln elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” I take up the question of what happens to public affect when its object is no longer present in the public sphere. As a journalist Whitman understood the newspaper to be a tool for individual self-­ culture and social improvement. His friend and biographer John Burroughs notes, “He loved the common, democratic character of the newspaper; it was the average man’s library.”5 Though devoted to individualism, he sought to channel the self-­authorizing confidence of individual readers into avenues of public life that he considered conducive to the development of republican culture and democratic union. Whitman had a strong sense of the newspaper’s potential to shape communities of readers gathered around the identifiable persona of a strong editor. During his brief tenure as editor of the New York Aurora in 1842...


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