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The Poetics of Hype: How Walt Whitman Secured Himself as a Symbol of America’s American-ness and How Advertisers Have Profited from His Image

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Portrait of Walt Whitman with butterfly, 1877

by Catherine Turcich-Kealey

Walt Whitman’s work as a newspaperman gave him the knowledge and tools to sell his vision of the poet as the center of American democracy and representative for all.  His campaign was highly effective, and advertisers of his time through to today have employed his image and words as a means of lending some of his credibility and even an air of rebellion to their products.

The scandalous subject matter and general lack of conventional meter and organization in Walt Whitman’s poetry should have made him wildly unpopular in his time. Instead, Whitman was able to use the skills he learned in the newspaper business to his advantage (Earnhart 192). As a typesetter for the New World in 1842 and later The Brooklyn Eagle and King’s County Democrat, Whitman was part of the first generation to work with the new technology of the cylinder press (Earnhart 184–190). During his time in the newspaper business, Walt Whitman learned the importance of reaching out through the pages of a newspaper, or book, as the case may be (Earnhart 188). His work accorded him the opportunity to explore the methods of manipulation used to make a mass-produced commodity feel like a familiar friend (Earnhart 181).

Mid- to late nineteenth century advertisers worked hard to disguise the impersonal, anonymous marketplace with fanciful human, quasi-human, or animistic identities in order to create a sense of familiarity between the purchaser and the product (Earnhart 182). Characters, such as Aunt Jemima, the Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Clean, and the Quaker Oats Man served to create the illusion of immediate one-to-one contact between consumers and producers (Earnhart 181). On top of this image, advertisers often aimed to impart a sense of dignity, integrity, and friendliness to their synthetic characters (Earnhart 182). From the public’s perspective, the inclusion of the image or name of a real person, even a fanciful version, meant that the product must be good. Who would stand behind a product that was inferior and put their reputation on the line? T. J. Jackson Lears, professor of history at Rutgers University, suggested in his book Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America that the use of characters in antebellum advertising was an effort to “overcome the sense of separation and loss endemic in a mobile market society, to recreate in fantasy what could not be achieved in everyday life… Connection with the…worlds of extended family, local neighborhood, and organic community” (Earnhart 181). In other words, whimsical advertising was so successful in nineteenth-century America because it appealed to the nostalgia of a “rapidly urbanizing population.”

Jolly Green Giant print advertisement

Walt Whitman’s poetry came at a time in America when imported European literature and poetry was becoming inadequate and irrelevant to the American experience (Earnhart 191). This new urban population needed a new representative, a role that Whitman aimed to fill. Walt Whitman was the first advertiser of his own product, like many of the manufacturers of his day (Earnhart 183). While working in the newspaper business, he learned several ways of promoting his product (Blake 103). However, unlike advertising, Whitman addressed his readers as citizens rather than customers, and tried to promote himself as a restorative commodity for America (Blake 108). He wrote a “poetics of hype”—a poetry that tries to sell its value to an audience it already claims to represent (Blake 101). Whitman promoted himself in his poetry through the language of popularity, thereby creating the notion that his work was already representative of the American populace (Blake 108). He asks his readers to help him in creating a collective American self, thereby giving them part ownership (Blake 102).

One of the many ways Walt Whitman manufactured his celebrity and certified his relevance was through the inclusion of reviews and essays in several editions of Leaves of Grass. As a general rule, people cannot declare themselves celebrities without some corroboration from outside. Whitman fabricated this validation by including self-written anonymous reviews and reviews written by friends (Blake 113). In 1855 alone, he wrote at least three anonymous reviews of Leaves of Grass. He used these press opportunities to convince the public of his worth and to teach readers how to recognize his genius through the use of pedagogical instruction. Reviews like these suggest that poets like Whitman must earn their nation’s approval by first teaching them how to appreciate the work (Blake 115).

To add to his currency as an important figure in America, Walt Whitman routinely framed himself, both in his poetry and his anonymous press, as a heroic figure (Earnhart 191). In one self-review he wrote: “And what is at once to become of the ranks of rhymesters, melancholy and swallow-tailed, and of all the confectioners and upholsterers of verse, if the tan-faced man here… typifies indeed the natural and proper bard?” Walt Whitman’s self-reviews of Leaves of Grass, written in its first months in print, also served to create the illusion that it was part of the cultural dialogue, thus creating a real conversation (Blake 113).

First edition of Leaves of Grass with portrait of Walt Whitman in place of his byline

Recalling from his experience in newspapers that many advertisers capitalized on the connection between commerce and democratic nationalism in America, Whitman knew to play on the patriotism of his country (Blake 107–8). He published the first edition of Leaves of Grass on July 4, 1855, which had a positive effect on the legend of his personality and the associations the public would soon make with it. Whitman also attempted to appeal to pre-industrial nostalgia by choosing pastoral imagery in the form of gold, leafy embossments for the cover of his first edition of Leaves of Grass (Earnhart 183).

The pastoral theme was continued through the use of a self-portrait in place of the standard frontispiece in the anniversary edition of Leaves of Grass. This particular photographic portrait shows Walt Whitman sitting rather nonchalantly in a rustic chair admiring a butterfly perched, serendipitously, on his finger (Blake 1). However, this was not Whitman’s first experience with eschewing the traditions of layout by replacing a frontispiece with a portrait. The first edition of Leaves of Grass also had a portrait in place of byline and frontispiece, an obvious parallel to his advertising contemporaries who had begun using images of characters to connect with the public (Earnhart 183). This tactic served to promote Whitman’s desirability as a person, not just a name (Blake 18). The intentional conflation of text and author manages to advertise both entities (Earnhart 180). The reader is compelled to purchase Walt Whitman, but is unable to. They can, however, purchase his book (Blake 18).

Walt Whitman consciously imbued Leaves of Grass with a human identity as a means of selling his product, much like a company created the Quaker Oats Man to sell oatmeal. He places himself inside the book with lines like: “Listen up there!” and “Whoever you are holding me now in hand” (Earnhart 179–80). Anne Gilchirst, a devoted fan of Whitman’s, wrote in a review that “he causes each reader to feel that he himself or herself has an actual relationship to him….” She goes on to write: “Walt Whitman’s poems are not the stories of a man, but his actual self:

“Camerado! This is no book;
Who touches this touches a man.”

Making his character feel like a familiar old friend helped Walt Whitman sell his vision of the poet as the center of American democracy, representative for all (Blake 121).

The thematic presence and importance of advertising in Whitman’s work has only gained scholarly recognition in recent years (Earnhart 181). Walt Whitman’s most notable poetic qualities stem from advertising (Mackay). These are apostrophe, repetition, catalogues, common speech, and cadenced free verse. Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” directly references the language of patent medicine ads of his day. Whitman, like these medicines, is marketed as a source of renewal and strength (Blake 129).

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Walt Whitman on the "Blades O' Grass" cigar box lid

Medicine advertising of the time did not just promote a new product; it sold a new kind of life to consumers (Blake 130). This is what Walt Whitman aims to do with “Song of Myself,” and the rest of the poetry in Leaves of Grass. Subsequently, Whitman would have the public believe that reading his poetry would give them self-fulfillment, independence, and charismatic individuality (Blake 131). These traits are some of what drew future advertisers to use the persona of Walt Whitman, inseparable from Leaves of Grass and its virtues. The connection between Whitman’s poetry and antebellum patent medicine advertisements anticipates the commercial claims of our media-saturated age. Now an infinite number of products echo the poet’s promise to help us uncover our true selves and lead us to a more satisfying life.

The use of Walt Whitman’s image and words in advertising can be useful to reveal important aspects of his cultural afterlife (Jewell and Price 1). The first half-century after Walt Whitman’s death, his image was used to lend credibility to institutions and products, many without any connection to the man himself (Jewell and Price 2). In the early twentieth century the Camden Grocers’ Exchange sold a variety of products using Walt Whitman’s image. Since Whitman spent his retirement in Camden, NJ, these products, of all the ones associated with the man, have the strongest, if still tenuous ties. Whitman’s image and name were also used to sell cigarettes, cigars, pencils, ice cream, coffee, insurance, and medicinal treatments in the early twentieth century. A coffee tin from this period urges brand loyalty: “Ask your grocer for Walt Whitman products.” The use of Whitman’s image and name to sell cigars is illustrated in this 1898 advertisement for Hartmann’s “Blades O’ Grass” cigars (“Whitman Cigars”). The ad was run with the slogan “A poetic comfort” and encouraged consumers to not only buy these cigars, but to read Leaves of Grass as well. These draw on the image of the “lazy, comfortable poet,” encouraging the public to see the cigar as a way to relax and lead the life of a poet.

Old Crow Whiskey advertisement, 1963

One of the last ads to use Whitman’s status as an icon of high literary stature was a 1962 advertisement for Old Crow Whiskey (Jewell and Price 3). It shows Walt Whitman receiving a gift of Old Crow from an admirer. Whitman is depicted as stylized and well groomed in an orderly room. A maid offers him a glass with which to drink the whiskey. In order to elevate its product, Old Crow portrays Whitman’s life as filled with the symbols of the wealthy elite, such as the maid. They construct the persona of an orderly, refined poet. In contradiction to this image, Walt Whitman lived his final years in a room in Camden, NJ “awash in an extraordinary chaos of papers.” The projected symbols of cultural elitism sever Walt Whitman from his life and poetic agenda, thereby reducing him to a generic famous white dead man, the least offensive figure possible.

Walt Whitman "awash in an extraordinary chaos of papers" in 1891

The commercial use of Walt Whitman’s image to persuade consumers to associate a product with his works, legacy, and lifestyle was common practice (Jewell and Price 2). In most cases, though, the Whitman character used was the one least likely to upset the public (Jewell and Price 3). Advertisers used his identity as a famous dead poet, not his challenges to orthodox thinking and conventional social arrangements (Jewell and Price 1). Companies wanted only the respectable side of Walt Whitman. The practice of using the most benign side of Walt Whitman went on in advertising until the 1960s. At the same time the Old Crow advertisement was produced, mass media began portraying Whitman in a less reverential fashion (Jewell and Price 3). As he was increasingly understood as a poet of love and freethinking, Whitman came to be used as a symbol of irreverence and daring (Jewell and Price 1). For example, in 1962, Mad Magazine published a spoof of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” (Jewell and Price 3).

Since 1990, over 120 books and over 1,100 articles have been published with Walt Whitman as a subject (Jewell and Price 12). It is unclear whether this is the cause or the effect of the mass media interest in his persona. Now the media speaks about Walt Whitman with little of the reverence they hold for other esteemed cultural icons (Jewell and Price 6). All of his work to become representative of America has paid off, and American culture has become intimate with Walt Whitman. This is highlighted in an episode of Fox’s The Simpsons (Brooks et al.). In the episode “Mother Simpson,” which aired November 19, 1995, Homer inspects what he believes to be his long-dead mother’s tombstone only to find that it is Walt Whitman’s grave. In a rage he cries out, “Walt Whitman? Aargh! Damn you, Walt Whitman! I! Hate! You! Walt! Freaking! Whitman! ‘Leaves of Grass’ my ass!” Though quite hilarious, this moment in popular culture serves as an example of the easy familiarity America has developed with Walt Whitman (Jewell 6). If an everyman like Homer Simpson not only knows Walt Whitman’s name, but the title of his most pioneering book of poetry, Whitman must be famous.

Homer Simpson finds Walt Whitman's grave, 1995. Click for video.

Walt Whitman’s image was also appropriated in the 1990s by Borders Bookstore Café (Jewell 3). Clever graphic designers altered the famous portrait of Whitman holding a butterfly (appears on page 1 of this essay) by substituting a cup of their coffee. The effect was to show Walt Whitman contemplating what could only be a delicious cup of Borders coffee. Borders uses Walt Whitman’s popularity as a famous poet to lend a high culture appeal to their business and products. In general, coffeehouses of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have tried to appear bohemian and sophisticated. In the case of this Borders ad, Walt Whitman helps to generate this atmosphere.

The most recent advertising campaign to employ the persona Walt Whitman had worked so hard to create around himself was developed by the Wieden + Kennedy design firm for Levi’s Jeans (“Walt Whitman Inspires Levi’s ‘Go Forth’ Brand Campaign”). The campaign is aimed at 18–24 year-old males, and like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, took advantage of an American national holiday and was premiered on July 4, 2009. The over-arching theme of this series of advertisements is the American-ness of America, which is expressed through motifs of average as divine, hardworking Americans, and the literary importance of Walt Whitman.

Key image of the Levi's "Go Forth" advertising campaign

The key image in these advertising spots contains a black and white photograph of the American flag, a handmade version of the Levi’s logo, and handwritten text that says, “Go Forth” (Walt Whitman Archives Levi’s Jeans Documentary). The handmade feel of the logo and type coveys a vibrant energy in the advertisements and an urgent, personal feel to the words (Lippert 1). Nothing in any of the ads is slick or overwrought, thus playing on the appeal of the average as divine (Walt Whitman Archives Levi’s Jeans Documentary). Walt Whitman also celebrated the divinity of the average. The theme of the average as divine is used quite literally in a Levi’s print advertisement, which contains the words, “Let the average man be divine.” This ad uses the text to express the everyday and an image of an average man doing something moderately remarkable: in this case, a back flip.

Two more advertisements state, “This country was not built by men in suits” and “For those who toil” (Walt Whitman Archives Levi’s Jeans Documentary). These ads play on the theme of a hard-working America. They do not just imply, but state directly that the average man built America, not corporations. The irony, of course, is that men in suits created these ads. These advertisements fuse Americans and the idea of a good work ethic, thereby selling the American work ethic to a nation in recession (Parpis 1).

Levi's advertisement uses motif of the average as divine

The television advertising component of Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign focuses on the hardworking American as a vehicle for change (Walt Whitman Archives Levi’s Jeans Documentary). The first commercial in this series, called “America,” was released on July 4, 2009 (Lippert 2). It opens with the word “America” in glorious neon sinking into the water. This is meant to be a symbol of America’s current economic and social status. Some of the imagery in the following shots is ominous. Dark images of running teens and firecrackers going off fill the television screen. The audio, which accompanies these images is believed to be the original wax recording of Walt Whitman reading his 1888 poem “America.” As Whitman’s deep, sonorous voice speaks, subtitles of the poem appear in the same handwritten style as the print advertisements. Whitman’s inspirational words are presented in contrast to the foreboding imagery of the ad. This, like some late nineteenth and early twentieth-century advertisements, relies on the authority of Walt Whitman as a literary figure (Walt Whitman Archives Levi’s Jeans Documentary). It also incorporates the characterization of Whitman commonly found in more contemporary popular culture, such as the Mad Magazine article, which used Whitman as a symbol of irreverence and daring.

Still from Levi's "America" television commercial. Click for video.

In many forms of advertising, people are urged to discover their true identities through the purchase of commodities (Blake 133). As stated earlier, Whitman knew how to use some of the tactics of advertising to promote himself and his fabricated image. He would promote the strength of his audience as a way of bringing them into existence (Blake 116). The difference between Walt Whitman’s advertising and general advertisements of his day was that Whitman was not just selling a product. He sought to inspire his readers to find an identity for their America; it just so happened that he wanted to be that figure. In his 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman states that the poems will inspire and uplift readers as they discover themselves (Blake 102). Whitman also claims to be “one who dares to represent his nation” in a self-review (Blake 113). Levi’s capitalizes on the connection between Walt Whitman and American-ness to sell their product. Not only have they decorated their advertisements with American flags and other patriotic symbols, they have included the most American of Americans, Walt Whitman. As Walt Whitman and advertisers of his day exploited the nostalgia of antebellum America for an earlier time, Levi’s capitalizes on a current nostalgia for America as a global leader known for good, old-fashioned hard work (Parpis 1).

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Works Cited

Blake, David Haven. Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006.

Brooks, James L., Matt Groening, and Sam Simon, prods. “Mother Simpson.” The Simpsons. Fox. 19 Nov 1995.

Earnhart, Brady. “The Good Gray Poet and the Quaker Oats Man: Speaker as Spokescharacter in Leaves of Grass.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. 24.4 (2007): 179-200. Web.

Jewell, Andrew, and Kenneth M. Price. “Twentieth-century Mass Media Appearances.” The Walt Whitman Archive. Web.

Levi’s – The Official Store for Levi’s Jeans, Tops, Jackets, Shorts, and Accessories. Web.

Lippert, Barbara. “Poetry in Motion.” Adweek. 5 July 2009. Web.

Mackay, Daniel, Ph.D. Advertising the Soul: Walt Whitman’s Luciferic Voice in Twentieth-century American Poetry. Diss. U of Oregon, 2009. Eugene: U of Oregon, 2009. ProQuest. Web.

Parpis, Eleftheria. “Just Make It: Hard Workin’ Ads.” Adweek. 9 Aug 2010. Web.

Walt Whitman Archives Levi’s Jeans Documentary. Prod. Walt Whitman Archives. YouTube. 27 Apr 2010. Web.

“Walt Whitman Inspires Levi’s ‘Go Forth’ Brand Campaign.” Videography. 23 July 2009. Web.

“Whitman Cigars.” The Materials Culture Museum. 17 Oct 2009. Web.