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A Race of Singers: Whitman's Working-Class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen
     

A Race of Singers: Whitman's Working-Class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen

by Bryan K. Garman
 

When Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass in 1855, he dreamed of inspiring a "race of singers" who would celebrate the working class and realize the promise of American democracy. By examining how singers such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen both embraced and reconfigured Whitman's vision, Bryan Garman shows that Whitman succeeded. In

Overview

When Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass in 1855, he dreamed of inspiring a "race of singers" who would celebrate the working class and realize the promise of American democracy. By examining how singers such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen both embraced and reconfigured Whitman's vision, Bryan Garman shows that Whitman succeeded. In doing so, Garman celebrates the triumphs yet also exposes the limitations of Whitman's legacy.

While Whitman's verse propounded notions of sexual freedom and renounced the competitiveness of capitalism, it also safeguarded the interests of the white workingman, often at the expense of women and people of color. Garman describes how each of Whitman's successors adopted the mantle of the working-class hero while adapting the role to his own generation's concerns: Guthrie condemned racism in the 1930s, Dylan addressed race and war in the 1960s, and Springsteen explored sexism, racism, and homophobia in the 1980s and 1990s.

But as Garman points out, even the Boss, like his forebears, tends to represent solidarity in terms of white male bonding and homosocial allegiance. We can hear America singing in the voices of these artists, Garman says, but it is still the song of a white, male America.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Whether your interest is in literature, history, culture, music . . . or specific figures such as Whitman, Guthrie, and Springsteen, I predict you will be stimulated by the reading of A Race of Singers."
Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies

"[An] interesting study. . . . Very well written and admirably researched."
Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas

Well written, well researched, and provocative.

Library Journal

A Race of Singers contributes tremendously to our understanding of . . . male homoeroticism.

Cecelia Tichi, Vanderbilt University

Fine study of artistic influence.

David Roediger, University of Minnesota

Cecelia Tichi
A Race of Singers contributes tremendously to our understanding of the ways in which Whitman's much-discussed male homoeroticism is really part of a larger formulation of white male working class community.
David Roediger
Acknowledging the genius and power of Whitman's example, this fine study of artistic influence also shows how social forces shaped the reproduction of a manly and individualistic cultural radicalism across generations.
Library Journal
Garman (history, Sidwell Friends Sch., Washington, DC) examines the legacy and limitations of the Whitmanesque working-class hero since the turn of the century. Beginning with Whitman himself, he describes the poet's republican vision of an egalitarian social order within the parameters of a white, male-dominated, individualistic society. The author charts the radicalization of Whitman's ideals from 1892 to 1940 by such leftists as Socialist Horace Traubel and Communist editor Michael Gold. Garman then finds the embodiment of Whitman's wandering people's poet in folksinger Woody Guthrie, who sang about social justice for all men and women while drifting alone down the open roads of America. He ends with Guthrie's direct link to the New Left and Bob Dylan, his fall from radical grace, and his reinstatement by Bruce Springsteen, who continued to preach the contradictory goals of working-class solidarity and the supremacy of the individual spirit. Well written, well researched, and provocative, this book provides an interesting interpretation of three popular music icons and their connection to the Whitman tradition. Highly recommended for social historians.--David Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780807825587
Publisher:
The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date:
09/11/2000
Series:
Cultural Studies of the United States Series
Edition description:
1
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.04(d)

Read an Excerpt

Introduction
Be Radical--Be Not Too Damned Radical

Which Whitman?
When in 1919 the United States marked the centenary of Walt Whitman's birth, the country was emerging from the shadows of world war only to find itself deeply divided at home. Growing racial tensions prompted a wave of lynchings in the South and a bloody race riot in Chicago that left thirty-three people dead. More than 4 million workers, nearly a quarter of the workforce, participated in unprecedented demonstrations of labor unrest, asserting their rights in the textile, coal, and steel industries.[1] On the heels of the Russian Revolution, the Comintern declared its intention to foment uprisings around the world and recognized the American Communist Party. As corporations, municipalities, and local vigilantes devised methods of intimidation to control such threats, the U.S. government expanded its assault on a variety of radical groups. In 1917, federal agents ransacked the offices of the Industrial Workers of the World; by 1918, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs had been jailed for sedition; and in late 1919, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer unleashed the first of two raids that led to the arrest of 4,000 leftists, three-quarters of whom were deported.[2]

Many of the approximately 350 newspaper and magazine articles that celebrated Whitman's birth responded to this national crisis. Swept up in the jingoism of victory and the fear of revolution, most writers, Winifred Kirkland among them, relied on Whitman to validate American democracy.[3] Writing for the liberal Dial, Kirkland suggested that Whitman was "pre-eminent in expressing what America means to Americans" and opined that his name "brings an instant exhilaration like the sudden sight of the stars and stripes billowing in the breeze."[4] He articulated "ideals for industry that we should like to cherish," and perhaps more important, he would help Americans "recall our clearer motives" of individualism and manifest destiny. The "American, if he is to be the true inheritor of the land that has been given him," argued Kirkland, "needs to tune his soul to wide spaces, unchained cataracts, limitless prairie, and to cities seething with incredible energy. . . . We too need to be spacious like Whitman."[5] Stuart P. Sherman of the New York Evening Post also lionized Whitman for his individualism. Worried that communists might claim the democratic bard as their own, Sherman declared that if Whitman had "lived at the right place in these years of Proletarian Millennium, he would have been hanged as a reactionary member of the bourgeoisie."[6] The poet, Sherman argued, "cuts with . . . keenness into the conception of those younger international revolutionary statesmen, who, ignoring individuals, propose to deal with classes . . . and institute a world-wide class war."[7] The New York Times echoed Sherman's opinion. Radicals from "the parlor, boudoir, and Greenwich Village" had "started a Whitman cult," but the Times, fearing that the poet might be co-opted, unequivocally announced in a headline, "Whitman No Boudoir Bolshevik."[8]

Such conservative interpretations were not unfounded. Whitman certainly sang of individualism and capitalism, maintaining that "riches, and the getting of riches" were an important part of his "programme of culture."[9] But this poet contained multitudes, and as the headline from the Times suggests, there was at least one other Whitman, one who lent himself to leftist ideas. Joseph Gollomb of the New York Evening Post Book Review alluded to this element when he published an interview with Horace Traubel, Whitman's close friend and literary executor. Playing on the hysteria of the Red Scare, the front-page headline wondered, "Would Whitman Be a Bolshevist?," an inquiry to which Traubel, an ardent socialist, responded negatively. "No 'ism' could pin down Whitman. Might as well try to give shape to the atmosphere," he explained. Whitman's resistance to being labeled did not mean, however, that he accepted the social order as it stood. The poet "may have been against any one trying to raise people to revolution," but he nonetheless "wanted revolution against all that was outgrown and enslaving."[10] Transcripts of conversations between Whitman and Traubel suggest that in the final years of his life, Whitman entertained the possibility of socialist reform. He cursed "the God damned robbers, fools, stupids, who ride their gay horses over the bodies of the crowd" and predicted that their egregious actions would one day "drive us into an inevitable resentment, then revolt, of some sort." "Sometimes, I think, I feel almost sure," said Whitman in particularly uncertain terms, that "Socialism is the next thing coming: I shrink from it in some ways: yet it looks like our only hope."[11]

In the end, Whitman could not relinquish his faith in small-producer capitalism. "Be radical--be radical--be not too damned radical!," he cautioned Traubel.[12] By the 1920s, however, Whitman had become perhaps more radical than he originally had intended. Such left-wing leaders, artists, and intellectuals as Eugene Debs, Michael Gold, and Clifford Odets claimed the Good Gray Poet as the "heroic spiritual grandfather" of their generation and touted him as a posthumous proponent of socialism and communism.[13] His poetry, they insisted, articulated a collective social vision that opposed the exploitative, iniquitous relations that characterized capitalist society. Whitman's cultural politics exerted tremendous influence on the Left's political imagination, but how radical was he? How did he shape left-wing culture in the century that followed his death? How have his cultural politics been transmitted and transformed across generations?

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Well written, well researched, and provocative, this book provides an interesting interpretation of three popular music icons and their connection to the Whitman tradition.—Library Journal

[Garman] . . . has produced a strong work of scholarship that encourages us to think about the many 'traditions' that defined American music in the twentieth century.—Journal of American History

A Race of Singers contributes tremendously to our understanding of the ways in which Whitman's much-discussed male homoeroticism is really part of a larger formulation of white male working class community. A major contribution to masculinity studies.—Cecelia Tichi, Vanderbilt University

[An] interesting study. . . . Very well written and admirably researched.—Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas

Garman captures Whitman's heritage in all of its light and its shadow, its soaring lyricism and its ominous silences. Acknowledging the genius and power of Whitman's example, this fine study of artistic influence also shows how social forces shaped the reproduction of a manly and individualistic cultural radicalism across generations.—David Roediger, University of Minnesota

Meet the Author

Bryan K. Garman, who received his Ph.D. from Emory University, is chair of the history department at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

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