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In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself
     

In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself

5.0 1
by John Marsh Marsh
 

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Life in the United States today is shot through with uncertainty: about our jobs, our mortgaged houses, our retirement accounts, our health, our marriages, and the future that awaits our children. For many, our lives, public and private, have come to feel like the discomfort and unease you experience the day or two before you get really sick. Our life is a

Overview

Life in the United States today is shot through with uncertainty: about our jobs, our mortgaged houses, our retirement accounts, our health, our marriages, and the future that awaits our children. For many, our lives, public and private, have come to feel like the discomfort and unease you experience the day or two before you get really sick. Our life is a scratchy throat. John Marsh offers an unlikely remedy for this widespread malaise: the poetry of Walt Whitman. Mired in personal and political depression, Marsh turned to Whitman—and it saved his life. In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself is a book about how Walt Whitman can save America’s life, too.

Marsh identifies four sources for our contemporary malaise (death, money, sex, democracy) and then looks to a particular Whitman poem for relief from it. He makes plain what, exactly, Whitman wrote and what he believed by showing how they emerged from Whitman’s life and times, and by recreating the places and incidents (crossing Brooklyn ferry, visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals) that inspired Whitman to write the poems. Whitman, Marsh argues, can show us how to die, how to accept and even celebrate our (relatively speaking) imminent death. Just as important, though, he can show us how to live: how to have better sex, what to do about money, and, best of all, how to survive our fetid democracy without coming away stinking ourselves. The result is a mix of biography, literary criticism, manifesto, and a kind of self-help you’re unlikely to encounter anywhere else.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
11/24/2014
Marsh (Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys), an associate English professor at Pennsylvania State, proposes that Walt Whitman and his poetry can save America, just as he says Whitman saved his life. But this highly personal work of literary criticism fails to cohere. Marsh explains that his own period of depression and personal crisis led him to visit places he found significant to “the American bard.” These include Whitman’s home in Camden, a strip club (“Where better to gaze at and celebrate healthy bodies, which Whitman does so often?”), and Whitman’s grave. While Marsh’s discomfort at the strip club makes for some laughs, the most effective passage is his description of taking the Brooklyn-to-Manhattan ferry, which fosters a genuine connection with Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” despite how much has changed since the poem was written. Other Whitman scholars and admirers may be surprised when Marsh dismisses the importance of the poet’s sexuality in his life and work. Still, anyone who hasn’t cracked open Leaves of Grass since a high school English class should be impressed, if not altogether enlightened, by Marsh’s close reading of this American original’s poems and letters. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
“A personal and engaging book based mainly on close reading of Whitman’s poems and prose works placed alongside reflections on the state of contemporary America. Even if you do not buy into Marsh’s big idea that Whitman can save us all, you will find much to admire in this charming and intelligent book of essays on America’s foremost poet.”-Jimmie Killingsworth,author of Whitman’s Poetry of the Body and Walt Whitman and the Earth

“Marsh shares his affection for Walt Whitman in this gentle, thoughtful consideration of the poet’s relevance to 21st-century America. Beset by moral malaise in his 30s, the author ‘suffered from fully-grown doubts, not just growing doubts, about the meaning of life and the purpose of our country.’ Whitman’s insights on death, money, sex and democracy buoyed his spirits… Marsh confesses his love for the legendary poet, and by the end of this insightful homage, readers are likely to feel the same.”-Kirkus Reviews

“Marsh rises to the challenge of surveying the broad banks of Whitman’s work…. Prophetic, timely, and not nearly as impractical as he may sometimes seem (though just as flighty), Whitman is to Marsh just as much a poet for his time as for ours—though we have the benefit of hindsight to adopt the wisdom of his foresight.”-Boston Globe

“One of the most engaged and engaging books on Whitman that I’ve read in many years.… Once every generation or so, we need a book like this one to remind us why, in the twenty-first century, it is still so essential to keep Whitman close at hand.”-Ed Folsom,Professor of English, The University of Iowa; editor, Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

“Walt Whitman has been and remains our unacknowledged founder. Born as Thomas Jefferson was fretting that the revolutionary ‘Spirit of 76’ was being lost, Whitman grabbed the twin standards of enlightenment and possibility and carried them across the bridge from the days of Tom Paine to the present. His radical journey is our radical journey, and John Marsh captures the very essence of Whitman, and America, in this brilliant book.”-John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation

“A beautiful, moving, and original book about our nation’s greatest poet.”-Mark Edmundson,University Professor, University of Virginia; author, Why Teach?

Library Journal
02/01/2015
Marsh (English, Pennsylvania State Univ.; Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys; Class Dismissed) describes his third book as "a mix of biography, literary criticism, manifesto, and, I am not embarrassed to say, self-help." Marsh argues that Americans could lift themselves out of their current malaise by reading carefully the poetry and prose of Walt Whitman (1819–92). He meticulously examines Whitman's ruminations on death, debt, capitalism, socialism, sexuality in general, Whitman's sexuality, comradeship, and his volunteerism during the Civil War. While Marsh's argument is generally sound, his approach is tedious, being both self-serving and self-deprecating. By wearing his personal and political dissatisfactions on his sleeve, the author comes across like a protagonist in a Woody Allen film minus the sense of humor. Marsh demonstrates that he is an astute reader of Whitman's writing, familiar with every crevice of his corpus, but the book's scant use of outside critical sources and an overreliance on explicating passages by defining the Latin roots of the words in Whitman's poems shows a lack of sophistication. VERDICT Though accessible, Marsh's literary criticism by way of Michael Moore and Deepak Chopra falls flat. Readers should stick to Marsh's important book on American working-class poetry, Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys.—Brian Flota, James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA
Kirkus Reviews
2014-11-15
Marsh (English/Pennsylvania State Univ.; Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry, 2011, etc.) shares his affection for Walt Whitman in this gentle, thoughtful consideration of the poet's relevance to 21st-century America.Beset by moral malaise in his 30s, the author "suffered from fully-grown doubts, not just growing doubts, about the meaning of life and the purpose of our country." Whitman's insights on death, money, sex and democracy buoyed his spirits. About death, for example, Whitman taught the atheist Marsh that dying was part of "the plan of the universe," liberating the physical body to take new forms. Whitman wrote bitingly about what he called "The Morbid Appetite for Money." Lusting after wealth, he believed, harmed the soul, inevitably leading to "lying, subterfuge, pettiness, and greed," severing a "connection to the earth and to the people on the earth." He promoted ideals of fairness and shared interest, which should characterize a just society, but Marsh does not go so far as to call him "technically or politically a socialist." Celebrating the body, Whitman waged "an intense, inspired war against shame," contradicting prevalent mid-19th-century views about modesty and sexual desire. Yet Whitman warned against shamelessness or narcissism; concern with one's own pleasure should not lead to turning "others' bodies to our uses." Marsh cannot answer the question of Whitman's possible homosexuality, but he does believe he was queer, "if by queer we mean differing from what is usual or ordinary, especially but not only when it comes to sexuality." Whitman wrote with disdain about a democracy of ill-informed voters and self-serving special interests, but he believed in America's potential to head "toward affection, toward friendship, toward a nation founded on care." Marsh confesses his love for the legendary poet, and by the end of this insightful homage, readers are likely to feel the same.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781583674758
Publisher:
Monthly Review Press
Publication date:
02/22/2015
Pages:
256
Sales rank:
884,008
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

John Marsh is associate professor of English at Penn State University. He is the author of two previous books: Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way out of Inequality and Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry. Marsh is also the editor of You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-1941. He lives in State College, Pennsylvania, with his wife and daughter.

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