Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Walt Whitman (1819–1892), “O Pioneers,” Leaves of Grass

Years ago I had a plum job straight out of college working for a post-production house as an assistant video editor.

There were a lot of impressive features in my claim to this job: I was female (still am, last I checked, but one can never be sure), I was completely green, and I was respected. The respect came from my knack for picking up skills quickly, and my talent for faking it in sessions with paying clients (really, really paying clients. Hundreds of dollars-an-hour paying clients). Though my direct superiors knew I didn’t know what I was doing, their clients were blissfully unaware due to my rather remarkable grace under pressure.

In this way, I had what you could call “on-the-job training.” Yes, I had graduated from college with good marks, and a final year in film school. I had even heard of the high-falutin’ editing system that the offline editors worked on, but I didn’t actually know what “offline” versus “online”  meant, which was where I was hired to assist. I had seen a patch bay briefly in college, but didn’t touch the thing; I had opened Photoshop but never did anything beyond make a poorly constructed collage out of a picture of my dad reading a book in front of Saturn. It did not qualify me for my job title.

But, perhaps because I’m more afraid of public humiliation than anything else on this green earth, I never let the clients see me sweat. The lead editor would lob me a slow ball and I’d rally, looking the picture of cool as I stumbled through menus in Photoshop looking for God knows what to design a layout on the fly; then the client would ask for something that I had literally never heard of in my life and I would, with subtle sign language from the editor, pull a rabbit out of my ass. We were an amazing team.

But I learned my job very well. I was adept at graphic design, I learned all the technical crap associated with the machine room; I learned how to patch any machine to any other machine via patch bay; I learned how to use color bars and what being “out of phase” meant. I ended up being very good at what I did. I earned my title eventually.

What I was not good at was leaving my high morals at the door. We were not working on Scorsese pictures; nor were we working on documentaries covering deforestation in Brazil or the crimes against humanity in Rwanda. We worked on the maiden roll-out of Tivo infomercials. We worked on Nike spots (featuring more often than not the recently disgraced patron saint of Nike, Tiger Woods). We edited a shockingly embarrassing children’s series called “Bibleman,” produced by and starring as Bibleman himself none other than “Eight is Enough” alum Willie Aames, who, despite his belief, still managed to be smarmy and creepy and totally full of himself.

There were high quality spots from some of the greatest ad agencies in the country, and some of the lamest dreck ever to grace late-night television in the form of “As Seen on TV” product pitches. Precursors to “The Snuggie,” we led the charge on such products as Bowflex, OxyClean (featuring our lost coke-head infomercial star Billy Mays in some of his early work) and early incarnations of the ShamWow craze (not, sadly, featuring Vince Shlomi, the guy who had his tongue bitten by a hooker but someone completely less memorable).

In this climate, I felt sullied. A little dirty. Crass. I begrudged the work we did, the high-flying feats of amazing editing and graphic prowess, our team’s remarkable grace and fluidity, put to onerous use by Beelzebub and his band of ShamWow shillers. The amount of effort that we expended in creating horrifying spots at the behest of our clients was just a little bit more than my Evergreen State College-informed views of media could handle; I lasted about three years in the business before I retired at the ripe old age of 32.

I don’t think about it much anymore, except to wonder at the amazing success my former co-workers and bosses have found. They are pillars in the field. And I’m very happy for them.

I’m also older, and a little less, shall we say, morally bound to strict ethical interpretations of how my skills are best put to use. I don’t think I would sneer so much anymore. I understand now, as I didn’t then, that sometimes you just have to step back and hold your nose until the noxious fumes of aesthetically devoid commercials dissipate. They’re gonna make the shit one way or another no matter where your morals lie; you just aren’t making a living if you get out of the ring.

But now and then I’m shocked anew at how advertising works upon us. I don’t know if working in the field, albeit briefly, gives me any special insight, but now and then I find the cultural critic in me wallowing up out of the depths of my long-dormant liberal college education.

I cannot help but be enthralled by the recent ad campaign called “Go Forth” from our Portland hometown heroes Wieden+Kennedy, one of the largest ad agencies in the country. In two spots, poems are read with a certain creaky ancient charm, both clearly archival recordings, or an amazing facsimile. Paired with a dirge-like mono-tonal soundtrack and shockingly lovely images of eerily beautiful humans in all states of outdoorsy revelry, the spot entreats us to embrace our American heritage, our pioneering spirit to “Go Forth…”

…and buy Levi’s.

If you really want to be a part of the bleeding edge of our youthful American spirit, you’ll want to do it in some Levi’s jeans.

I was so impressed by the spots that I looked up one of the poems online, to glean a touch of understanding about whether or not it was a real poem, or a jingle crafted in the Dark Arts of ad copy. Imagine my surprise, and a little shame, that it was that most American of American poets Walt Whitman, himself reading his poem “America,” in a recording from so long ago that it was preserved on a wax cylinder.*

This set my mind racing. I couldn’t actually believe it.

The first thing I couldn’t believe was that I didn’t know the poem. As a person who prides herself on, if not bookish scholarship at least a well-rounded education, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know this iconic poem from an iconic collection by the most iconic of American poets. What did that say about me? What did that say about my education? What did it say about education in the main?

It occurred to me in the dark wallows of the night that if I didn’t know the poem, most everybody else didn’t either. Which, if one can extrapolate, makes our first collective listening of our finest poet a recitation in a Levi’s commercial. Does this imply that we are being educated by commercials? That the erosion of the basics of American History and American Lit class leave us to the mercy of Wieden+Kennedy to provide our scholarship?

I tried to think of other poets, American or merely English-speaking. I tried to think of cultural heritage. I hate to say it, but I came up wanting. I know a number of American authors, classic or otherwise. I’ve read me a fair lot of Steinbeck and Faulkner and O’Connor. The only poet I could think of was T.S. Eliot who was such an old bigot that he didn’t even want to be American, even though his poetry is amazing.

But I could list an astonishing number of television spots. I could rattle off, with no problem whatsoever, the jingles of countless dozens of ads shilling everything from coffee (the Folger’s coffee theme still resounds in the morning when I’m desperate for my own cup) to soda (“I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper,” “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”) to the Super Sugar Crisp Bear and Tony the Tiger fighting for superiority in my brain while some Frooty Toucan duels with some ne’er-do-well Cap’n). I still quote those Budweiser assholes completely inadvertently (“Waaaaazzzzzahhhhp”) and sometimes hear the groaning bullfrogs singing their Budweiser chant completely unbidden. I can tell you about Superbowl ads from before the DotBomb, but cannot tell you who was in the Superbowl.

“Where’s the Beef?” “Got Milk?” “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” “Calgon, take me away…” Stop me, now.

It hurts me in a deep private place to admit that I’ve succumbed this way. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I could recall with any confidence one single poem that wasn’t crafted in a boardroom as a part of some campaign. I might be able to recite a little Shel Silverstein, that bitter bard of Seventies ‘tweens, or Dr. Suess books because I’ve read virtually all of them numerous times since our son was born.

So I’m left with the obvious: I heard “America” for the first time in a commercial selling jeans. And I liked it. How do I square that? Interesting that, once I began researching the commercial, I found hints of people being similarly mesmerized. People linked to it on YouTube, people discovered that the poem was by Walt Whitman. They blogged about it, they wondered what the poem was about (and, predictably, made completely erroneous analyses of the poem).

That is the mark of a successful campaign.

And I’m left wondering, how do I feel about being introduced to Walt Whitman in a Levi’s commercial? My life has been enriched by the experience; I never knew there were live recordings of Whitman and am happy to have heard one. The poem itself is a worthy introduction, under any circumstance I suppose. And an entire generation of dips like myself have also been introduced to Whitman, albeit through a pitch for jeans which apparently, upon their donning, will help one embrace the American dream.

So on balance, would Whitman understand what had happened to his poem? Would it matter to him one jot that he influenced a tide of Americans, not through Lit Class in fourth period but in a flashy, well-produced advert? He may very well reach more humans in that one ad than he’s reached in the last decade in English class. What is the moral or ethical barometer of that, when we are exposed to something great? Is the greatness diminished by its delivery? Is the fact that Whitman is being used to sell jeans an indication that we should close up shop and retire English Lit Classes forever and instead offer college classes analyzing the last several decades of the art within the advert?

Because I know, through working with commercials both great and small, that some of the greatest creative juices are being dumped into amazing 30- and 60-second spots.

There is something beautiful about the form, if you separate it briefly in your mind from its sole intention of selling you junk you don’t want. It’s like the haiku of film; all the humor or grace or sadness the director wishes to convey must be synthesized into a tiny little package. The writers are constrained by impossible boundaries to tell a story, and yet time and again they do it, not just successfully, but often with beauty, simplicity and poignancy. The bleeding edge of special effects are pushed further in the cause of creating 3D models of absorbent diapers and stunning animations of hamsters driving cars than they are in movies and tv. Why? Because the budgets are (used to be) in advertising.

So I’m being disingenuous when I suggest that we scrap American Lit in favor of “Sixty Years of Commercials: Art and Poetry in Advertising,” but only slightly. I didn’t end up spending my life in the field, only because I was too inflexible at the time to recognize the subtle beauty of that most pernicious of forms. But I recognize greatness when I see it, and I know that even though I won’t buy any Levi’s as a result of W+K’s campaign, I will inadvertently quote Whitman at strange times, maybe in tandem with the Budweiser frogs.

*There seems to be some question as to the provenance of the recording itself. In a comment, D.R. Hainey writes:

…a Google search led to the real deal. According to the accompanying information, it’s believed to be Whitman, and the recording is only thirty seconds long, which was as much as those who discovered the recording in the early 1950s could retrieve. As to the voice on the recording, which is thought to have been made in 1899-1890, one analyst has this to say: “It contains a subtle and quaint regional inflection–a soft mix of Tidewater Atlantic and an Adirondack dilution of the contemporary New York accent–which has quite literally disappeared in our age. No one speaks that way anymore. The notion that someone might have set out to imitate such a nuanced archaic inflection strains credibility just a bit.” I agree. If this isn’t Whitman, who was born on Long Island in 1819, he must have sounded very similar.

Thus tipped off that my scholarship is not 100 percent, I did a little Googling myself, and found no proof that it wasn’t Whitman, but no proof that it was, either. My discoveries, in the short time I dedicated to the search, are in the comments. But should anyone want to take up the charge of the Whitman recording mystery, I think it’s a fascinating cause.

I choose to suspend my disbelief because I think it’s simply magical to hear Whitman. But I understand that in the search for truth, justice and historical veracity, it may be more important to others to keep up the quest.

TAGS: , , ,

QUENBY MOONE used to be a graphic designer who wrote once in a while. After her father came down with a touch of Stage IV prostate cancer, she became a writer who did graphic design once in a while.

She's written a book called Living in Twilight (no relation to vampires - unless dying of cancer is a part of Edward's story) in which her design skills came in handy, and includes some of her stories featured on The Nervous Breakdown.

54 responses to “When Whitman Met Levi”

  1. Quenby, welcome to the Funny Farm!!!!

    Sadly, I too can recite commercials long before any prose comes to my mind. You pose many valid questions and have left me with much to ponder.

    And Bibleman? That is so fucking awesomely wretched.

  2. Sarah Bell says:

    Wow, Quenby! You’re an amazing writer. Good to see your face.

    “I’m a big kid look what I can do, I can wear big kid pants, too!” (Megan started it!)

    Nice to see your face and read about you.


    • “OH YEAH!” The Kool Aid pitcher man just burst through my office wall.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      I thought that was you! I couldn’t believe what a tiny, tiny world it is–growing up a block away and then ending up in the same virtual neighborhood. Unbelievable.

      It’s so great to see you and that you’re doing so well! Cheers to the big kid pants!

      I see your big kid pants, and raise you a Hamburgler.

      • Sarah Bell says:

        Come and knock on our door (come and knock on our door), we’ve been waiting for you (we’ve been waiting for you), where the kisses are hers and hers and his…

        (in the head splinter contest that one always wins).

        Did Megan tell you she spent Christmas at my mom’s house on 19th and Pine drunk and stupid and unable to close a window?

        Where are you? Portland?

  3. Welcome aboard…

    We all find our favourites somewhere. When I was a teenager I wrote stupid stories about getting drunk and high, and my friends told me I might like Hunter Thompson or Jack Kerouac… I only found them because my writing was so juvenile, but I’m glad I didn’t, or I might never have developed.

    It’s a shame that dead people are used to whole things they probably wouldn’t have whored in life, but there we go. The lesson is: never die.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      I’m working on a “no death” clause in my contract, but the lawyers for the universe are pretty tough. I think I’m just going to have to whore myself before death.

      Thanks for the greeting! Glad, and a little overwhelmed to be here!

  4. Jessica Blau says:

    Great post Quenby! I love your take on this. My husband, David, is a film editor (documentaries, although he started with beer ads many years ago) and he, too, loves that ad. I love that ad. In fact, our daughter was watching TV with us a few weeks ago and said that was HER favorite ad. She’s young. Tiny. David said, “That’s Walt Whitman.” The next day I looked through the computer to see what she had been doing and saw that she had pulled up the poem on line. PRINTED IT. It’s in her room, but I don’t want to ask what she plans to do with it (memorize it?!).

    By the way, just shouted to David in the kitchen that Whitman is reading the poem in the ad. He’s thrilled.

    • Quenby Moone says:


      See? I’m not crazy! That ad is brilliant! I’m glad a fellow media maverick recognized the smacking-awesome of that ad. It makes me just a little less ashamed of myself. And your daughter is clearly a genius, so keep one eye peeled at all times.

      But your husband wins crazy points for knowing it was Whitman. I’m back to being ashamed again.

      • Jessica Blau says:

        Yeah, he’s a poetry nerd! He actually pulled out his poetry CD and listened to Whitman read again! (It’s a book/CD called POetry Speaks, has all kinds of poets reading their work on it).

  5. Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

    Welcome, Quenby!

    I am not naturally computer inclined, so I was just wracking my brain trying to remember if I could place his voice. I’m good at placing the voices of actors who do commercials off-camera. I am astonished that this was Walt Whitman himself and awed, actually. I didn’t even know it was possible to record back then. Imagine being the person who came up with that ad! I’m proud of that person. (The levis don’t even register on me.)
    Thank you.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      It’s truly amazing. I was completely stunned, and so glad to have done the Google-fu to put the pieces together. That evil-genius of the ad factory needs to win something!

      Not that Whitman should sell jeans. Or something.

  6. Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

    You know, Quenby,
    I thought that they ADDED the scratchiness in the sound for effect.
    Shows you what I know.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Which is why I looked it up in the first place; my husband being an audio guy, we know all the tricks of the trade. I wanted to see whether it was a really good facsimile of a really old recording. Surprise!

      We’re all dupes on this one.

  7. America: take your poets where you can get them. If it’s with a pair of jeans on a TV screen: so be it. At least the sound of Whitman’s voice makes people stop and listen. That can’t be a bad thing under any circumstance, can it? Welcome, Quenby!

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Thanks for the welcome!

      Poets have the roughest of roads–them, and maybe painters–and if Whitman shilling jeans can help foster appreciation, I say okay. Weird, but okay.

  8. Ronda F. says:

    I first read “America” in the 9th or 10th grade. I loved it so much that I chose it as the poem I’d read in an upcoming poetry reading competition. I won the district competition and went on to place third at the regional competition. It wasn’t me. It was the power of the poem.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      That poem is great. What a dip I felt having stumbled upon it this way. What an ignoramus!

      But that you won a competition reading it just clarifies that maybe it doesn’t matter how it’s presented–it’s most important just that it IS presented so other people can swoon at it’s power.

  9. Matt says:

    Let’s go ahead and add this to the list of reason’s I’m glad I don’t watch cable or broadcast television anymore: advertisements are no longer colonizing my brain.

    That said, I’m glad Whitman is getting his props, even if it is while being used to sell jeans. Take it where you can get it. I remember that, when a book by Frank O’Hara was read onscreen during an episode of Mad Men, it’s sales on Amazon suddenly skyrocketed.

    Welcome aboard, Quenby!

    • Quenby Moone says:

      We’ve pretty much excised commercials from our viewing–it’s only when we’re changing formats that we stumble onto network television where all the commercials live. But there, like a little tiny gift, was Whitman, hiding in the bracken of crap.

      I love that story about Mad Med. That’s amazing!

      Thanks for the greeting!

  10. Ben Loory says:

    after college i spent a year working at a small independent film company that made documentaries covering deforestation in Brazil, and all they did was worry about money and how to get it and who they could beg for it and what kind of pathetic transparent bullshit they could do to predispose rich people to like them so they’d give them money so they could make more of their shitty documentaries covering deforestation in Brazil so other rich people would see them and like them and give them money so they could make even more. idealistic documentarians are some of the evilest, most money-grubbing people i’ve ever met. i would have preferred to work at an ad agency. seriously. at least at an ad agency you can only be surprised by positive revelations about humanity.

    also there was this other guy who worked there whose name was Lior Benjamin. which was weird because that is kind of my name but in reverse. sort of.

    welcome aboard, quenby moone! you have a very cool name.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Thank you, Ben Loory, you also have a cool name, which apparently is shared in an alternate universe with Lior Benjamin. I’m at a loss for understanding.

      Yes, a little older and wiser now after my adventures. There was a producer of Frontline who came in to work on something, and he was the biggest slimebag bigot I met there. I wanted to work for Frontline so bad I could taste it (or some other similarly pie-eyed starry docu-newsies-journo thing) but he took a little of the blush off the rose, I have to admit.

      In the end, I think the ad agencies have a great job; I was too high-and-mighty to see it.

  11. chicago says:

    sniffle, sniffle. much love for you and your many wonderous talents quenby moone. from the PLO to chickens… you’re dope. 🙂

  12. jonathan evison says:

    . . .great post . . . though, as somebody who did recognize old walt, i wanted to shoot my television . . . i fucking hate how advertising tries to change the revolutionary spirit into some sort of leisure collective with a bunch of good looking kids frolicking around looking cool . . .ech . . .hard to argue with a paycheck, but ech . . .

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Yes, there are those who much better understand the betrayal than me; I was wowed by my own ignorance more than anything. Yikes.

      But it is insane how that poem has now reached deep into the fiber of people’s brain and taken hold because of the commercial. I’m not sayin’ it’s right, I’m just sayin.’

  13. Anti-m says:


    Nice work, m’dear! This is an excellent bit of expository unloading. Great to see your writing!

    I felt personally betrayed by that Volkswagen commercial that used “Pink Moon” to great effect… but I later learned that that commercial was responsible for introducing scores of new, young listeners to the fantabulous Nick Drake. So there you go. Ultimately, it is impossible to separate art and commerce into tidy, separate piles.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      As you know from animation! I know you worked on some hummers yourself. And in the end, was it better to work on the dreck until you got to work on the great stuff? Or is it better to reserve working on what you love for no money, and instead separating ourselves into the piles of commerce and art?

      Nick Drake had a great Renaissance because of that ad! And now being featured on an iPod commercial can make a career for a band. It’s completely bizarre.

  14. Andy Z says:

    I’m with M on this one: great to see your writing! All this time and I didn’t notice your inner-English major waiting to come out via… advertising? And for those new Nick Drake and Whitman fans, how long will the interest last? Perhaps till the next great commercial, perhaps not.

  15. Quenby Moone says:

    You know, the path is winding, Andy Z. Advertising leads to…high-and-mightiness….which leads to confusion about the path… which leads to chickens…which leads to….graphic design and then Whitman essays? I don’t know.

    I think Nick Drake, dead though he is, finally got the appreciation he deserved. I know that millions of people downloaded Pink Moon, but then many who would have never known about him any other way finally got to hear all the other albums too. Pink Moon was probably the highest in the playlist, though. Nice to see you virtually, A.Z!

    • D.R. Haney says:

      I was thinking about the Nick Drake commercial (in which two acquaintances appeared) even as I was reading your piece last night, and now, about to comment, I see that someone has beaten me to mention of it.

      I don’t own a working television, so I wasn’t aware of the Go Forth commercial. Nor was I aware that recordings existed of Whitman, whom I greatly admire; so I naturally had to head immediately to YouTube for a look/listen.

      The ad looked about as I thought it would, but that’s not Whitman reading. I would’ve been shocked to learn that it was based on the quality of the recording alone, since Whitman died in 1892, and I don’t believe there’s any technology that could so perfectly restore a 118-year-old recording. Plus, the reader’s voice sounded too affected and contemporary.

      However, a Google search led to the real deal. According to the accompanying information, it’s believed to be Whitman, and the recording is only thirty seconds long, which was as much as those who discovered the recording in the early 1950s could retrieve. As to the voice on the recording, which is thought to have been made in 1899-1890, one analyst has this to say: “It contains a subtle and quaint regional inflection–a soft mix of Tidewater Atlantic and an Adirondack dilution of the contemporary New York accent–which has quite literally disappeared in our age. No one speaks that way anymore. The notion that someone might have set out to imitate such a nuanced archaic inflection strains credibility just a bit.” I agree. If this isn’t Whitman, who was born on Long Island in 1819, he must have sounded very similar.

      Here’s a link to the recording:


      Thanks for alerting me to it. Some good can come from a commercial. And welcome to TNB.

      — Duke

      • Quenby Moone says:

        As usual, I have to talk to my fact-checker. (mumble-mumble shriek *explosion* tears). Well. That wasn’t easy, but it had to be done.

        It’s obviously been a long time since I’ve been in college if I let that slip by me. Now I’ve gone through the Google stacks, and while it seems that most plebs like myself believe that it is Whitman reading “America,” scholarship puts it in the “question mark” pile. I don’t know if you read the article in the NYTimes regarding the famous “cassette tape,” but they leave the question open.

        The other article I found that refutes that Whitman could have made it was a PDF of an article written by Allen Koenigsberg called “Walt Whitman (1819-1892) Speaks?” In it, he traces the provenance of the cassette tape back to its questionable source:

        Most of the legitimate historic cylinders from the early period of sound were found in the West Orange basement of Edison assistant Walter H. Miller and re·discovered by G. Robert Vincent who worked for the Edison Co. in the late 1920’s; they were ‘then re·recorded with the technical help of Frank Capps between 1935·37. Considering Vincent’s penchant for publicity and his later attitude toward the unauthentic voices of Twain, Debs, and McKinley, he certainly would have heralded a Whitman discovery. It is unmentioned in the recent dissertation-biography of Vincent, Hello, Posterity, by Douglas Collar.

        Roscoe Haley’s unwillingness to show anyone the actual cylinders in his truly “remarkable” collection and his constant stonewalling on their whereabouts, certainly argues against their validity . The LP record of Hark the Years, originally issued in 1951 (narrated by Fredric March and produced by Vincent), indicates that there was a perceived demand for America’s recorded past. APM feels that Haley was all too ready to supply this need and that the supposed Walt Whitman recording is a fascinating fraud.

        In this article, it seems that the recording is traced to Haley, but that the cylinder was not recorded by him. In it, no-one identifies who the speaker is nor who the recording was made by; I haven’t found any articles that are willing to go on a limb and guess, except us dips who like to imagine that it’s Whitman, because what magic! It seems that more than anything, Haley attached Whitman’s name to it because he wanted to sell it, but no scholar seems to know how Haley came by it, who it was, and why it was made.

        As to the ability to clean up a sound recording, my husband is a sound engineer who has taken up the challenge. I’ll get back to you on the results! It’s raised more questions than answers for me; I’ll keep looking around, and add a footnote citing these questions you raise. It’s completely fascinating!

        Thanks for writing to me about it; now the hive is buzzing with curiosity.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          And thank you for the PDF quote and the NYT link. There do seem to be good arguments both for the validity of the recording (the relative obscurity of the poem and the Edison exchanges regarding Whitman) and against (Haley’s publicity-seeking and other frauds perpetuated by him or others).

          Obviously, my gut instinct doesn’t count for much, but I tend to think it is Whitman, mainly because of the accent, which jibes with his Long Island origins, and also because of the way the poem is read, with each word savored, which to me implies a kind of ownership. Of course an actor could read the same way, but Whitman was fascinated with photographs, and never passed up an opportunity to present himself to the camera, so it stands to reason that he would have had the same attitude toward sound recordings. But conjecture is far from being proof, and unfortunately, the authenticity of the recording will almost certainly remain in doubt.

          It’s a little spooky, I must say, to hear a 120-year-old recording, whether it’s of Whitman or it isn’t. I heard another made around the same period of the great actor Edwin Booth, whose brother, John, assassinated Lincoln. And Whitman’s friend (and possible lover) Peter Doyle was a witness to the assassination, which raises a point: if you’re at all interested in reading about Whitman, there’s a FANTASTIC book that I can’t recommend highly enough, called Walt Whitman’s America by David S. Reynolds. It’s one of the best biographies of anyone I’ve ever read, and it’s additionally a great portrait of the nineteenth century, as well as being compulsively readable. Really.

        • Quenby Moone says:

          I recently read the Doris Kearns Goodwin bio of Lincoln, so I’m in the market for other period histories; I’ll definitely keep my eye peeled for it, since Whitman featured so prominently in the culture of the day! He was the rock star of pre- and post-War America; how could I not look into it?

          My father was so moved by this whole webby dialog that sprung up here that he dug out his own copy of Leaves of Grass so that I could have it. He’s an old softy, and the whole reason I began writing again (an extended hiatus, I guess you could call it). There seems to be some sort of celestial symmetry between Whitman and me these days.

          I’ll take it.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Hey, do you know what turned me on to Whitman? Hearing Susan Sarandon read “I Sing the Body Electric” to Tim Robbins as foreplay in Bull Durham. Which isn’t so far from being turned on to Whitman via a commercial, yes? But I had never, ever heard such beautiful words, and I don’t mean saying that Whitman has sometimes brought me to tears. I mean, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”? Hell, I think I’m going to post it:

          Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
          Clouds of the west–sun there half an hour high–I see you also face
          to face.

          Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious
          you are to me!
          On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning
          home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
          And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more
          to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.


          The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
          The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every
          one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
          The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
          The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on
          the walk in the street and the passage over the river,
          The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,
          The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,
          The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.

          Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
          Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
          Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the
          heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
          Others will see the islands large and small;
          Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half
          an hour high,
          A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others
          will see them,
          Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the
          falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.


          It avails not, time nor place–distance avails not,
          I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many
          generations hence,
          Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
          Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
          Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the
          bright flow, I was refresh’d,
          Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift
          current, I stood yet was hurried,
          Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the
          thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

          I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
          Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air
          floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
          Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left
          the rest in strong shadow,
          Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
          Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
          Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
          Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my
          head in the sunlit water,
          Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and south-westward,
          Look’d on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,
          Look’d toward the lower bay to notice the vessels arriving,
          Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near me,
          Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor,
          The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars,
          The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender
          serpentine pennants,
          The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilothouses,
          The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels,
          The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sunset,
          The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the
          frolic-some crests and glistening,
          The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the
          granite storehouses by the docks,
          On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on
          each side by the barges, the hay-boat, the belated lighter,
          On the neighboring shore the fires from the foundry chimneys burning
          high and glaringly into the night,
          Casting their flicker of black contrasted with wild red and yellow
          light over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.


          These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
          I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,
          The men and women I saw were all near to me,
          Others the same–others who look back on me because I look’d forward
          to them,
          (The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)


          What is it then between us?
          What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

          Whatever it is, it avails not–distance avails not, and place avails not,
          I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
          I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the
          waters around it,
          I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
          In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
          In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
          I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
          I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
          That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I
          should be of my body.


          It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
          The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
          The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
          My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
          Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
          I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
          I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
          Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
          Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
          Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
          The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me.
          The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,

          Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
          Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
          Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as
          they saw me approaching or passing,
          Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of
          their flesh against me as I sat,
          Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet
          never told them a word,
          Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
          Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
          The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
          Or as small as we like, or both great and small.


          Closer yet I approach you,
          What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you–I laid in my
          stores in advance,
          I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

          Who was to know what should come home to me?
          Who knows but I am enjoying this?
          Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you
          now, for all you cannot see me?


          Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than
          mast-hemm’d Manhattan?
          River and sunset and scallop-edg’d waves of flood-tide?
          The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the
          twilight, and the belated lighter?
          What gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with voices I
          love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest name as approach?
          What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that
          looks in my face?
          Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?

          We understand then do we not?
          What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
          What the study could not teach–what the preaching could not
          accomplish is accomplish’d, is it not?


          Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
          Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!
          Gorgeous clouds of the sunset! drench with your splendor me, or the
          men and women generations after me!
          Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
          Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta! stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!
          Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!
          Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!
          Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes, in the house or street or public assembly!
          Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my
          nighest name!
          Live, old life! play the part that looks back on the actor or actress!
          Play the old role, the role that is great or small according as one
          makes it!
          Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be
          looking upon you;
          Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet
          haste with the hasting current;
          Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;
          Receive the summer sky, you water, and faithfully hold it till all
          downcast eyes have time to take it from you!
          Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any
          one’s head, in the sunlit water!
          Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail’d
          schooners, sloops, lighters!
          Flaunt away, flags of all nations! be duly lower’d at sunset!
          Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at
          nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses!
          Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are,
          You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul,
          About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung our divinest aromas,
          Thrive, cities–bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and
          sufficient rivers,
          Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual,
          Keep your places, objects than which none else is more lasting.

          You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers,
          We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward,
          Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us,
          We use you, and do not cast you aside–we plant you permanently within us,
          We fathom you not–we love you–there is perfection in you also,
          You furnish your parts toward eternity,
          Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Um, a typo above. I’d meant to say I don’t mind saying, not mean saying. Losing me marbles, I am.

        • Quenby Moone says:

          I have been besieged with distractions since you made this post and I haven’t had the time to read it yet! It keeps sitting there open on my laptop, luring me in, but then some other day-to-day crap gets in the way and I have to leave it there.

          I promise when I’m not being tugged at by the utterly unromantic duties of life I will return to Whitman. It means a lot to me that this discussion has been so fruitful; I’d hate to break the silent compact of dialog by chumping out on this poem…

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Read it in your own good time, Quenby, and preferably in your father’s copy of Leaves of Grass. That’s where it’s best read, I would think. I posted the poem just for the hell of it, as I said; because I’d been Googling Whitman quite a bit, due to your post, and stumbled across the poem, which is one of my favorites. Thank you for reminding me of it.

  16. Greg Olear says:

    Welcome aboard the Good Ship Breakdown, QB. Great piece.

    My first job out of college — much less interesting that this one — involved watching commercials a lot, as a lackey in the “creative library” at Young & Rubicam. One of the ads for some or other investment bank involved John Gielguld (sp?) reciting Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” Man, it was stirring.

    Ah, Willie Aames. You should have stayed with Gwendolyn Pierce, my man.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      I just looked up Gwendolyn Pierce since the data banks of my random crap division were failing me and found this Gwendolyn Pierce. It took me a minute to realize that you weren’t referring to her, though she and present-day Willie might have a lot to talk about!

      Thanks for the welcome, sir. And QB was one of my nicknames of old; makes me a little misty to hear (read) it again!

      That is a pretty interesting job for a short time, until you blow your brains out. Glad you escaped with your life, though you got exposed to one of the greats reciting one of the greats! And that’s more than you’d find behind the counter at McDonald’s.

      • Greg Olear says:

        OK, you get to be QB, then. I’m all for reviving old nicknames.

        Yeah, it’s a different GP. Ha! I feel like it’s my duty to interject the stray Charles In Charge reference. Somebody’s gotta do it.

        Interestingly, I also worked (in high school) behind the counter at McDonald’s. It had its indignities and all, but it was fascinating in many ways. You meet some shall-we-say colorful characters in the break room at Mickey D’s.

  17. Hey Quenby! Welcome aboard, and extra kudos on making such an excellent debut.

    For starters, I think ‘How do I square that?’ may become my new favourite saying.

    Advertising works on me on a funny level sometimes; I’ll look straight at a poster and say ‘Because Bruce Willis is wearing those sunglasses, I want those sunglasses,’; a totally conscious process. But at other times I see ads where the tagline will be something along the lines of ‘Want to experience true and everlasting love and acceptance? Then drink Diet Coke,’ and think Jesus. Is nothing sacred?.

    Thanks for bringing some more insight to the debate.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Sorry I’m just getting back to you now–our son turned 6 this weekends and it was like the roll-out for a new Apple product: all the hysteria and chaos and excitement, only to have a stomach ache at the end of it.


      I know about what you’re saying: how does advertising make us both repelled and attracted? And why does some of it work and some doesn’t? Why, for instance, does the Snuggie sell so well? The answer can’t live purely in the category of “Kitsch,” can it? Because I take one look at those ads, and think, “Good cripes, what the hell is that?” but they fly off the shelves.

      I guess there is an ad niche for all demographics, which is what they’re banking on, evil little bastards.

  18. […] Quenby Moone has the 501 on Whitman…and Thomas Wood gets to the bottom of it all. […]

  19. lace pencil skirt…

    […]Quenby Moone | When Whitman Met Levi | The Nervous Breakdown[…]…

Leave a Reply to Ben Loory Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *