Where’s Walt When You Need Him?

When I did my graduate work on Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac and the American, civil religion of democracy, I got eye rolls from my professors for wasting time on a well trodden topic. Whitman was “over” (because who cares about form/structure and authorial intent anymore) and Kerouac was for dilettantes (which i guess I was), kid stuff. They were deep into post-structuralism, Foucalt, semiotics and Gramsci. But, i loved history, politics, religion and reading, so i got to do a little of all of those through my work.

When i watch the shitshow that is America circa 2020, I wish i could get a do-over on my thesis. The one I wrote was boring, poorly argued, not very interesting. What i probably should have focused on is the role of a creative, media celebrity in influencing ideas about politics and culture. I should have turned it into, effectively, a media studies project.

In their times, both Whitman and Kerouac were, in their own ways, media darlings. You could make an argument that Whitman was one of the first self-made influencers. If he lived today, he’d have a couple million followers on Insta and YouTube. Kerouac was one of the first post-WW2, mass media literary stars, pulled to prominence by editors and journalists and PR people who loved what he was saying, but still had to perform in their day jobs. They both had important messages about America, why we should love it, and how we should savor the elements of America that make democracy great. They both wrote beautifully about the role of the individual vs the greater culture.

Importantly, they also represented – and were presented in the media of their times – two different directions the American culture might go if the personal freedom inherent in a liberal democracy were taken to their extremes. Whitman, the communitarian, celebrated the beauty of a gajillion different identities brought together by the ideals of American democracy. Kerouac, the seeker of individual transcendence, was mostly focused on “kicks” and the freedom to follow his own path. If he lived and sobered up, he probably would have turned into a hermit monk or a libertarian.

The media of their times used both of these guys as a way to talk about American democracy. The audiences learned a little bit about democracy via the stories and the subsequent reading of Kerouac and Whitman’s work.

There are probably a lot of dissertations out there on the outsize influence Kerouac had on the hippies and “back to nature” culture dropouts of the sixties. I know there are plenty on Whitman.

When I watch the videos from the All Gas, No Brakes guy, I see the edge cases (i hope) of American freedom, pursuit of “kicks” and happiness run amok. When i watch peaceful protests, I see some hope. But, who is out there sharing a view of what democracy can and should be? Someone who isn’t a politician? Where’s the Oprah of political philosophy, someone making it easy to understand how we’re all supposed to act in a super diverse culture, but still live together in peace.

We need Walt Whitman right now. Or, something like him. A poet of democracy, someone that can teach and model what our American way of life can (and should be). Someone speaking beautifully, deeply about stuff no one wants to think about anymore: How we live together in a democracy, the beauty of the concept of “out of many, one”. Maybe they’re out there on Tik Tok? Maybe they’re streaming on Twitch?