Thursday, June 5, 2008

Walt Whitman in the Classroom

I am a big fan of the American Experience DVDs by PBS.

The program on John Brown is incredibly good, as is the program on Ulysses S. Grant and another on Reconstruction.

I've used a handful of these American Experience DVDs in the classroom. Whether I play a brief clip at the beginning of a lecture to capture the mood or later in a lecture to punctuate a point I'm trying to make, the combination of audio, visual, and scholarly analysis makes quite an impression on students.

That brings me to the Walt Whitman DVD. PBS just released this one. I'm not ashamed to say I even preordered it. When the box came from Amazon, I could hardly wait to watch it.

So was it any good?

It was excellent! Do yourself a favor and watch this one. If you don't know much about Whitman, this is a good place to start. If you already know a lot about him, you'll probably appreciate the program even more.

The real highlight of this DVD, and of course the point that makes it such a valuable resource in a Civil War course, is the lengthy section on the war itself and Whitman's unique role in it. The gruesome pictures of the wounded, combined with their words home from the hospitals, are haunting. Moreover, the program does an excellent job of analyzing the effect these scences had on not only the poet, but American society at large. The next time I lecture in a Civil War course, I will use this section to drive this crucial point home.

The program also does a fantastic job of describing life in New York in the mid-1850s. Before the sanitation committees emerged, the city streets were maintained by scores of roaming pigs, gobbling up whatever they could find. The filth on the streets, the sound of horses, the conversation of street car operators, job seekers, and newly-arrived immigrants come through clearly. Simply put, the program offers one of the finest descriptions of antebellum city life I have ever seen.

One last note, the Whitman program has a website that might be useful for teachers. They usually have maps, images, and articles, as well as lesson plans and assingments for use in the classroom.

Here is one of my favorite prose passages from Whitman's Specimen Days:

August 12, 1863

Washington, D. C.

I see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town...I see very plainly ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones...[Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln] pass'd me once very close, and I saw the President in the face fully, as they were moving slowly, and his look, though abstracted, happen'd to be directed steadily in my eye. He bow'd and smiled, but far beneath his smile I noticed well the expression I have alluded to. None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man's face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.

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