Walt Whitman and the Levi’s Ad Campaign: A Provocation, A Challenge, and An Invitation

This is the first in a series of posts on The Vault, a new conversational space in the Looking for Whitman project that is devoted to creating public conversations about Walt Whitman and his work.

In a recent post on his blog, Anthropologist and author Grant McCracken writes about the Levi’s “Go Forth” advertising campaign that uses a wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman’s voice as narrative and inspiration. McCracken’s initial reactions to the ad — that its use of Whitman was both “presumptuous” and “a little breathtaking” — is quickly superseded by admiration for the ways in which Wieden + Kennedy, the advertising firm behind the ad, has drawn neat and plausible parallels between the brand history of Levi’s and Whitman’s own democratic, populist poetry of the self.

McCracken’s discussion of the ads reaches a far more interesting point, however, when he winds up making the provocative (and possibly heretical) claim that advertising now serves the kinds of cultural functions once served by poetry. He writes:

But there is another deeper reason why Whitman ought to appear in an American ad. Advertising has taken up what Whitman thought was the poet’s job. All those grim protests from Mad Men notwithstanding, W+K and other agencies are now active inventors of American culture in a way very few poets can claim to be. As Whitman said in the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”

Haunted by the fashionable cant of the Frankfurt school, we are uncomfortable that Levi’s should make use of Whitman. But this is wrong. I think it is thrilling to see these meanings circulating in our culture, passing from the poem through the advertising to the jeans, both resonating with and for the American experiment. It is especially thrilling to hear Whitman’s voice return to us from the 19th century, the muse himself made legion. Whatever else it is, W+K’s work is successful homage.

america Although this point might seem unsavory to many devotees of Whitman’s poetry, scholars of Whitman’s work (including our own Brady Earnhart) have long noted the resonances between Whitman’s poetry and the culture of advertising in America.

In Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity (2006), for instance, David Haven Blake draws parallels between Whitman’s poetry and the “promotional tenor of Whitman’s evangelism” on behalf of that poetry (131). Blake seems to agree with McCracken that there is not as much distance as we might assume between the work of Whitman and the work of a Levi’s advertising campaign:

Whitman redefines the poet’s relationship to the reader in much the same way that early advertisers invented a relation between consumers and products. . . . What gave advertising such a strong position in antebellum culture is that it began to define its audience as subjects who occupied a unique position in regard to it. People were no longer pedestrians or readers; they were spectators, consumers, witnesses, and bodies in need of healing. Advertising offered individuals a public image of themselves, a commercial vision of their vibrant health and personality. . . . As a newly emergent discourse, antebellum advertising appealed to democratic ideals, positing the historical person against the visionary self, the individual transfigured with perfect body and blood. As Berger notes, publicity’s “essential application is not to reality but to daydreams.”

With its roots in patent medicine advertising, Whitman’s publicity anticipates the commercial claims of a media-saturated age. An endless variety of products echo the poet’s promise to uncover our true sense of self and to lead us consumers to a deeper, more satisfying experience. Consuming Leaves of Grass will guarantee self-fulfillment, independence, and the kind of charismatic individuality that will make us the center of every crowd. . . . However superficially, the makers of Toyota cars, Budweiser beer, and Special K cereal all seem to agree with the author of Leaves of Grass that what they offer will result in our deeper happiness and newly discovered harmonious relation to the world. (130-131)

Both McCracken and Blake seem to suggest that not only might the logics of advertising, spectacle, and consumption lie near the heart of Whitman’s poetry, but also that, as McCracken puts it, advertisers themselves might be the true modern heirs to Whitman’s poetic project.

As classes involved in a semester-long study of Whitman’s work that is taking place during a time when Whitman’s voice is ringing out from television sets across the nation during commercial breaks between innings of World Series games, it’s our duty to add critical and scholarly perspectives to the growing debate over these ads. I invite you take up that challenge and to continue this conversation in the comment section of this post. If you decide to respond by writing a post on your own blog, please let us know about your blog post in the comments.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • To what extent does the Levi’s campaign celebrate, confuse, or distort Whitman’s poetic project?
  • What was your own reaction to the “Go Forth” ads?
  • In what ways do themes of consumption, advertising, and promotion show up in Whitman’s work?
  • Do you buy McCracken’s claim that advertisers now play the cultural roles that poets played in earlier eras?

Any other analysis of the ads themselves or of Whitman’s possible relation to them would be welcome.

 

Works Cited:

Blake, David Haven. Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

McCracken, Grant. “Walt Whitman and the Levi’s ad.” This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics (2009). n. pag. Web. 11 November 2009.

 

Additional Resources:

Levi’s ads on YouTube: Go Forth. O Pioneers!.

Wieden + Kennedy page on the Go Forth campaign

Brady Earnhart. The Good Gray Poet and the Quaker Oats Man: Speaker as Spokescharacter in Leaves of Grass

Stephen J. Gertz. I Sing the Blue Jeans Electric: Walt Whitman for Levi’s

Christine Huang, Does Levi’s Understand Today’s America? Huffington Post.

Rick Liebling, Levi’s Goes Forth. Finally.. Eyecube.

 

Credits
Image Source: Screen capture from the “Go Forth” America video

Walt Whitman and the Levi’s Ad Campaign: A Provocation, A Challenge, and An Invitation

This is the first in a series of posts on The Vault, a new conversational space in the Looking for Whitman project that is devoted to creating public conversations about Walt Whitman and his work.

In a recent post on his blog, Anthropologist and author Grant McCracken writes about the Levi’s “Go Forth” advertising campaign that uses a wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman’s voice as narrative and inspiration. McCracken’s initial reactions to the ad — that its use of Whitman was both “presumptuous” and “a little breathtaking” — is quickly superseded by admiration for the ways in which Wieden + Kennedy, the advertising firm behind the ad, has drawn neat and plausible parallels between the brand history of Levi’s and Whitman’s own democratic, populist poetry of the self.

McCracken’s discussion of the ads reaches a far more interesting point, however, when he winds up making the provocative (and possibly heretical) claim that advertising now serves the kinds of cultural functions once served by poetry. He writes:

But there is another deeper reason why Whitman ought to appear in an American ad. Advertising has taken up what Whitman thought was the poet’s job. All those grim protests from Mad Men notwithstanding, W+K and other agencies are now active inventors of American culture in a way very few poets can claim to be. As Whitman said in the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”

Haunted by the fashionable cant of the Frankfurt school, we are uncomfortable that Levi’s should make use of Whitman. But this is wrong. I think it is thrilling to see these meanings circulating in our culture, passing from the poem through the advertising to the jeans, both resonating with and for the American experiment. It is especially thrilling to hear Whitman’s voice return to us from the 19th century, the muse himself made legion. Whatever else it is, W+K’s work is successful homage.

Continue reading →

The Other Side of Whitman (Nov. 10 Post)

The introduction to ‘Franklin Evans’ or ‘The Inebriate’ revealed a side of Whitman that many texts decline to show. Walt Whitman is best known as the people’s poet – a man who dedicated his life to writing poetry with the potential to unite an entire nation. He accepted African Americans as fellow men in a time when the rest of society considered them sub-human. Whitman accepted everyone…except Catholics and Irish Immigrants. In Whitman’s own words, the immigrants were:

Bands of filthy wretches whose very touch was offensive to a decent man; drunken loafers; scoundrels whom the police and criminal courts would be ashamed to receive in their walls.

He went on to call them “sly, false, deceitful villains” and true to his nativist beliefs called on his fellow Americans  to defend the country against an “unterrified democracy” ruled by “Irish rabble”.

Whitman seems to have despised Catholics, calling them “a gang of false and villainous priests, whose despicable souls never generate any aspiration beyond their own narrow and horrible and beastly superstition”. He never passed up a chance to criticize them, a far cry from the accepting poet I’ve come to know over the semester, who was never this blatantly insensitive and insulting even when addressing people with views that opposed his. Whitman was and is indeed the people’s poet, so long as you’re not Catholic, Irish or an immigrant.

Photos from the Brooklyn Historical Society Visit

Here are some photos taken during the visit that the City Tech class made to the Brooklyn Historical Society on November 3rd.  The trip was part of a new research project in which each student in the course chose an address in which Whitman lived briefly during his time in Brooklyn.  Students will perform historical research on the address using insurance maps, land conveyances, city directories, and other resources provided by the BHS.  Many thanks to the BHS and librarian Elizabeth Call for their assistance with this project.

Here are some recaps of the trip from students in the course:

Searching for Whitman in DC

Walking back to my apartment on October 24th, 2009 after twelve hours of “Whitman Searching” in the DC rain, my body was tired and aching but my mind was racing because I had discovered a new dimension to Whitman that I had never experienced before. Walt Whitman was once a name that I would glance over in a book, the name “Whitman” would blend into Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the millions of other American canonical authors. But after trudging through the streets of DC the name Walt Whitman would was no longer a historical author who wrote American poetry, but, finally for me, he was an actual human being just like you or I.

Sometimes when we talk in class about Whitman, I feel as though we are honoring this perfect nonhuman being. Prior to the field trip, it was hard for me to fathom the fact that Whitman was someone who had human faults and weaknesses. Rather, I always believed Whitman was this ideal prophet-like individual with awe inspiring ideas and who could foresee the future of America.

The picture of the Bust of Whitman created by S.H. Morse and the street sign depicted my view of Whitman prior to the field trip.

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I thought of Whitman as this statue like person who was greater both physically and mentally than any other human. I associated Whitman as a Moses like figure leading his people. At the same time however, Whitman’s names was still associated as a “historical figure” who happened to be recognized for his talents and who like many other famous individuals had streets and buildings named after him.

But, this misconstrued idea of Whitman was slowly broken down throughout the day. Walking down Constitution Ave, standing at Freedom Plaza, and entering into the grand Willard Hotel I began to see how Whitman too had to walk these same streets. Although DC in 2009 is much different than the DC Whitman experienced from 1863-1873, these lines from Brooklyn Ferry stand out in my mind when trying to put into words how Whitman’s humanity was discovered.

“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”

This discovery of the human Whitman continued as I saw firsthand Whitman’s personal possessions. Although I was deeply moved at the unveiling of the haversack, what captivated my attention the most was Walt Whitman’s glasses and pen.

CIMG3110CIMG3112

This picture of Whitman’s glasses show how Whitman had physical ailments and was affected by the outside world around him. The right eye is frosted over and as Barbara Bair, the librarian at the Library of Congress told us, his loss of eyesight in an eye could have been due to the multiple strokes that Whitman had during the later years of his life. So seeing these glasses made me realize that Whitman although brilliant was not perfect.

The pen is a reed that was Whitman’s in 1891. The simple reed pen, changed my perception of how Whitman did not miraculously create his works, but rather, he tirelessly labored pen in hand over paper. Much like what we, as students, do today. So, although Walt Whitman’s work is under the category of canonical American literature, Whitman is no longer a name to me. After this trip Whitman is human just like you and I.

Meghan for November 10

I’ve been thinking a lot about the debates we’ve had in class concerning which edition of LoG was the better one. By the end of everything, however, the results were inconclusive: the few of us that preferred the 1855 edition were still set in our ways, as well as those who preferred the 1891-92 edition.

With that, I can’t help but think that there isn’t any definitive version to read, despite the fact that Whitman preferred his latest. The way our course is structured reflects this: we’ve dealt more critically with the “Drum-Taps” and Civil War editions than any other, while the other campuses take on their own edition reflecting their geography. And no campus really has a “better” edition or Whitman (although I will always be partial to my tender nurse Walt). Rather, each edition is definitive of the Whitman who was writing at the time as well as the country that he wished to save and unify, and each merits an equal amount of studying in order to best understand the changes and person in Whitman. If one wants to read a Whitman wounded from the war, then one should read the 1867 edition. The 1891-1892 is a matured Whitman, dealing with the effects of ill-health and the advent of a new century. Similarly, the other editions reflect other Whitmans, sober, youthful, or mournful.

For example, I’ve been looking at “Ashes of Soldiers,” which appears in the “Songs of Parting” section of the deathbed edition. Until the 1867 edition this poem did not exist; it is a testament to the war and the losses that the nation suffered. 1855 is the triumphant youth of Whitman; the sobered sense of reflection wouldn’t make as much sense here. 1860 is the beginning of the tumult, and 1867 embodies a more sobered Whitman. In 1867, “Ashes” was known as “Hymn of Dead Soldiers,” a title that more closely defines the funereal and mournful outlook facing the nation post-war and post-Lincoln. The poem itself is also completely reworked. “Hymn” plunges into the physical aspects of the soldiers and war within the first several lines. “Ashes,” on the other hand, spends a good ten lines genuflecting on the ethereal aspects of the soldiers, as well as the idea that both North and South are dead. This transition is evident in the notes Whitman made here. Perhaps this is a reflection on Whitman’s older self, one who has had time to withdraw from the passions of war and is able to distance himself. Whitman even physically removes himself in “Ashes,” saying that he “muse(s) retrospective” and that the war “resumes.” The war is past tense and spiritual, rather than fresh and wounding. Rather than purely mourning the soldiers and being obsessed with their loss, Whitman also inserts the common theme of unification, reaffirming that the losses he felt were the losses of all the country. This also serves to reinforce mourning of the fractured nation.

Whitman’s sense of reflection is also evident in the latter parts of the text. Whitman adds the line, “Shroud them, embalm then, cover them all with tender pride.” Time plays an important role in “Ashes;” it literally enshrouds the memories here. While not necessarily softening them, it allows the speaker distance between himself and the war. Most of the changes take in this poem occur between 1867 and 1871. It’s only a span of four years, but the fact that Whitman allowed the poem to remain largely unedited until the deathbed edition may allow one to assume that Whitman’s general feelings on this aspect remain the same. The end lines are the only difference. Whitman places “South and North” to describe the soldiers, again reaffirming the theme of unification within the poem.

S/T-weet Victory

whitman-cartoon

Cartoon

Free Lance Star, 11/3/09

S/T-weet Victory

whitman-cartoon

Cartoon

Free Lance Star, 11/3/09

Welcome to the Vault

"The Meeting With Whitman," courtesy of the Vault at Pfaffs

The Vault is a new conversational space on the Looking for Whitman website aimed at stimulating public discussions about Walt Whitman and his work. Although vaults connote closed, secure spaces, we’ll be thinking of this as a new kind of vault for the 21st century: one that is open and accessible, and that takes openness and accessibility as a key components of its security.

In addition to focusing on Whitman’s life and writings, we will also host discussions about digital learning.  The latter topic will allow us to reflect on the kinds of experiences we’ve been having this semester as we have learned alongside of one another in this new digital environment.  Among the issues we might address are the role of social networking in online learning environments and the impact that a project like this might have on the study of Whitman specifically, or the study of literature more generally.

We plan to host a new conversation each week.  Often, conversations will be started by faculty members or students involved in the project, though we also hope to invite others not yet involved in the project to start conversations here. And, indeed, we hope that this blog will foster communication not only between classes, but also between members of this project and the wider public.

If you would like to propose a topic for discussion, let us know in the comments or by email; we’d love to hear about any suggestions you might have.  And be sure to join in our first conversation, to be published tomorrow, which will center on Levi’s “Go Forth” advertising campaign.

About the Name
The Vault takes its name from Pfaff’s, the legendary New York bohemian beer cellar that Walt Whitman frequented during his years in New York.  It was in that underground space, nicknamed “the Vault,” that Whitman met like-minded creative souls and found fellowship, conversation, conviviality, and camaraderie in the midst of an expanding urban environment.  While we’ll keep our own carousing to a minimum, we hope that Whitman’s spirit of openness will enliven this new digital space.  For more about Pfaff’s and its role in mid-nineteenth century New York literary culture, be sure to check out The Vault at Pfaff’s project at Lehigh University.

Favorite Manuscript Moment

I am indebted to Other Sam for drawing my attention to this very moving detail.  One of the best things I saw at the Library of Congress was Whitman’s letter of December 29, 1862 (that is, exactly 106 years before the day I was born), to his mother about finding George in Fredericksburg.  We were able to read aloud his words about the suffering of the soldiers putting other suffering into perspective.  We have read this letter in a collected of selected letters: “Dear, dear Mother, . . . I succeeded in reaching the 51st New York, and found George alive and well–in order to make sure that you would get the good news, I sent back by messenger to Washington (I dare say you did not get it for some time), a telegraphic dispatch . . .”  What is not visible in that version of the letter is the revision Whitman made, no doubt anticipating the anxiety with which his mother would scan the letter if she had not received the “telegraphic dispatch” or was desperate for information about her wounded son.  Lovely:

revision ("alive and well"), photo by MNS 10/24/09, LOC

revision ("alive and well"), photo by MNS 10/24/09, LOC

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