Prep for I AND YOU: Walt Whitman
May 15, 2018
I and You by Lauren Gunderson is about two high schoolers who are thrown together to work on an English project about Walt Whitman's Song of Myself. As the pair stumbles through the poem, they begin to share secrets and let their guards down…eventually unlocking the mystery that brought them together in the first place. Before you see the show, learn a little more about Walt Whitman from Dramaturg Luan Schooler!
Walt Whitman was born in New York on May 31, 1819, only thirty years after George Washington was inaugurated as our first president. Whitman was part of the first generation of citizens born in the new United States of America, at a time when the country was fresh, idealistic, and energized by winning freedom in the Revolutionary War. One can imagine the heady exuberance of that time, when the newly minted country was bursting with confidence, gusto, and a fierce, if short-lived, sense of national unity. One of Whitman’s early memories was being plucked out of a parade crowd when he was six years old and hoisted up on the shoulders of General Lafayette. Whitman later came to see this moment as a kind of anointment: the French hero of the American Revolution chose him, the child who would become the poet of this new democracy.
Whitman’s formal education ended after only six years but he continued his education through libraries, museums, theatre, and diving into conversations with people from all over the city. When he was eleven, he began working in a printing shop, which led to his interest in journalism and newspapers. He was enthralled by the way ideas and events could be translated into words and quickly communicated to many people. At sixteen, he was an experienced printer with a steady career ahead of him, when fire destroyed much of New York’s printing and business centers, leaving Whitman and many others without work. In spite of his lack of formal education, he worked a few unhappy years as a teacher, before returning to journalism in the mid-1840s.
In his twenties he began writing fiction and poetry. Whereas other writers of the time almost always had extensive formal, classical education, Whitman’s was derived entirely from his promiscuous curiosity and desire to know about history, geography, archeology, music – and the lives of the people he saw all over the city. Still, his early efforts at poetry exhibited a classical style, and tended toward didactic, stilted, and inert language. There is very little in his early work that hints at the poet he would become.
In the early 1850s, Whitman would burst forth with a distinctly American voice – one quite different from the European expression: free flowing rather than formal, vernacular rather than elite, untamed rather than hidebound. There is scant documentation of his transition from a dull, staid poet into the profoundly original, sensual, ecstatic writer of Leaves of Grass.
First published in 1855 (by Whitman, himself, who set the type, designed the cover, and oversaw every detail of publication), Leaves of Grass consisted of a preface and twelve untitled poems. His name was not included in the first edition, although his portrait – dressed in workman’s clothes, shirt open, cocked hat, and a casual stance – was opposite the title page. Compared to the formal author portraits that usually graced published works, Whitman’s choice was provocative. As no other contemporary writer had done, Whitman reveled in the physical body, delighted in the senses, and grappled with serious social issues of the day. He seemed to view the poet as the natural spokesperson for democracy, unbound by convention, reverberating the clamorous politics of the day, and embracing the multitudes that make up the union of America. His body is everyone’s body, everyone’s body is his, and to celebrate democracy is to celebrate all.
I Celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I and You runs May 20 - June 17.
Learn more about I and You here.
Purchase tickets here.