This class will focus primarily on the history and interpretation of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, commonly viewed as the first major work in American poetry to break from British influences and forge a new American poetic style and democratic literary spirit. Revised and expanded six times between 1855 and 1892, the collection would eventually incorporate Whitman’s responses to the U.S. Civil War, changing gender and race relations in America, his expansive (and sometimes scandalous) sexual energies, and his philosophies of American democracy and the American individual. Thus, his poems ask large and complex questions about American identity: What values does “America” represent (especially compared to Britain)? What is an authentic American voice? What constitutes the American individual? How does the nation overcome the divisiveness of the Civil War and the country’s history of slavery? As we pursue these questions, we may turn to various editions of Leaves, some of Whitman’s draft materials and notebooks, newspaper reviews, prose writings about democracy, photographs, his short and funky temperance novel Franklin Evans, and perhaps poems, movies, and TV shows like Dead Poets Society and Breaking Bad that respond to or incorporate Whitman's work.
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