I have long been interested in how literature claims its place in the world, and in both my teaching and research, I emphasize the social and political dimensions of literature, particularly poetry.
My book, Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity, places the poet alongside the emergence of celebrity culture in the United States. Although I dutifully studied Leaves of Grass in college, it wasn’t until I traveled overseas that I began to value the great texture of Whitman’s voice. Since then, I have been fascinated by the number of writers who seem to see and hear Walt everywhere. Allen Ginsberg saw Whitman in a California supermarket, Sherman Alexie on a reservation basketball court. (I am on record as believing that if he were alive today, Walt would be playing rock ‘n’ roll.)
In beginning my study of Whitman and celebrity, I was interested in the ways in which various twentieth-century poets used the image of fame to reflect upon the legacy of his work. I wrote several essays exploring this topic in relation to such poets as John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Frank O'Hara, and Campbell McGrath.
As I got deeper into my research, however, I became fascinated with the rise of publicity, promotion, and celebrity in the nineteenth century. It became clear that to understand Whitman’s interest in popularity I first had to view him beside such contemporaries as Emily Dickinson, P.T. Barnum, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Fanny Fern. Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity was published in November 2006. For more information, you can check out the Yale University Press website. (If you are interested in thinking about celebrity culture from a different perspective, you may want to see my essay in the journal American Studies, When Readers Become Fans: Nineteenth-Century American Poetry as a Fan Activity.")
In 2005, my colleague Michael Robertson and I helped The College of New Jersey celebrate its sesquicentennial anniversary by organizing a symposium honoring the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which like the college, came into the world in 1855. We have edited a collection of essays that arose out of the symposium titled Walt Whitman, Where the Future Becomes Present. The book was published as part of the Iowa Whitman series in April 2008. Here's a link to the University of Iowa Press website.
I hope someday to return to writing about twentieth-century poetry, but in the process of researching the origins of celebrity culture, I became interested in the use of celebrities in political campaigns. Whitman looked upon celebrity as a fundamentally political identity. Riches, glamour, the company of notables and stars, these things did not interest him. The seemingly democratic potential of fame did.
My current project is a history of political celebrity in the television age. The book describes the rise of celebrity politics during Eisenhower’s presidency and works its way through to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Total Recall” gubernatorial campaign. The project may sound like a departure from literary studies, but my discussion incorporates material from a number of writers and directors including Henry James, Elia Kazan, Robert Coover, and Anna Deavere Smith. My interest in political culture has led me to write about Barack Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father and the captivity narrative of John McCain.
One of my favorite courses to teach is “Approaches to Literature,” TCNJ’s gateway course for English majors. My course on “The Art of Politics” welcomes students from across the college and combines literature, film, art, and theater in exploring the relations between creative expression and statecraft. I regularly teach courses in the literary history of the United States, especially the 1800-1865 period.
I am especially proud of the wonderful work students have produced in my seminars, “Literary Theory and the Long Poem” and “Whitman and the Nineteenth Century.” Two of these students won New Jersey Project prizes for excellence in feminist scholarship; two others had their essays published in TCNJ’s Journal of Student Scholarship.
In doing research for a seminar paper, Nicole Kukawski ‘06 discovered a previously unknown interview with Whitman that the college newspaper, The Signal, had published in 1888. News of Nicole’s discovery went all over the world and resulted in her publishing several essays about the find, including one in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.
The topic of my seminar in the spring 2010 will be “Literature and Publicity,” and I am eager to see what this new crop of students will accomplish. The course will include some old standbys like Shakespeare, Dreiser, and Dickinson, but it will also feature works by contemporary writers such as Colson Whitehead, Elizabeth Searle, and George Saunders. Our central question will be how publicity complicates traditional notions of selfhood, authorship, and textuality.
One of the greatest pleasures of my career has been teaching the work of Herman Melville to so many different students: among them, TCNJ first years, Air Force cadets, prep school juniors, executives in an MBA program, and, under the auspices of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, New Jersey high school teachers.
I have yet to write about Melville, but I know that, like one grand hooded phantom, that project is out there, a snow hill looming in the air.