You have a technology assignment at the start of the week to familiarize yourself with our interface in Canvas for office hours, which allows audio, video, or text chat. Based on polling data, OH for this week will be as follows:
Wednesday, 5/30, 8:00-9:00 p.m.
Friday, 6/1, 4:00-5:00 p.m.
Reading through Walt Whitman’s life story, and figuring out how his worldview came to be, made me think of the 1975 Marvin Hamlisch musical, A Chorus Line. Specifically, it made me think of how the aspiring backup dancers that made up the bulk of the cast saw the audition they were taking part in.
According to his online biography, “some of the unhappiest times of [Whitman’s] life were [during the] five years… he taught school in at least ten different… towns” throughout Long Island. Whitman “was forced to take [the job during] bad economic times,” following the Panic of 1837, and the years-long recession that stemmed from it. This resulted in Walt “getting very little pay” for lecturing groups of approximately “eighty students, ranging in age from five to fifteen, for up to nine hours a day.”
In a letter he wrote in 1840, he summed up his years behind the desk like so:
“Never before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfection of man’s nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here… Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and [dullness] are the reigning gods of this deuced sink of despair.”
Compare this to the dancers featured in A Chorus Line. The show’s opening number, “I Hope I Get It,” contains lyrics that mirror the sense of dread and melancholy that Whitman had at the time:
“Who am I, anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don’t know. What does he want from me? What should I try to be? So many faces all around, and here we go… I need this job! Oh, God, I need this show!”
Whitman responded to the source of his mental anguish, a “very unenlightened” Long Island populace, by calling on his own memories of “rudimentary formal schooling.” His “[refusal] to punish [misbehaving students] by paddling” them, a common punishment teachers gave students even when Walt was a kid, was one of many facets of how Whitman taught students. He also took a more direct approach to helping students learn new lessons. This approach ranged from using “educational games” instead of a list of facts to allow students to learn through interactivity, to outright “joining his students in baseball and card games” during recess.
I read the second number of the musical, “And…,” as mirroring the formation of Whitman’s subsequent teaching and, later, writing style. During this, the dancers ask themselves what to tell the casting director when called on for their solo interview with him, the results of which are peppered throughout the remainder of the show. Ultimately, like Whitman himself, the dancers decide to place realism over romanticism, and let each other in on their respective reasons for wanting a job in the titular chorus line. By doing this, the dancers cast their vulnerabilities aside, and allow themselves to become more human through their experiences, not as dancers, but as people. Even if they don’t get the job they hope for, they will still have succeeded in becoming more than what first impressions imply they are.
What other stories can be seen as a mirror of Whitman’s development as a poet?