Prof. Ed Folsom (University of Iowa, USA)

"Walt Whitman and American Culture" (October 2022)

For the first part of this Blockseminar, we will be joined by Ed Folsom (University of Iowa) as a guest professor, one of the world’s most renowned Whitman scholars and most outstanding teachers. Ed Folsom will also be present for a screening of the award-winning PBS documentary on Whitman, which is part of the preparatory “readings” for this seminar. Moreover, he will give a public guest lecture that students in this seminar should attend: Whitman Left to His Own Devices."

In this course, we will read the work of one of America’s most innovative and influential poets, focusing on the ways in which his work responded to major developments in nineteenth-century American culture. Walt Whitman (1819-1892) sought to forge a living connection between a new kind of poetry and the massive changes he witnessed in the US as an evolving, conflict-ridden democracy. And indeed, throughout the various editions of Leaves of Grass (1855-92), his free-flowing lines, powerful imagery, and wide range of social, political, and sexual concerns challenged conventional notions of poetry more radically, and talked about American culture more openly and inclusively, than any other nineteenth-century poet.

In our seminar, we will begin with the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. What was so revolutionary about this slim book of 12 poems? Who is its author, does it contain poetry at all, what does its unusual format suggest? We will move on to discuss how some of Whitman’s most iconic poems think about key events and dynamics of his time, including race, slavery, and the Civil War, changing notions of gender and sexuality, the natural sciences and beginning environmentalism, and the fate of democracy. Throughout, we will link Whitman – who always hoped to be read across space and time – to our own cultural moment, considering the resonances of his vision for the 21st century.

You need to buy a critical edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, ideally this one:

Whitman, Walt. Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982 [or later editions].

(Alternatively, Leaves of Grass and other Writings, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Michael Moon, 2002; or the older but excellent Leaves of Grass, A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Sculley Bradley and Harold Blodgett, will also work well.)

The Guest Professor

Ed Folsom’s teaching and research have centered on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American poetry and culture. He has been particularly interested in the ways American poets have talked back to Walt Whitman over the years, and how Whitman tapped into American culture in surprising ways to construct a radical new kind of writing. He has written, edited, or co-edited a number of books on Whitman, including Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song (Choice “Outstanding Academic Book,” Independent Publisher Book Award for Poetry), Walt Whitman's Native Representations (Choice “Outstanding Academic Book”), Walt Whitman and the World, Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays, Whitman East and West, Whitman Making Books / Books Making Whitman, Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Essays, Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas: The Original Edition, Re-Scripting Walt Whitman (co-authored with Kenneth M. Price), and Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, with a Complete Commentary (co-authored with Christopher Merrill). 

Ed Folsom has directed or co-directed a number of the major national and international Whitman conferences of the past few decades, including a symposium on Whitman in Translation, the 1992 Walt Whitman Centennial Conference, a 2000 conference on Whitman in Beijing, China, and a 2005 symposium at Iowa on Whitman as a bookmaker. In 2005, the sesquicentennial of the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, he gave the keynote talks at four national and international Whitman conferences. In 2011, he organized a symposium of ten Whitman scholar/translators from around the world. He helped organize and has frequently taught the Transatlantic Whitman Seminar, held each summer in a different international location.

Ed Folsom has also written about twentieth-century American poets like William Carlos Williams, W.S. Merwin, and Gary Snyder, as well as other nineteenth-century writers like Frederick Douglass and Emily Dickinson. He has been a leader in the development of Digital Humanities, co-editing a CD-ROM archive of Whitman's work, co-directing the online Walt Whitman Archive, preparing the Whitman bibliography for Oxford Bibliographies Online, and in 2014 teaming up with Christopher Merrill to teach “Every Atom: Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself,’” Iowa’s first MOOC, and in 2016 working with Merrill again to teach a MOOC on “Whitman’s Civil War.”

Winner of Iowa’s Collegiate Teaching Award, the Graduate College Outstanding Mentor Award, the university’s President and Provost’s Teaching Award, and the Regents’ Award for Faculty Excellence, Ed Folsom teaches courses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, including a survey of American poetry, and doctoral seminars on Whitman, Dickinson, and the history of American poetry.  He edits the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and the Whitman Series for the University of Iowa Press. (Homepage)