Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Still Popular After All These Years: Walt Whitman, Levi's, and Sleeves of Grass

Poetry & Popular Culture correspondent and Walt Whitman geek Eric Conrad sounds his own barbaric yip this second week of July with some ruminations on the Good Gray Poet's recent association with the likes of Levi's Jeans and $59 t-shirts. Spending for vast returns? Waiting somewhere at a cash register for you? Conrad takes us there with his up-to-the-minute "clothes reading" of W.W. in the 2009 marketplace.

For all those Walt Whitman-geeks out there—whose annual patriotic picnics lost their luster when the symbolic 4th of July, 1855, release of Leaves of Grass proved to be a myth—there is finally some good news. Thanks to Levi’s jeans and the marketing minds of Wieden+Kennedy Portland, Whitman finally yawped his way into our pants this Independence Day after over a hundred and fifty years of trying.

Wondering how you’ll fit that Kosmos in your dungarees? Two TV and cinema spots at the core of Levi’s new “Go Forth” campaign hope to assuage the inevitable doubts. The first ad, entitled “America” (directed by Cary Fukunaga of Sin Nombre fame), appeared on the 4th and featured black and white images of San Francisco and New Orleans set to a wax cylinder recording of Whitman reading from his late poem “America.” (Scroll down here to view that ad.) Levi’s forthcoming complement to Fukunaga’s commercial is M Blash’s colorful spot “O Pioneer!” (due to hit screens July 24th) which incorporates a Smithsonian Folkways recording of Will Geer (yes, the guy from The Waltons) reading a few stanzas of Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”

Though very sexy and very sleek, these ads trade on Whitman’s bardic brand name in the obvious ways. Both “America” and “O Pioneer!” ask Generation-O to equate their fastidiously faded denim with a poet who recognized “the potential for greatness that lies in each of us.” Surprise, surprise: the spots due their best to contain the Whitmanian multitudes—Fukunaga by playing with light and shadow in a post-Katrina landscape and M Blash by embracing the homoerotic undertones of America’s “youthful sinewy races.” Though props go out to any ad that might counter Prop-8, in terms of Levi’s branding itself via Whitman (even in terms of Whitman and clothing), the “Go Forth” campaign is more hype than innovation.

While the marketing machine at Levi’s has bloggers abuzz, it might come as a surprise that some boutique clothing designers in New York’s Bowery section beat the jeanswear giant to the punch with their own line of Whitman- inspired fashion. You’ll remember that when Whitman appears arms akimbo, shirt unbuttoned, and hat defiantly cocked to the side in the 1855 Leaves of Grass frontispiece (pictured here), he brands himself with a Bowery Boy-image that precedes even his name as author of that strange volume. So perhaps it’s fitting that in 2009 (well before the launch of Levi’s much touted “Go Forth” campaign) a new generation of New York’s Bowery Boys returned the favor by branding themselves through Whitman’s image. These designers at NYC’s Barking Irons are calling their latest collection—wait for it—“Out of the Cradle.”

Visit Barking Iron’s website and you’re immersed in a Bowery bravado reminiscent of Whitman’s 1855 preface. (Barking Iron boasts, for example, of their “buttery soft vintage- quality garments” distinguished by “an authentically American style that is both steeped in forgotten traditions … and brazenly anew!”) It is easy to see why the company's founders, brothers Daniel and Michael Casarella, turned to Whitman as the face of their own “gritty, unpretentious styling.” The Casarellas look to corner a market with their hipster-chic threads. And though their shirts blur the lines between dandy and rough as W.W. did, at $59 a-pop, “Out of the Cradle” tees (for “Gents” only, mind you) are still best tailored not for Whitman’s masses but for wallets packed with hopeful green stuff swollen.

Eric Conrad is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Iowa where he works part-time for the Walt Whitman Archive.