Listen America Essay - Critical Context

Critical Context

The dedication in this book celebrates an individual’s contributions to democracy. The book itself seems concerned with the relationship between poetry, the arts in general, and democracy. Whitman was preoccupied with the advantages of this form of government and believed that, in democracy, a poet would be given an opportunity to speak for the people as a citizen and as an individual. The authors seem to agree.

The book opens the issue of poetry and public reception, a timeless issue, and extends it with the invocation of names that are contemporary with the publication of this book: Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and Allen Ginsberg. Readers are asked to consider issues and events in Whitman’s life—such as his reception by the public and his comparison to “accepted” writers of the day such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant—and to apply them to the time in which they are reading.

The relationships between poetry, democracy, and public reception force this book beyond Whitman as subject and into the larger implications of art and individual artistic freedom and expression. Readers are introduced to these issues through the seemingly safe medium of historical biography, but they are given an opportunity to consider censorship, ignorance, moral defensiveness, and narrow-mindedness in their own time. Listen America succeeds as more than a biography; through dealing with Whitman and his timeless poetic concerns, Stoutenburg and Baker themselves deal with timeless artistic and democratic issues.