It’s the last opportunity to wish a happy centennial-related birthday to two important New Jersey cultural innovators.
Poet Walt Whitman turned 200 on May 31.
Born in Long Island and living and working for newspapers in Brooklyn, then later working in Washington, D.C., Whitman found his only home in Camden.
And it was there he became the voice of America, one that had emerged to pull together a nation divided by a Civil War and to sing about fraternity, life, the body, and shared human passions and cares.
Critic Karen Shallow Prior’s 2015 Atlantic magazine essay provides a good summation of the poet, calling him “America’s first democratic poet.”
She notes that “the free verse he adopts in his work reflects a newly naturalized and accessible poetic language. His overarching themes — the individual, the nation, the body, the soul, and everyday life and work — mirror the primary values of America’s founding. Then and now, his poetry is for everyone.”
When he wrote in 1855 his monumental work “Song of Myself” that “I celebrate myself, and sing myself/And what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he began a work that encouraged others to become whole.
He did so by challenging readers to give up empty virtues and practiced hierarchies and to embrace the word with all its sweat and scent, and becoming “undisguised and naked.”
As pointed out by various scholars, when Whitman launched his poetry career with his ever-growing “Leaves of Grass,” the image of himself that greeted readers was more of a dock worker than a refined writer, although he had already been a teacher and a newspaper editor and journalist.
And rather than present his proverbial better or spiritual angels he decided that “Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean/Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.”
Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The American Scholar,” which called for Americans to test old ideas and traditions, observe nature, and to work to explore the world anew, Whitman said he was brought “to a boil.”
And soon his lyrical embrace of the human body became a poetic shot heard round the world. And if it didn’t create a singing America, as he hoped in the poem “I Hear America Singing,” it set free voices to sing of human freedoms.
Examples abound: Influential American poet Ezra Pound, imaginatively speaking to Whitman in a poem, said, “It was you that broke the new wood/Now is a time for carving,” and encouraged using Whitman’s fresh natural voice in modern poetry.
New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams, influenced by Pound, also explored the natural sound and common citizens of the state. Langston Hughes, the self-professed “darker brother” of Whitman, joined in and noted “I, too, sing America.” And Allen Ginsberg, who connected with Whitman’s writing and homoerotic themes, called them “candid models for my own verse to this day.”
And despite various critics who found discrepancies regarding his depiction of American women and citizens of African descent, Whitman’s poetic rejoinder was, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Whitman’s connection to the Garden State was unplanned. “Camden was originally an accident,” he wrote. He came to visit his brother and ailing mother in 1873. After his mother died and his brother moved, the poet stayed, saying “I shall never be sorry I was left over in Camden. It has brought me blessed returns.”
It also brought him visits from writers Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Bram Stoker and a friend of prominent Philadelphia-based American artist Thomas Eakins.
His home with many of his personal belongings is now a National Historic Landmark under the care and operation of the New Jersey State Department of Parks and Forests and open to the public.
Television innovator and comedian Ernie Kovacs commemorated his 100th birthday on January 23.
The Trenton-born Kovacs was the son of a police officer whose “beverage business” during prohibition provided the family with some initial comfort, including the opportunity to send Kovacs to a private school where he was introduced to theater.
Caught up with the changes of his family’s fortunes and his own interests, Kovacs moved from a gifted student to a failing high school student — but one with a baritone voice that allowed him to participate in operettas and school plays and eventually led him to a scholarship to perform in a summer stock program on Long Island.
While an American Academy of Dramatic Arts scholarship followed, he was unable to finish it due to poor health and after being in a welfare hospital in New York City ended up back in Trenton.
There he worked with the local Contemporary Players and landed a job as an announcer for WTTM radio in Trenton. It was there that he began to employ off-beat comic bits and became the host of the “Talk of the Town” interview show.
Meanwhile, off-mic, he wrote a weekly news column for the Trentonian newspaper, announced at sports events, acted, got married, and learned to play poker — a lifelong passion that helped end his first marriage.
Gaining a reputation in the region he was eventually hired by a small NBC television affiliate in Philadelphia, WPTZ-TV, where he hosted several different shows —using each to introduce his off-beat brand of comedy — singing popular songs in foreign languages and creating characters — like the dandy poet Percy Dovetonsils.
When a scheduling dispute took him off the air in Philadelphia, Kovacs was hired by CBS in New York and continued with a show that eventually became the nationally acclaimed “Ernie Kovacs Show.”
So what exactly did he bring to television?
Here’s a comment from Salon Magazine that helps. “Kovacs’ art was more original, personal, and bizarre than anything else being done in the early days of television. At a time when the medium was still figuring out what it was — and modeling itself alternately on radio, cinema, legit theater, and vaudeville — the Trenton native decided to wing it and see what happened. He treated the TV studio as a playground and the camera as his playmate. At the heart of everything he did was a simple realization: the television camera is not a recording device, but an expressive tool — a machine that transforms the real into the virtual, and makes even the weirdest flights of fancy seem natural.”
Elsewhere the article says, “Kovacs often worked pre-recorded or partly pre-recorded bits into his broadcasts that showcased elaborately choreographed live performances, puppetry, mime, animation, shadowplay, or painting-with-light. Some bits were synced to music so precisely that certain pop historians consider Kovacs the father of the music video.”
Although he died in an accident in 1961, during his brief television career Kovacs expanded the frontier of potentials for television programming and left a legacy of influence on the creators of programs ranging from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” to the “Late Show with David Letterman,” and beyond.
While his film career was short and he hadn’t gotten the opportunity to start experimenting with that medium, some of his best work still survives on DVD and even on YouTube and is worth a peek.
And it is also worth remembering how a couple of people in New Jersey changed the way the world thinks.