Stories We Sell: Crafting Public Persona from Walt Whitman to Billie Eilish


November 1, 2019January 1, 2020

Location: The Duke Campus Club Exhibit Wall

Even 200 years after his death, echoes of Walt Whitman’s (1819–1892) poetry continue to emerge everywhere from high school English classrooms to Lana Del Ray albums. The self-proclaimed “Bard of Democracy,” Whitman is an American celebrity that possesses substantial clout in the literary canon and popular culture—but is this position deserved, or is it just a result of his own entrepreneurial self-promotion? A closer look at the poet’s letters, notes, and publications complicates the image of Whitman as an everyman transcribing his ruminations. Whitman carefully constructed a public persona, leaving his readers unaware of his innovations and ventures beyond the pages of Leaves of Grass. Formulaic poetry, ambitious publishing efforts, and a sphere of professional collaborators reveal Whitman’s celebrity to be an intricate business venture with a fabricated caricature at the center. 

Today, the idea of celebrity continues to be complicated, and often vague, within society: what is genuine and what is constructed; what is self and what is character; what do we consider “high art” and why? The methods of self-promotion that Whitman employed in the nineteenth-century have extended into modern popular culture. Isolating the themes of personal brand, critical acclaim, politics, and gender & sexuality, the exhibit illuminates some of the foundational components of celebrity. By selecting celebrities revered for their cultural impact and perceived authenticity, the project reveals that Whitman’s entrepreneurship is not unique. Instead, the recurring appearance of the themes highlighted above suggests a larger cultural phenomenon present in many artistic titans both in the past and today.