How Walt Whitman is Hidden Throughout Media Culture

Walt Whitman is one of the world’s most famous American poets. Read on to discover how he is constantly being referenced in pop culture.

Book Culture Classics Pop Culture TV & Movies
A blue marbled background with a picture of Walt Whitman in the center. In the four corners of the image there are images of the Hamilton logo (a gold/yellow poster with a black star with a figure standing on top of it), the cover of "Paper Towns", a stylized green floral cover of "Little Women", and the "Doctor Who" logo.

You’ve probably heard of Walt Whitman at some point in your life, whether at school, in pop culture, or even in casual conversation (if your friends are nerds). Whitman was an enormously influential poet, gaining recognition mainly for his poem O Captain! My Captain! and his collection Leaves of Grass.

Walt Whitman is clearly a figure the public won’t forget anytime soon and let’s face it, that’s probably because of the amount of references he gets in popular media. Sure every English major studies him in college at some point, but we also study other authors and scholars that other majors wouldn’t have even heard of (Walter Benjamin, anyone?). Walt Whitman, like other poets and authors such as James Joyce, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, gets worldwide recognition because of his pervasiveness in media.

A green novel with a gold imprint of wheat and the words "Leaves of Grass" and "Walt Whitman".
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As we all know, TV shows, movies, and books are a great way to provide information and/or popularize a subject or product. For example, shawarma got super popular after the 2012’s The Avengers and Reece’s Pieces saw a huge rise in sales after E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Walt Whitman’s continued references in pop culture cause his legacy to live on long after he created his last poem. Here are some examples of popular media that you probably didn’t know has mentioned Walt Whitman at least once.

Films

Dead Poets Society dir. Peter Weir

Ten male students sit at their desks, backs to the camera, looking at the teacher, played by Robin Williams. Williams's character is standing on a desk at the front of the classroom, leaning over slightly.
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Starting off with the most obvious one, Dead Poets Society is constantly referencing (you guessed it) dead poets. The most famous scene in the movie comes from Robin Williams’s character reciting the famous Whitman poem O Captain! My Captain! in front of the kids. I won’t spoil the movie, but this poem comes up a couple of other times too. It’s now forever tied to Robin Williams, especially after his death, with people using it as a tribute to him. That’s gotta bring tears to your eyes, even if the movie didn’t.

Bull Durham dir. Ron Shelton

A woman with curly red hair sits on a sink counter in a kitchen, mid laugh. A man sits on the table next to her, wearing what looks like a blue satin floral robe. He is holding a bowl cereal and smiling. The woman is played by Susan Sarandon and the man is played by Kevin Costner.
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This sporty rom-com, starring Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins, and Susan Sarandon, references Whitman by saying he “sort of pitches for the Cosmic All-Stars”. I’ll let you all decide if that’s cringy or not. This reference comes when Sarandon’s character tells Tim Robbins’s character that she reads poetry to men before she sleeps with them because that’s the only time they’ll listen to it. Interesting.

Little Women dir. Gillian Armstrong

The characters Jo (played by Winona Ryder) and Friedrich (played by Gabriel Byrne) standing close together. Friedrich is holding a newspaper and Jo is pointing to it, smiling, mid-sentence.
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In the 1994 film version of the popular novel, Jo and Friedrich quote Whitman’s poem Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun, which makes total sense for their characters. Jo is well versed in all things writing and literature, her one passion. Friedrich is a professor, so of course that’s what they’re going to bond over. This movie also stars Susan Sarandon … coincidence? Probably.

Literature

The Gods of Manhattan by Scott Mebus

A book cover depicting trees on the left, and several city buildings on the right. In the middle is what looks like an ornate frame around a section of blue brick wall, that says "Gods of Manhattan". The author, Scott Mebus, is written at the top.
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This cool children’s series includes lore that says that many poets and historical figures, including Walt Whitman, were upgraded to gods when they died. How awesome is that? If that isn’t a motivation to become famous, I don’t know what is.

Lost Legacy by Robert A. Heinlein

A book cover that is blue, with Greek-like figures on the left with their arms stretched out to the sides, seemingly reaching for something. The background has a Greek building in front of a mountain, with a hologram of a bald man's head against a blue sky.
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This novella is pretty insane. Part of a collection, the author of Stranger in a Strange Land writes of a secret society of people who live under Mount Shasta, which once again includes a variety of historical figures, including Walt Whitman. Whitman and the others teach the protagonists all kinds of lessons and help them fight against an oppressive system that hates promoting education. Oh, and this society? Yeah, they’ve all got psychic superpowers. This novella and The Gods of Manhattan really say something about the public opinion of Walt Whitman, don’t they?

Paper Towns by John Green

A book cover centering on a large red thumbtack stuck into a close-up of a map, displaying the title of the novel as a place on the map: "Paper Towns". "John Green" is written at the top.
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If you haven’t read a John Green novel by now, what are you doing? This novel is a classic, involving a missing girl, a mysterious set of clues, and of course, a whole lot of unrequited love. The main female character Margot seems to have gone missing, leaving clues for the male protagonist to find her. One of the clues Margot has left for Q is from the Walt Whitman poem Song of Myself. Does this clue help him find her? Well, you’ll just have to read the book and find out.

TV Shows and Musicals

Breaking Bad

Two men sit relaxed on a couch with their feet up on a coffee table. They both hold beers. They are dressed in yellow hazmat suits with gas masks sitting on the tops of their heads, pulled off their faces.
IMAGE VIA AMC

This isn’t the kind of show you’d expect to reference a famous poet, but characters actually bond over him. In a season three episode, Walter White and Gale Boetticher form a connection over Walt Whitman (and meth, of course). Whitman is a poet that is consistently talked about and used to connect characters like these, due to his famous works and pervasive influence in the public mind.

Doctor Who

A short brunette woman looking up at a taller grey-haired man standing in front of a blue police box.
IMAGE VIA BBC

During the episode Deep Breath the 12th Doctor references Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! several times, and also continues to reference this line throughout his run. He often says “O Clara! My Clara!” as an endearing phrase which is super cute. If you haven’t seen the 12th Doctor and Clara interact, he’s not usually “sweet” or “endearing”, which just goes to show the influence Walt Whitman and his poetry must have.

Hamilton

Lin Manuel Miranda, dressed as Hamilton in a blue overcoat with a tan vest and a white ruffled shirt, looks off into the distance while holding Phillipa Soo's hand and using the other hand to gesture vaguely outward. Phillipa Soo is dressed as Eliza Hamilton, wearing a blue dress with white ruffles on a low-cut collar. They are onstage for the recorded Disney+ production of Hamilton.
IMAGE VIA DISNEY+

Unsurprisingly, this popular American play references a popular American poet, although it might not be immediately obvious. The line “America sings for you” in the play seems to be a direct reference to Walt Whitman’s poem I Hear America Singing. Then again, it could be a coincidence, but would Lin Manuel Miranda ever do anything on accident?

Robin Williams, playing teacher John Keating, is kneeling at the front of a classroom looking off-screen while students at desks behind him look in the same place.
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The sheer mass of media that references Walt Whitman just goes to show that while he may not be around anymore, his work always will be. To be honest, the first place I heard about O Captain! My Captain! was from Doctor Who, and the first place I actually read a quote from him was in Paper Towns. Not only does this stuff show the audience how important and popular Whitman is, it actually can be educational. Although, going into a middle school English class having to say you know who Walt Whitman is because of the critically acclaimed science fiction television show Doctor Who was kind of embarrassing, so maybe you should just go read some of his stuff (spoiler alert: it’s really, really good).


Interested in learning more about Walt Whitman? Check out our article about how he pushed the boundaries of conventional poetry.

For more gorgeous poetry, check out our bookshelf.

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