Summer Centered: Peter Kurtz ’19 Spends His Summer Immersed in "Leaves of Grass"
This summer, the comparative literature major is studying Walt Whitman for an independent research project funded by the Hurford Center.
Thanks to support from the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, comparative literature major and Italian minor Peter Kurtz’ 19 is being funded to do what he loves on a daily basis: read.
More specifically, he’s be making his way through Walt Whitman’s poem “The Sleepers” and Whitman’s essay “Democratic Vistas” over the course of the summer, as well as a boatload of criticism on both. His end goal? A paper on the intellectual theory behind Whitman’s writing. Though there’s a possibility that it’ll become the foundation for a portion of his thesis, it’s just a passion project for now.
"Right now I spend the day trying to complete a certain page count and underlining and pulling insightful pieces of argumentation that spur my interest, confuse me, or seem related to my project,” Kurtz says. “Once I’m a little more settled, though, I'm going to go to the University of Pennsylania’s Whitman archive and explore some things listed on their website and some unlisted texts their library director hinted at in an email.”
Though there is a lot of work ahead of him, he’s nonetheless excited to explore a body of work about which he’s always been passionate.
"Ever since I was introduced to Whitman last fall, I’ve really taken to enjoying his poetry,” Kurtz says. “He is also a remarkable figure to study; his political writings are emotional, eclectic, and inconsistent, and he constantly changed his poetry.”
Kurtz chose to focus on “The Sleepers,” one of the poems included in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, because the contradictory ideology it espouses fascinates him.
"Like other poetry from the first collection, it’s representative of Whitman’s celebration of democracy and America, imagined through the dreaming minds of a narrator and several rapidly coming-and-going characters,” Kurtz says. “However, it also represents the dilemmas facing Whitman’s ideas and writing. He insists on the ideological dream of democracy, despite the fact that wealth inequality, the existence of slavery, the violence of expansion, and the lack of a universal right to vote, among other things, were and are woven into the social fabric of the nation.”
In reading “Democratic Vistas,” a “postbellum [piece] by Whitman on the state of democracy during Reconstruction,” Kurtz hopes to gain more insight into the intellectual impetus behind “The Sleepers.”
"‘Democratic Vistas’ reflects heavily on the issues I’m concerned about regarding 'The Sleepers’, but is divorced from Whitman’s poetic voice and instead is an example of Whitman as a public, national figure, “Kurtz says. “The hope here for me is that [a critical reading of] “Democratic Vistas” [will, in turn, enable me to] examine 'The Sleepers' and its currents with an informed critical eye, one that is conscious of Whitman as a proponent of American ideology, and therefore one that can admire how his poetry subverts these ideas even as it encourages them.”
Thesis-wise, Kurtz knows that he wants to do something related to the Civil War, but he hasn’t gotten far enough into his research to have any ideas more concrete than that. For him, though, this project is truly about the journey—and not the destination. "I would like to know America through the eyes of the critics and theorists I’m reading,” he says, “and, moreover, through the eyes of the writers of the American Renaissance.”
"Summer Centered” is a series exploring our students’ Center-funded summer work.