August 19, 2016
Walt Whitman on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: it happened
by Melville House
For those who don’t remember, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman was a CBS drama series that aired throughout the mid-nineties, focusing on the life and exploits of a young Boston physician who in the middle of the nineteenth century moves to the old west to practice medicine.
This may or not be a great idea for a TV show, but it was pretty popular for a while. And one particular episode — the twenty-first episode of the show’s fifth season, to be exact — is of particular interest here, as it portrays a visit to Colorado Springs of defining American poet (and Melville House author) Walt Whitman. It is (of course) called I Sing the Body Electric. It is funny. If you have forty-five minutes or so, you should go ahead and watch it. Here’s some representative dialogue:
WW: Like you, doctor, I’ve looked death in the face. [Whistful Walt Whitman gaze into deep space.] So many young men… So much waste… We’re old friends, death and I.
DQMW: Friends? As a doctor, I’ve always viewed death as the enemy.
WW: Oh well, guess there’s no point in dying now — with a whole week of free room and board!
DQMW: I’ve been reading about experimental treatments for damaged nerves, using electrical current.
WW: Tried that! Tried it all. Electrical therapy, hydropathy, phrenology—what is that?
DQMW: Hot pepper ointment.
WW: That I have not tried!
DQMW: Well, we use it to warm and stimulate the affected parts of the body.
WW: [Thousand-yard morose Walt Whitman stare.]
DQMW: A positive attitude is very important for recovery. You celebrate life with such eloquence in your work! “I sing the body electric.”
WW: You know my work?
DQMW: Oh, yes! But now as a married woman I can… appreciate it more fully.
WW: [Knowing Walt Whitman chortle.] Never married, myself. I’ve known love, though. Yes indeed, I’ve known love.
The historical Whitman did much more than “try” phrenology, and swore by the health benefits of bare-knuckled boxing. Which is to say that while this episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman may indeed qualify as a “very special one,” and is a good deal of fun to watch, it probably teaches us more about Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman than it does about Walt Whitman. That’s ok:
In the spirit of yesterday’s post on songs addressing books and writers, we might include a few Whitmaniacal tracks here, too. For one thing, there’s John Zorn’s 2014 album On Leaves of Grass, a suite of nine compositions inspired by Whitman:
Composer John Adams has also set some of Whitman’s poetry to music for his piece The Wound-Dresser:
German composer Paul Hindemith set some of Whitman’s poetry to music for his 1946 composition When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A requiem for those we loved. Here’s a recording of the second movement, sung by baritone George London, and conducted by Hindemith himself:
And Woody Guthrie wrote a wonderful set of lyrics called Walt Whitman’s Niece, eventually set to music by Billy Bragg and recorded by Bragg and Wilco for their album Mermaid Avenue: