Spotlight Iowa City: Twined with the chant of his soul

BY BEN EVANS | OCTOBER 15, 2009 7:20 AM

Brenna Norman/The Daily Iowan
American literature Professor Ed Folsom stands in the office of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review in the English-Philosophy Building on Tuesday. Folsom has worked hard to establish and maintain the magazine.

Ed Folsom

• Age: 61
• Education: Went to Ohio Wesleyan University, where he met his wife during their sophomore year
• Unique quality: One of the first characteristics Folsom’s wife noticed about him was his distinct speaking voice
• Personality: Folsom is very gregarious with a tremendous sense of humor
• Family: Folsom has a son named Ben, who went to the UI law school
• Career: Folsom has taught for 33 years at the UI

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The first time Ed Folsom made a true connection with Walt Whitman was the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

He remembers it vividly. His usually punctual English teacher arrived 20 minutes late to class, signaling something was wrong.

Folsom, now a UI English professor, remembers the teacher silently entering the room and opening a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in front of the class. The poem he read was “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” and it was so fitting that it has stayed with Folsom.

This profound experience encouraged Folsom to become a professor and inspired him to spend the rest of his life with Whitman.

“I got into this profession because I remember being in classrooms where professors were passionate about what they were doing,” the 61-year-old said.

In 1976, Folsom came to teach at the UI, starting with American Literature. He began to notice that every modern and contemporary poet he taught was somehow responding to Whitman’s views on America.

“It seemed to be a rite of passage for American poets,” Folsom said. “They would have to encounter Whitman and either accept or reject him.”

Since that realization, Folsom has edited more than 30 books on Whitman, and he currently edits the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. But it is the Walt Whitman Archive, which he codirects, that takes up most of his time.

The archive is a collaborative electronic database that has thousands of pieces of Whitman’s writing and criticisms.

“The Whitman Archive has the greatest promise for carrying on the scholarship I do on Whitman out into the general public,” Folsom said. “We now realize that we will be handing the archive off to people when we retire because there is no reason to ever close it down, to ever say we’re done.”

Colleague and UI English Professor Dee Morris appreciates Folsom’s intense dedication.

“He excels at every single sector of a professor’s life,” she said. “He is a wonderful, inspiring teacher, a generous graduate mentor, and one of the preeminent Whitman scholars in the world.”

Folsom mentored her when she became the chairwoman of Graduate Studies at the UI, Morris said.

“He is very forthright and enthusiastic but also very realistic,” she said. “He has this astute sense of the University of Iowa’s strengths and also its weaknesses.”

Pat Folsom, Folsom’s wife and the director of the UI Academic Advising Center, said Ed Folsom’s enthusiasm stretches past his work.

“He is passionate about everything,” she said. “He is passionate about going new places, seeing new things. He excites that same passion in other people for whatever he is talking about.”

But still, she said, his work is a major part of who he is.

“It is fantastic and groundbreaking, cutting-edge work, in the use of technology in humanities and how he makes Whitman available worldwide,” she said.

Through his work, Ed Folsom is trying to make a difference.

“It’s one way for the humanities to be brought back into the public view and actually begin to do some good social and critical work out into the public,” he said.

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