In this essay, I look closely at the character Chris Stevens (John Corbett), Cicely, Alaska’s bad boy turned poet laureate, in a few significant episodes of CBS’s early nineties series Northern Exposure. Focusing in part on his status as an ex-convict who can’t vote, I analyze his role as the town’s poetic and ethical conscience, as both inside and outside of the community and thus figuring as a stand-in for its moral and political antagonisms.
Considering both the literature and philosophy he reads on the air of the town’s radio station (which includes Whitman, Shakespeare, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard), and the town’s seemingly mundane version of electoral politics, I will argue that Chris’s precarious, liminal position in the community is also the source of his character’s (often quite obscure) insight into its social and cultural predicaments. Looking closely at Chris’s relationship with Whitman’s poetry, political thought, and his associated personality, as well as at episodes such as “Brains, Know-How, and Native Intelligence,” “Spring Break,” and “Democracy in America,” I finally draw some conclusions about the show’s significance for poetry and radical politics in contemporary America.
As Chris, Early in the Morning
When Chris Stevens, on his local soapbox “Chris in the Morning,” greets KBHR listeners with a dose of his beloved Whitman, he prefaces his reading with the story of his first encounter with the poet: his teenage self found his collected works in the “sitting room” of a house he was robbing after “pocketing a gold leaf pen and a silver humidor” (“Brains, Know-How, and Native Intelligence,” Season 1, Episode 2). Reading from the “book that changed [his] life,” Chris first regales the town with “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman’s long form elegy for Abraham Lincoln. While in juvenile detention, he then recalls, “rereading those poems that had opened up the artist in [him]”: "I was blindsided by the raging fist of my incarcerator, who informed me that Walt Whitman's homoerotic, unnatural, pornographic sentiments were unacceptable and would not be allowed in an institution dedicated to reforming the ill formed. That Whitman, that great bear of a man, enjoyed the pleasures of other men came as a great surprise to me, and made me reconsider the queers that I had previously kicked around."
Though the actual nature (or even existence) of Whitman’s homoerotic experiences is disputed by scholars, Chris’s impromptu musings are enough to spoil the fishing time of Maurice (Barry Corbin) - though the former pilot, prisoner of war, and astronaut has certainly spent plenty of time around those of his fellow sex, one might note. Storming into his station’s studio, he roughs Chris up and throws him out with the morning show still on the air.
When Maurice takes over as DJ, he changes the programming from poetry to showtunes, including songs from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate (the fact that Porter was himself gay is not noted by Maurice). And when Chris has Joel (Rob Morrow) over to look at this forehead, which took the brunt of Maurice’s anger, we find that Chris lives the free love lifestyle Maurice is so keen on repressing: a young woman (Mindy) is still over at his trailer from the night before. Perhaps even more tellingly, Joel learns of Chris’s habit of bathing in the lake instead of in his shower – his body, presumably, is on public display for any of Cicely’s residents not nearly as worried as Maurice is of catching a glimpse of the male nude. Finally, when Mayor Holling holds a town meeting on the matter of Chris’s firing from KBHR, Maurice is roundly booed by the townspeople, who are all sick of hearing showtunes. Though Maurice stands firm in his initial decision, Joel confirms his low aptitude for on air work as well as the consensus opinion about his stolid radio personality. Maurice reluctantly re-hires Chris.
Between Leaves of Grass and Democratic Vistas, Whitman’s poetry and writing established the very center of what Jason Frank calls “aesthetic democracy” – a commitment to a radical form of democracy somehow rooted in the American character and the art that both generates and follows from it. According to Frank in his essay “Aesthetic Democracy: Walt Whitman and the Poetry of the People,” the latter is the sine qua non of the former; it is Whitman’s poetry, his song of himself, which is also the song of "the people" envisioned as a “sublimely poetic, world-making power.” Importantly, this song needs to be drawn out – it is not inevitable. Therefore, the American democratic community does not precede its aesthetic counterpart, but is produced by it (or is at least completed with it). However, the poetry itself is not imposed from above, but is an instantiation, through the poetic voice of someone both inside and outside the community, of “the multitudinous diversity of the vox populi” given back to the people from this liminal position, “thereby enhancing their latent poetic capacity and aesthetically enabling a radical democratic politics of collective revision.”
We will examine later Chris’s relationship with electoral politics. Even in the series’ second episode, we’re confronted with an unlikely Whitman figure, a modern roughneck who greets Cicely in the morning and asks its people to be unafraid of the fellow human body. Whitman’s short poem “As Adam Early in the Morning” is significant here:
As Adam early in the morning,
Walking forth from the bower refresh’d with sleep,
Behold me where I pass, hear my voice, approach,
Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass,
Be not afraid of my body.
Whitman, as elsewhere, gives us a prophet-figure (or even a Christ-poet) that Chris can be seen to aspire to, a DJ “early in the morning.” Indeed, he comes to the airwaves bearing not just peace but a sword, beaten and thrown out of the temple by Maurice as his voice preaches the gospel of communal (and free) love. But more than that, Chris’s position as (literally) Cicely’s voice instantiates what Frank calls the process of “collective revision,” or a democratic politics grounded in a poetic “reconfiguration of the sensible,” the continual reflection upon and revision of political and cultural perception.
The revisionist aspect of Chris’s character fits along nicely with an American post-Romanticism embodied in “that great bear of a man,” as a self that “contain[s] multitudes,” ex-convict and poet, on the inside and the outside. One can hear his rhythmic radio voice in Whitman’s prosodic style (and, of course, vice versa) and in the union of form and content that is so masterful in the old, gray poet. Hear, if you can, Whitman on the institutional politics of Franklin Pierce’s administration in The Eighteenth Presidency!: "Office-holders, office-seekers, robbers, pimps, exclusives, malignants, conspirators, murderers, fancy-men, post-masters, custom-house clerks, contractors, kept-editors, spaniels well-trained to carry and fetch…pimpled men, scarred inside with vile disorder, gaudy outside with gold chains made from people’s money and harlot’s money twisted together; crawling, serpentine men, the lousy combings and born freedom sellers of the earth."
This rhetoric, perhaps, is the accidental forerunner to the local American radio personality. Whitman at his most Nietzschean, here is a diagnosis of societal ills and its sub-human (or not-yet-human, or were he actually Nietzsche, "too human") stand-ins. It is the beginning of a prophecy in the conditional mode: certainly the people cannot be adequately represented by these “pimpled men,” so they can exhaust the fallen socio-political institutions that callously sell their freedom. According to Frank, true democracy, and its counterpart in democratic poetry, accounts for the “constitutive futurity” of the people, “the fact that they remain forever a people that is not…yet.” Hence, in Chris Stevens, the intuition that the vox populi should not reflect fossilized communitarian mores (that is Maurice’s conservative voice) but should project new aesthetic and political possibilities for the community.
Though it is Chris’s position relative to the rest of the town that’s most strikingly foregrounded throughout the series, one should not discount the subtle force of his character in seeking to uncover the significance of these cultural "projects." A sometimes-frustrating combination of active and passive, perfectly sane and often less so, Chris views himself as someone who can bear great burdens for the moral-aesthetic development of the community. He can, in principle, “sing himself” in Whitmanian fashion: one can easily imagine Chris beginning his morning show with the opening lines from “Song of Myself”: “I celebrate myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” In “Spring Break” (Season 2, Episode 5), Chris previews the annual breaking of the ice, about to crack like the great Orphic egg from which the town’s multitudes spring. Later, when Ed (Darren E. Burrows) discovers that he is the one who has been stealing radios in town, Chris justifies his actions with recourse to “wildness”: "Wildness, Ed. We're running out of it, even up here in Alaska. People need to be reminded that the world is unsafe and unpredictable, and at a moment's notice, they could lose everything, like that. I do it to remind them that chaos is always out there, lurking beyond the horizon. That, plus, sometimes, Ed, sometimes you have to do something bad, just to know you're alive." As if to complete his sermon for the public gaze, Chris and his fellow male Cicelians undress and ring in the new season with the Running of the Bulls, streaking nude across the town streets.
Since, as Whitman notes, “Logic and sermons never convince,” Chris’s didactic voice extends out into the world, his body is put on display and his "wildness" is let loosed upon the Alaskan plain. The “horizon” Chris speaks of may be the limit of traditional convention, the “chaos” perhaps one of Whitman’s favored tropes, the Night, Death, (Mother) earth, or the (frozen) Sea. That is, Chris’s wildness is an embodiment of the unlimited within the bounds of stifling limit. Both his sermons and his body are sites of peaceful resistance, both within and without the community (marked by the label "ex-convict"), fundamentally anti-institutional. When Whitman hears “it was charged against [him] that [he] sought to destroy institutions,” he wrote, “I am neither for nor against institutions,/(What indeed have I in common with them? Or what with the destruction of them?).” Whitman’s project here is to establish “in the fields and the woods…Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument,/The institution of the dear love of comrades.” As appropriate to the focus of Northern Exposure, the final result of institutional transcendence, the bodily performance of Chris’s philosophy, is not a return to nature (a dive into the wild chaos), but a communion with "the people," an unabashed fraternal romp through the streets.
With the town’s mayoral election looming (and with Holling [John Cullum] finding himself opposed by an angry Edna Hancock [Rita Taggert]), Chris-in-the-Morning steps into his on-air role as the town’s political conscience (“Democracy in America,” Season 3, Episode 15). Looking out over Cicely, he claims to see “not a town, but a nation’s history written in miniature” inscribed in its “cracked pavement”: "Today, every runny nose I see says America to me. We were outcasts, scum, the wretched debris of a hostile, aging world. But we came here, we paved roads, we built industries, powerful institutions. Of course, along the way, we exterminated untold indigenous cultures and enslaved generations of Africans. We basically stained our star-spangled banner with a host of sins that can never be washed clean. But today, we're here to celebrate the glorious aspects of our past. A tribute to a nation of free people, the country that Whitman exalted."
Reading from the “Preface” to Leaves of Grass, he continues: “‘The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives and legislators, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors…but always must in the common people.’” Never so proud to be a Cicelian, he signs off with the promise to “go out now and fill [his] lungs with the deep clean air of democracy.”
Since no one has ever challenged Holling until now, the election will be Cicely’s first. While many of the town’s beloved characters prepare to play their part in the process (Joel and Maggie [Janine Turner] as officials in charge of overseeing the process, Ed as a first time voter), Chris, as a convicted felon, can’t actually vote (“I jumped parole in '87,” he tells Ed, “so they kind of closed the book on me”). Attending the mayoral debate, Chris uses his platform, this time as a questioner rather than a DJ, to expound upon his respect for the candidates: "Well, I just wanna applaud y'all for plunging headfirst into the great river of democracy. I mean, our election is just a small tributary. You know, a singular thread in the greater fabric, linked by tradition, love, and honor to the swift, clear, bracing waters from which our traditions are founded. But I'm just saying, let's take a little time out here to slap ourselves on the back, give a kiss on the cheek, a hale and hearty fare-thee-well to all our fine noble Cicelian citizens. Ruth-Anne, candidates, you're happening."
Substituting a proper question for a line from Basho (interestingly enough, as a representative of non-democratic Edo Japan), Chris takes his seat as a spectator for the remainder of the election, accepting his position as an observer with a haircut and new wardrobe to signify the deep respect he has for the process. He announces Edna’s victory on the air, and remarks to Ed his wonder at witnessing “a peaceful transition in government”: “Today, tiny Cicely, Alaska stood up and put another ‘W’ in the win category for democracy.”
A reasonable viewer should be excused for finding a Chris Stevens who’s abandoned his trademark “wildness.” His excitement for a small town election practically bubbling out of his usually vulgar demeanor, here we have a man in love with the law and legal-political institutions, rather than challenging them. However, oddly enough for an episode that aired in the midst of an American presidential race, we're not given candidates as morally disfigured as those we’re often offered at the federal level (Holling running afoul of election rules at his bar notwithstanding). But for Chris, all that is largely beside the point – his inability to vote means that his appreciation for democracy has little to do with representation as such.
Whitman, in Democratic Vistas, addressed the popular problem with the often-troubling particularities of representation, noting that “shams, etc. will always be the show, like ocean’s scum; enough, if waters deep and clear make up the rest. Enough that while the piled embroidery shoddy gaud and fraud spreads to the superficial eye, the hidden warp and weft are genuine and will wear forever.” Chris is not the town’s advocate for American two-party politics (Joel and Maggie occupy the positions of that polarity) but the voice of the “waters deep and clear,” the prophet and guardian of spaces of democracy opened and revealed (or un-concealed) for the people, who are both an abstraction and a material multitude.
The KBHR-Voiced Constitution of the Democractic Self
The Whitmanesque in Chris’s character nonetheless raises the problem of radical politics in Cicely. Would a Marxist be completely dissatisfied watching Northern Exposure? Does it matter? It seems quite clear that Chris’s voice extends beyond what Whitman himself called “superficial suffrage” to the depths of democracy’s “new blood,” which gets “at least as firm and warm a hold in men’s hearts, emotions and belief, as, in their days, feudalism or ecclesiasticism, and inaugurates its own perennial sources, welling from the center forever.” This source and center, for Whitman, was not the organization of political institutions as such but a style, an aesthetic that cannot admit rigid dialectics or radicalism premised primarily on a consciousness of something so banal as material production.
Frank argues that Whitman’s work after the publication of Leaves of Grass was no longer engaged principally in contending over particular issues or clarifying ideological positions; instead, Whitman addressed the overall condition of the polity as what he called a "passionate body," elaborating the "electric" or "resonant" interconnections between the utter singularity of the self and the multitudinous and contending voices of democratic politics.
Chris Stevens is the heart of Cicely’s "body electric," which rambles nude as a yawping leviathan down its streets. But despite the variety of the show’s cast of characters, its social body is not inevitably rent apart by things like class antagonisms: Chris, the town’s most striking example of lumpenproletarian origins, is also its heart, its voice, the insider-outsider that can connect and unify the whole. His project is not revolution but peaceful democratic process, and a form of oratory that brings not a sword (at least not always) but genuine, naive affection.
And yet, though Chris Stevens’ vision is not one of class struggle, it retains the germ of all that is still radical in Whitman’s America: the possibility of the democratization of all aspects of life. Since he cannot vote, and since few Cicelians understand him fully (to the point in which he skirts the possibility of censorship at the hand of Maurice), he does not, as Whitman would have it, “convince by arguments, similes, rhymes” but by his “presence,” by his naked body as well as the naked sonority of his voice. Democracy in Cicely is not a democracy of, quoting Whitman, “legislation, police, treaties, [or] dread of punishment”; rather, it is a democracy of social and cultural space that Chris finds so alluring, since the irony of the mayoral election is that, in the end, nobody seems to think that it alone will matter all that much. Democracy is poetry, in a sense, since its beacon is a young man with a voice, but no vote.
Frank uses the term "micropolitics" to refer to this tendency in Whitman and argues that many critics believe that, with reference to this vision of a micro-democratic aesthetic, “Whitman exhibits the familiar conflict of left-wing intellectuals who want to celebrate the common man, while often showing disdain for actually existing people.” However, for Whitman, he continues, “not only was poetry a kind of democratic action, but democratic action should itself be understood as a kind of poetry.” Chris recognizes that it is in the very quotidian nature of Cicely’s election, in the intellectually underwhelming political discourse foregrounded in the town’s debates, that the democratic sublime shines through – it simply takes a disinterested disc jockey to put it to music.
Though the engine of radical politics does not appear on the skin of Northern Exposure, the function of democracy as Chris Stevens envisions it is rather close to Etienne Balibar’s concept of egaliberté, an equality based on an empty principle of universality. That is, democracy in Cicely is not a democracy of atomized individuals, nor is it an organic body made up of parts (characters, personalities) that fulfill their functions faithfully and unthinkingly. Rather, it is Chris’s democracy insofar as he is the voice that comes from nowhere, from no place in the community’s bureaucratic structure, and thus stands in for all Cicelians as participatory, speaking (and potentially disruptive) beings. Chris is the Whitman figure not as a poet-legislator (as in Shelley’s particular Romantic vision) but as the “abiding sense of inner strangeness that we recognize [also] in others, and which leads us to be receptive of their singularity," as Frank phrases it. This poetic strangeness, which defamiliarizes all in the material, social body and cultural-legal present that is alien to the project of egaliberté, is “a product of the democratic encounter…an effect of the multivoiced constitution of the democratic self.”
If Chris, at the beginning of the series, is the clearest example of an individual in the process of transformation, he is an avatar for the democratic notion of the self as something that one is not (one can only be a democratic subject if one is not yet complete, neither a peasant whose days’ endless cycles are as determined as the seasons, nor a monarch who is fully equal to himself in his political identity). As such, the other characters circulating around the streets, homes, and institutions of Cicely relate to one another not as shared identities (for what can Joel do, at least initially, with a person like Shelly Tambo?) but as admissions of negativity, as possibilities for new relationships and transformations. This point even extends to the romances between Joel and Maggie as Cicely’s Adam and Eve, though Chris remains the town’s icon of the democratic exposure of free love. And in a town filled with many competing voices, all bearers of their particular relations, projects, quirks, and active negativities, Chris has the voice that contains the rest, and is the only character that could conceivably say, as Whitman did in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” that “a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours,/A thousand warbling echoes have started to live within me, never to die.” Or, if not a thousand, maybe 815.
But in what sense, then, is Chris’s Whitmanian democratic vision truly American (as opposed to merely Cicelian)? Does Chris hold America to its constitutional promises? Or does he re-evaluate the "project" altogether? To answer these questions is to provide at least one big reason why we need Northern Exposure now more than ever, at a time when corporate multinational capital has challenged the viability of really true Congressional democracy. How American, we might ask, is Whitman’s vision of making “divine magnetic lands,/With the love of comrades,/With the life-long love of comrades”? With Chris and Whitman we have a democracy founded on radical desire for the other, cultivated by poetry and free expression; this is not, however, the America Alexis de Toqueville discovered in Democracy in America, which distinguished itself from Europe (in part) through its lack of interest in poetry.
Richard Chase’s influential account of the American novel, The American Novel and Its Tradition, makes a broad distinction between imaginative art (embodied in the romance) and social art (embodied in the European realist novel). For Chase, the American literary project, tied up as it is with a radical break from a European past, cannot take as its substance a complex social order, which is the object of the Continental and British social novel (the latter famously explored by F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition). On this account, young America, as a frontier "state," simply does not have the social organization and rigid class structure to support realism – the romance, instead, courts the metaphysical topics of the cosmic self, of subject and object, free from the confines of history.
What I hope to suggest, in contrast, with this brief study of Whitman and Chris Stevens, is an imaginative account of American democracy and politics that is indeed nonetheless "realist" in its implications. Set as it is in the midst of the Alaskan wilderness, Northern Exposure is as much a representation of frontier possibility as it is a subtly sophisticated investigation of community and the social order – the two go hand in hand, and each needs the other in the construction of the series’ events and personalities.
And if there is a figure that reconciles the contraries and antagonisms produced by the town of Cicely, of wildness and civilization, of nature and culture, and of poetry and democracy, it is the eccentric and often obscure disc jockey who is both inside and outside of the community, the truth of the people, their voice, insofar as he is not quite one of them. “A chaos is always out there,” indeed. Chris Stevens, like Adam on the radio in the morning (America’s morning, not Reagan’s), is Cicely’s light of bodily love, democratic song, and yes, “wildness, Ed.”
From guest contributor Zachary Tavlin, University of Washington