Every Atom | No. 103

Joshua Brand

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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Walt Whitman would fit right in in Cicely, Alaska. He certainly looked the part. It was all about that beard. He had the beard of a backwoodsman or an Old Testament prophet.


I could see him making an appearance in Cicely as a less mirthful and girthful Santa Claus who, craving the stir of human activity, would stop by for a little fly fishing and conversation. Or he could have been an itinerant carpenter or, better yet, himself, where he would be greeted and embraced by the denizens of Cicely as one of their own. A wanderer looking to reinvent himself in a place bigger than the hand of God. And as small as a pebble.


I suspect he’d feel right at home in The Brick where people would gather to drink and talk and listen to him read his poetry. They would have liked his lists. His interminable lists that take an accounting of everything. Lists of things that never make other lists. And I believe they would have responded to the wild unbridled sensuality and sexuality at the core of much of his poetry. Alaska is, after all, fecund with flora and fauna.


Cicelians would have understood what he was talking about because the world of Northern Exposure, like Whitman’s distinctly American style of poetry, was profoundly democratic and individualistic. Both are expansive and inclusive. Both celebrate life teeming with diversity, universality, and singularity. Neither had much interest in judging or blaming. Life is what it is. So might as well embrace the suck along with the joy.


Whitman, like the Roman playwright Terence, believed that “nothing human is foreign to me.” That was true for most of the folks in Cicely too.


In an episode called “Democracy in America,” Chris Stevens, the local dj who, like Whitman, was an autodidact, invoked Whitman as the “shepherd of the great unwashed” while urging the citizens of Cicely to fulfill their “sacred right” as “acolytes before the sacred shrine of the ballot box” and get out and vote.


I like to think Whitman would have approved.

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Joshua Brand went to City College in New York and received an MA in English Literature from Columbia University. He co-created St. Elsewhere, A Year in the Life, Northern Exposure, I’ll Fly Away, and Going to Extremes. Among the awards he’s received are several Emmys, Peabody Awards, Golden Globes, and a Humanitas Award. As a director, he was nominated for an Emmy and DGA Award for the two-hour pilot of I’ll Fly Away. He was a Consulting Producer on the FX show The Americans for all of its six seasons. In 2013 he received the Paddy Chayefsky Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writer’s Guild of America.


Cover art by Ben Rendall