New York — In celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth, the Morgan Library & Museum exhibits the work of the beloved American poet. In a notebook in 1859, Whitman wrote, “Comrades! I am the bard of Democracy,” and over his 73 years (1819-1892) he made good on that claim. As he bore witness to the rise of New York City, the Civil War and other major transformations in American life, Whitman tried to reconcile the famous contradictions of this country through his inclusivity and his prolific body of work. The author of one of the most celebrated texts of American literature—Leaves of Grass (1855)—came from humble origins in Long Island and Brooklyn but eventually earned a global audience that has never stopped growing. Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy traces the development of his writing and influence, from his early days producing local journalism and sensational fiction to his later years writing the visionary poems that would revitalize American letters.
Drawing on the Morgan’s own holdings as well as exceptional loans from the Library of Congress, the exhibition shows the landmarks of his literary career, including “O Captain! My Captain!” and the famous letter written to Whitman by Ralph Waldo Emerson commending Leaves of Grass. A notebook containing Whitman’s early experiments with free verse and the origins of the seminal poem “Song of Myself” will be on display, as well as the copy of Leaves of Grass that Whitman presented to the artist who engraved his emblematic portrait in the first edition. Also on view are documents by famous writers influenced by Whitman, such as Oscar Wilde, Hart Crane, Federico García Lorca, Langston Hughes, and Allen Ginsberg.
Whitman’s broad-minded positions on social issues of his day made him a symbol for progressive political and civil rights movements in modern times. The uninhibited sensuality of his poetry and his pioneering contributions to gay literature have been an inspiration to the LGBTQ community as well.
Early in his writing career, Whitman wrote temperance novels and stories of walking around the city, exploring its nooks and crannies. The exhibition presents some of these fugitive publications from New York’s literary underground.
Whitman saw himself foremost as a New Yorker: he claimed that many of his poems “arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York from 1838 to 1853, absorbing a million people, for fifteen years, with an intimacy, an eagerness, and an abandon, probably never equaled.” In the early 1850s, Whitman began writing free verse poetry and self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855. The book celebrated the first person in a way that no poetry ever had before. A portion of the exhibition examines all of the circumstances of this act of self-invention.
The show also explores his attention to the great drama of his time, the Civil War, and Whitman’s emotional bond with Abraham Lincoln. After the war, Whitman’s writing attracted a greater number of friends and visitors, including a number of gay readers and writers who saw him as a liberator and a model for their own path-breaking work. Whitman’s relationship with former Confederate soldier and streetcar conductor PeterDoyle will be another focus of the exhibition, featuring the famous photograph of the two of them together.
Even after Whitman reached the end of the road in 1892, he continued to inspire others. A final section in Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy is devoted to his enduring global influence in the twentieth century and beyond.
In addition, the show has a strong visual element, incorporating photographs by Matthew Brady and others, significant nineteenth-century paintings, prints, and engravings, among them a depiction of a Civil War battle by Winslow Homer, paintings and drawings by Joseph Stella, Rockwell Kent, and David Hockney, twentieth and twenty-first-century artists’ books, and ephemera.
“Walt Whitman’s poetry occupies a special place in American literature,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library and Museum. “He was a New Yorker in that he not only captured the spirit of his bustling, complex, and contradictory city, but he also carved out a career path for himself through his ambition and surprisingly proactive self-promotion. We are excited to offer more insight into his inspirations, his world, and the evolution of his dynamic voice.”
“It was a joy to work with the Morgan on this comprehensive exhibit, and to see New York City all over again, through his eyes,”said Ted Widmer, guest curator and Distinguished Lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York. “It never stops moving and neither did he.” Widmer is also author of Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City and many other works of history. The exhibition opens June 7 and runs through September 15.