New York City —Walt Whitman has been called America’s “bard of democracy.” His life’s work, Leaves of Grass, ushered in a new and unconventional style of unrhymed verse. The New York Public Library will celebrate the bicentennial of the iconic writer’s birth with an exhibition that honors Whitman’s impact on America and examines the many influences that shaped his writing.
Walt Whitman: America’s Poet is curated by Michael Inman, Curator of Rare Books at the Library, and will open March 29, 2019 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.
“The New York Public Library prides itself on being a democratic, inclusive institution, open to everyone regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs. It is only fitting, then, that the Library would host this exhibition, which highlights the development and lasting influence of America’s foremost poet of democracy,” says the exhibition’s curator, Michael Inman.
A native New Yorker Whitman was born in Huntington, Long Island on May 31, 1819. During his early years, he plied a variety of trades, working as a school teacher, printer, home builder, and journalist and editor for a host of newspapers including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and The Long Islander, which is still in print today. On July 4, 1855, Whitman published Leaves of Grass, the work on which his reputation largely rests. Whitman harbored high hopes for the volume, yet it struggled initially to garner attention. Nevertheless, in the years that followed, both he and his work slowly gained recognition. In June 1865, Whitman was fired from his post in the Department of Interior by his supervisor, Secretary James Harlan, after Harlan found the poet’s heavily annotated copy of Leaves of Grass in his work desk. Whitman later pointed to his firing as one of the pivotal events of his poetic career. In the wake of the incident, two of his closest friends, William Douglas O’Connor and John Burroughs, authored passionate defenses of the poet, upholding his poetry and moral character while publicly excoriating the priggish Harlan. These works—O’Connor’s The Good Gray Poet and Burroughs’ Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person—would help to alter the public’s perception of Whitman, gradually leading to a wider acceptance of his verse that continues to the present day.
Held in the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery at the 42nd Street Library, this multi-media exhibition chronicles Whitman’s life and career in sections that address his early days, the publication of Leaves of Grass, the impact of the Civil War, his rise to fame, and his continued legacy. Over 75 items from the Library’s collections will be on display, featuring personal artifacts, early photographs of the time, and material that both influenced Whitman and was inspired by him, including:
- Whitman’s annotated personal copy of the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass;
- The termination letter presented to him by James Harlan, Secretary of the Department of the Interior;
- The heavily annotated third (1860) edition of Leaves of Grass known as the Blue Book;
- Sheet music from the 1840s and 1850s, featuring works that Whitman heard in performance; Music was, perhaps, the greatest influence on Whitman’s verse;
- A Barnum’s Museum promotional poster. Whitman admired P. T. Barnum’s penchant for self-promotion and the democratic spirit of his museum;
- Manhatta, considered by many to be the first American avant-garde film. The film quotes Whitman’s verse in its intertitle cards;
- Film of a 1964 performance of the ballet Dance for Walt Whitman choreographed by Helen Tamiris;
- A rare daguerreotype photograph depicting Whitman as a young man (circa 1854);
- A lock of Whitman’s hair.
As Whitman himself declared “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” His pioneering use of photography to market his own work can be seen as a harbinger of today’s visually conscious celebrity culture. Additionally, Whitman’s likeness and words have been used in advertisements to sell numerous items including automobiles and clothing. Two hundred years after his birth, Whitman remains a vital and vibrant part of American culture.
In addition to the exhibition, the Library will host an event, Live Oak, with Moss, with noted Whitman scholar Karen Karbiener and renowned illustrator Brian Selznick on Monday, April 1.
The exhibition will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday and Thursday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday. Walt Whitman: America’s Poet will be open through Saturday July 27, 2019.
Walt Whitman: America’s Poet is curated by Michael Inman, Curator of Rare Books for The New York Public Library.
Image: Walt Whitman, ca. 1865, digitally enhanced. Original photo by Mathew Brady. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, Photography Collection.