Exhibition review: Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy

Emily Andresini

George Frank E. Pearsall (1841–1931), Walt Whitman, 1871, photographic print. The Library of Congress. Image provided courtesy of the Library of Congress (from Morgan Library and Museum website).

From June 25th — September 15th 2019, The Morgan Library & Museum commemorated the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth with an exhibition that extolled his life and literary works. The exhibit was compact and dense, with an array of archival materials illustrating the trajectory of Whitman’s robust 72 years on our “vast rondure, swimming in space.” Though 164 years have passed since the first publication of Leaves of Grass, and 127 years since his death, Walt Whitman still exists as a looming figure in our national memory. I suspect many Americans to this day are familiar with his name or his works, hopefully through his poetry, or at least through one of the many references to him in film or television. Whatever your conception of Walt Whitman is, you bring it with you when you enter an exhibit like this, and as you navigate through the stages of his life, the story of Walt Whitman, contradictions and all, unfolds.

At the gallery’s entrance a large portrait of Walt Whitman with a butterfly resting on his finger welcomes you. Here Whitman appears as gentle giant at one with nature and at ease with himself; a careful observer of the delicate beauty of a butterfly, a hopeful symbol of rebirth and change. I soon learned this particular butterfly was fashioned from cardboard (originally an Easter greeting card owned by Whitman), imbuing this image of Whitman with a sense of levity and mystique.

The exhibit begins with a series of three paintings depicting life on Long Island and the atmosphere in Brooklyn around the time of Whitman’s birth and early years. Next we are met with an etching of boats in the East River and the Manhattan skyline accompanied by a copy of Whitman’s Mannahatta, and an audio recording of Patti Smith, modern day poet of the people, reciting the poem. I had joined in on a Morgan Library tour of the exhibit, and our guide explained how Whitman enjoyed ferry trips to and from the city, and spent plenty of time “leaning and loafing at his ease” along the riverbank, pastimes I could personally relate to as a Brooklynite with swaths of newly developed waterfront parks where I too “loaf and invite my soul” to greet me. Whitman, in his wisdom of foresight, and knowledge of our shared continuity, anticipated our kinship and wrote, “Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt, […] Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d” (Crossing Brooklyn Ferry).

Our tour guide lead us to the next section which represented his career trajectory, and explained how Whitman never finished high school and tried his hand at a number of odd jobs before settling into the role of journalist, and how his writing career was ignited by his early assignments of reviewing operas. Whitman came to deeply appreciate the opera and expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to review and experience it. Having myself recently become a reviewer for the Metropolitan Archivist, I related well to his sentiment. Whitman’s poetic style was heavily influenced by operatics, which you can hear whenever his poems are read out loud, as they are often pronounced with deep authority in impassioned tones and bold proclamations.

In Mannahatta, Whitman refers to Manhattan as “my city!” and it’s this sense of personal ownership that unites a person with a place and solidifies it as their home. He also notes the tempo of the city streets, the various inhabitants with their own agendas, and the “immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week”. It is through Whitman’s connection to his homeland and his relationships with others, that we come to know who he was (just as it is for any of us). While Whitman is now known as America’s most celebrated poet, he emerged on the national stage with the publication of Leaves of Grass, which was written largely in response to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self Reliance. It is well documented that Whitman wrote, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.” In Self Reliance, Emerson advises his readers to “accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events” and to “speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense.” It was through these exchanges — the city and country speaking to Whitman, Whitman receiving Emerson’s appeal, and Whitman replying with the careful and beautiful art of his poetics, that solidified his place in society. As our Morgan Library tour guide put it, “Whitman absorbed the country and the country absorbed him”.

To fortify this call and response, The Morgan displays its edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1841), open to the start of Self Reliance. Three copies of first editions of The Leaves of Grass (also belonging to The Morgan) are presented. With a green leather cover, the title embossed in gold and adorned with roots and leaves, it’s as if the book grew from the earth itself, sprouted from the seeds of Emerson’s call to poets and tilled by the pen of Whitman, harvested for the hungry souls of all Americans, nourished by the words therein. Most notably, the exhibit displays the original correspondence from Emerson to Whitman, dated July 21, 1855, (on loan from the Walt Whitman Papers in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection, Manuscript Division, The Library of Congress) in which Emerson celebrates Whitman’s achievement in Leaves of Grass: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that American has yet contributed. […] I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be”. The Morgan Library described this letter as, “the most famous communication from one writer to another in American history”. Emerson’s praise was so rightly cherished by Whitman that he published the letter, though without Emerson’s permission, in his second edition of Leaves of Grass, as a self-aggrandizing endorsement of his work.

The next section of the exhibit delves into the ravages of the Civil War, with notes from Whitman’s journals and drafts of poems written during his eleven years of nursing soldiers, detailing his first hand account of their suffering, the war-torn landscape and the ever-present complexities of race relations in our country. This section culminates with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the emotional devastation left in his wake. A handwritten copy of O Captain! My Captain! is displayed, one of many copies Whitman himself made and sold for additional income in the years following its publication. Whitman’s public lament for Lincoln is further expressed in When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, which ties the experience of grieving to the personal space of home and the time of year in which his mourning was forever crystalized: “I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring”. The audio recording of a hermit thrush, whose song signifies death in the poem, is included, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Walt Whitman (1819–1892), O Captain! my captain! April 27, 1890, autograph manuscript. The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1212.1. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2012 (from Morgan Library and Museum website).

Throughout the exhibit, contemporary audio recordings accompany the original archival content, bringing new relevance to the musicality of Whitman’s works. Among them are an interpretative song by Iggy Pop, Tarwater, and Alava Noto, a sampling from a Ned Rorem composition of Whitman’s poetry sung by Emily Danielle Carey, and a copy of a wax cylinder recording that was once believed to be the voice of Whitman reciting America!, the validity of which has been disputed, but the charm of which compliments the playful mystery that is expressed in his butterfly portrait. Throughout his career, Whitman experimented with his public image, selling and celebrating himself by writing reviews of his own work and revising edition after edition (nearly a dozen different versions) of Leaves of Grass. He also had around 130 studio portraits of himself taken, a handful of which were included in this exhibit. Each photograph showcases a different side of Whitman to the point where he reflected, “I don’t know which Walt Whitman I truly am” — a sentiment relevant in our era of splintered self-representation as we explore and construct our own self-images across social media platforms. Our tour guide mentioned that later in life when Whitman settled down in Camden, New Jersey, he still grappled with how he had been received by the public and the imprint he had made on American culture and society, despite being such a celebrated figure that The New York Times would publish regular updates on his heath and diet for his adorning fans.

One of the final sections of the exhibit displays Whitman’s personal life, focusing on his romantic relationship with Peter Doyle and his friendship with Oscar Wilde, both of which occurred later in his life. Whitman’s letters to Peter Doyle and an oversized photograph of the two seated and gazing into each other’s eyes capture the tenderness of their relationship. When Whitman wrote in his journals about Peter Doyle, he coyly referred to him as “16.4” (the numerical representation of Peter Doyle’s initials according to their place in the alphabet), but here in this picture neither shy away from their connection, and in Whitman’s letters to Doyle, which were also on display, he wrote vulnerably of his affections for the young man.

The final section of the exhibit presents the literary and artistic heirs of Whitman — the poets and artists for whom Whitman’s poetry resonated and who answered his battle cry by speaking their own “latent convictions”. Langston Hughes, John Updike, Hart Crane, and Allen Ginsberg are all represented, with the threads of Whitman’s influence woven through their works. The last piece displayed is a response by David Hockney, whose painting Adhesiveness references Whitman’s 16.4 code to signify his own imagined love affair with the bard (48 + 23.23). This one in particular I could have “looked upon and received with wonder” for a little longer, had the exhibit not been closing.

Emily Andresini is Digital Collections Manager at Leo Baeck Institute

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