By George Wallace
One would reasonably predict that, it being the 200th anniversary of the birth of Walt Whitman, celebrations will be mounted across America and beyond this year -- to be sure, here in the town of Huntington, Whitman's birthplace and for decades a major center for promoting and celebrating his accomplishments.
And in fact, there are Whitman-related activities galore in 2019, including at least two major International celebrations centered at the Whitman birthplace in West Hills.
But for sheer numbers, it will be hard for any venue to match the reach of the current Whtiman exhibit at the main branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan. The library's colorful and richly narrated Whitman show, entitled 'Walt Whitman: America's Poet," is drawing hundreds of visitors a day, according to organizers. By the end of its three-month run, that translates to hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens of the world learning anew (or for the first time) the wonders of America's Good Gray Poet.
“Some of the objects we have on view are the equivalent of Holy Grails of American literature,” says show organizer Michael Inman, curator of Rare Books at the NYPL.
“There are some things in this show, that, just to lay eyes on them, is an exceptional experience.”
Inman, who said the show was years in the making, recently gave me a two-hour tour of the library's exhibition. Housed in the ‘jewel-box’ Wachenheim III Gallery, a compact room located just to the left of the first floor foyer – it is a testament to the detailed devotion that he applied to organizing the show. As visitors from far and wide streamed through, he stopped lovingly each step of the way to reveal details of the photographs, paintings, original manuscripts, first edition books, and ephemera he had gathered together to tell the story of Whitman (1819-1892), who at 200 years old remains one of America's most influential writers and a cultural icon.
“The years preceding Whitman's death would see his encompassing vision – a mix of earthly and cosmic, common and highbrow – (was) embraced and celebrated by readers throughout the world,” noted Inman. “And his advances in format and language, resulting from a distinctive American poetics, would prove formative for generations of writers, artists and thinkers.”
The first portion of the show features some of the formative influences on Whitman's life, including vintage images of old Long Island, the Whitman birthplace, old Brooklyn, and New York City, where Whitman spent his early adulthood as a journalist. The second portion presents a first edition of Whitman's great Leaves of Grass, with its distinctive green and gold cover, and lettering made to resemble roots, branches, leaves and trunks of trees.
A third section focuses on the very important Civil War years, when Whitman served as a nurse in the war zones of the conflict, and as a government clerk in WashingtonDC. Of particular interest in this section is the letter of dismissal issued to Whitman when the Secretary of the Interior found a copy of Leaves of Grass on the poet's desk – a situation which contributed to Whitman's further elevation to a figure of cultural importance during his early adulthood.
The exhibition continues with handwritten manuscripts by the Good Gray Poet, including his well regarded Passage to India and an annotated copy of Leaves of Grass which he used during his lecture tours.
And importantly, the final section includes Whitman's impact on his successors in literature and the arts – highlighting poets (Sandberg, Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara), musicians (Guthrie, Dylan, Springsteen), filmmakers (DW Griffith), and a host of others.
“Whitman declared ‘the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it,’” said Inman. “By this standard or almost any other, he has proved himself.”
One look at the faces of the steady stream of visitors to the New York Public Library's evocative show is proof positive that old Walt's still doing so.
Walt Whitman: America's Poet, runs through August 30 at the New York Public Library in New York City. Visit nypl.org for more information.
Editor’s note: The author, George Wallace, is the first Poet Laureate of Suffolk County, and editor of Walt’s Corner for this publication.
Note: This article has been edited to reflect a change in exhibitions dates. The show has been extended to August 30.