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Rare Walt Whitman Artifacts Go on View at Library of Congress for Poet’s 200th Birthday

The library holds the world’s largest collection of Whitman-related items

Walt Whitman in 1869, as photographed by William Kurtz (Library of Congress/Feinberg-Whitman Collection)
smithsonian.com

Eyeglasses, a walking stick, studio portraits and handwritten drafts of poems are among the artifacts scheduled for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ Whitman Bicentennial celebrations, a series of events and campaigns tied to the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman's May 31 birth.

The library, which holds the world’s largest collection of items linked to the Long Island native, is going all out to mark the bicentennial of the poet, who famously pioneered a wholly American form by abandoning the metered, rhymed style of British writings in favor of free-flowing, epically scaled yet inwardly focused narratives.

Whitman, who's hailed as the “bard of democracy” and the “poet of the people,” centered his work on such universal topics as nature, love, friendship and democracy in poems including “O Captain! My Captain!,” “I Hear America Singing,” and “A Noiseless Patient Spider. Fittingly, the Washington Post’s Michael E. Ruane reports, one of the highlights of the LOC’s Whitman Bicentennial is a notebook filled with the poet’s thoughts on the subjects of time, space and the future. An 1855 entry, scribbled on an evening ferry ride home, asks, “What is it now between us? A score of years … a hundred years … five hundred years?” Answering his own question, Whitman then notes, “Whatever it is, it avails not.”

These meditations resulted in the poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which finds Whitman declaring, “I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or / ever so many generations hence,” and likening his experience of standing in a crowd on the ferry’s deck to that of men and women existing in the past, present and future.

Speaking with Ruane, LOC literature historian Barbara Bair describes Whitman’s verse as “totally cosmic and transcendent.”

Young-Whitman.jpg
Walt Whitman in his younger years, as shown in this 1854 engraving by Samuel Hollyer (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” she says, revolves around the idea “that time collapses and that we all have souls, and what he’s really looking at aren’t the bodies, but the souls of people, and that’s eternal.”

On June 3, the notebook will join a pair of partly frosted eyeglasses and a walking cane given to the poet by naturalist John Burroughs, among other rare artifacts, in a display hosted by the LOC’s Jefferson Building. The event is tied to a larger Whitman bicentennial display that opened earlier this month and runs through August 15.

Topics addressed in the display include Whitman’s likely romantic relationship with streetcar conductor Peter Doyle, his traumatizing Civil War battlefield experiences, and his firsthand involvement in the design and publication of Leaves of Grass. Continually revised between 1855 and Whitman’s death in 1892, Leaves of Grass started out as a set of 12 untitled poems. But by the text’s second edition, the number of featured poems had multiplied to 33; ultimately, its final form constituted 383 poems spread out across 14 sections.

Also on the agenda are a history talk hosted in Culpeper, Virginia—where Whitman spent two months while serving as a volunteer in nearby field hospitals during the Civil War—and a June 3 open house featuring artifact selections and a documentary showing. A complete list of events can be found on the LOC press release.

For those who want to participate in the festivities remotely, the library has launched a crowdsource transcription campaign to make Whitman's writings and papers—totaling more than 121,000 pages—accessible online. LOC Manuscript Division historian Barbara Bair will also host a May 30 webinar that will detail the LOC’s extensive Whitman-related collections.

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