Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Whitman's Columbia: The Commemoration of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in "A Thought of Columbus"

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Whitman's Columbia: The Commemoration of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in "A Thought of Columbus"

Article excerpt

From the moment the intent to host the World's Columbian exposition of 1893 was announced in 1890, the whole country was eagerly talking about it.1 The event was intended to reflect America's new-found promi- nence on the world stage by celebrating the four centuries of progress since Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, and hardly any publication lacked some mention of the event. While the exposition was being planned many readers of poems like "passage to india," "song of the exposition," and "prayer of Columbus" thought that Walt Whitman should have been involved in some direct way. For instance, Illustrated American thought he would make an ideal representative for the fair, publishing in 1891 an anonymous editorial criticizing the exposition planners' request of a commemorative poem from Alfred Lord Tennyson. The editorial questions the choice of Tennyson and argues instead for an American, ideally Whitman:

But best of all would be an American poet. The children of the new World, which Colum- bus revealed to the Old, are best fitted to celebrate the glories of the new dispensation.

Walt Whitman would be the ideal choice. He is an American, a democrat in the largest and best sense of the word, a son of the soil. He could give us a splendid chant, full of virility and breadth and wisdom. But we have not yet reached the ideal stage where we can appreciate him at his true worth.2

Later the same year, George Horton of the Chicago Herald requested in a letter that Whitman write an exclusive poem for his paper to com- memorate the exposition. Horton indicates that he had approached several other prominent poets, but flatteringly adds that any list of con- temporary poets would be incomplete without Whitman. Appealing to Whitman's penchant for self-promotion, Horton promises that "the West is anxious to hear from you on the subject, and The Herald reaches the West very widely" (WWWC, 8:446). similarly, a souvenir collection of thoughts on Columbus and america published in 1892 to commemo- rate the Exposition quotes Reverend Myron Reed, who insists, "we shall remember Walt Whitman, if only for the line, ? America! We build for you because you build for the world.'"3 Closer to home, Horace Traubel had tried numerous times to impel Whitman to write something for the fair. Traubel reports on november 11, 1891, that a san francisco paper was "warmly advocating W. as poet for the Columbian Exposi- tion" (WWWC, 9:138). Yet Whitman complained time and again that he was unable to write any more poems. it did not matter to him how many requests he received (WWWC, 9:126). Traubel records that on september 11, 1891,Whitman said to him, "i have had fully half a dozen applications for poems lately-poems for public occasions-to none of which have i even replied" (WWWC, 8:499). putting the matter firmly to rest, Whitman died seven months prior the Exposition's dedication ceremonies, and he was never formally recognized by the Exposition's planners and promoters. As a result, links between Whitman and the Columbian Exposition have gone unexamined. However, reading the last poem Whitman wrote, "AThought of Columbus," within the context of the vast promotions that wed the Columbian discovery to American progress since 1492 suggests that Whitman's final poetic statement was dedicated to the spirit of the fair. Read in this light, "A Thought of Co- lumbus" takes on a greater resonance.

Whitman's abiding interest in American progress was well under- stood as America took stock of itself in the twilight of the nineteenth century, and it is clearly on such grounds that Whitman's contemporaries drew a connection between him and the objectives of the Columbian Exposition. indeed, the Exposition would have been the perfect vehicle for situating Whitman in the central place in American letters to which he had aspired throughout his career. America had assumed a greater prominence on the world stage by 1893, thus validating Whitman's faith in the abundance of the land, the strength of democracy, and the growth of what he termed the "Western character" in "A backward glance o'er Travel'd Roads. …

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