Walt Whitman at 200: Introduction

By Folsom, Ed | Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

Walt Whitman at 200: Introduction


Folsom, Ed, Walt Whitman Quarterly Review


This issue of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review both celebrates and documents the two-hundredth birthday of Walt Whitman, an occasion marked by conferences, exhibits, performances, books, essays, special issues of journals, newspaper and magazine articles, websites, films, musical events, and other commemorative activities taking place all around the United States and around the world during 2019. As we begin the Third Whitman Century, this issue invites us all to pause for a few moments and take in the vast, stunning response (so far) to Walt Whitman at 200.

The year 2019 provides quite a contrast to 1919, at the end of the First Whitman Century, when celebrations of the poet certainly took place but were few in number, and the coverage in news media was slim. The New York Times focused on a single event at the Whitman Birthplace on Long Island, with a short article buried deep in the June 1, 1919, issue, describing how "the hundredth anniversary of the birthday of Walt Whitman was celebrated yesterday by a pilgrimage of American writers to the house where he was born at West Hill, L.I., and to the schoolhouse at Woodbury, on the Jamaica Turnpike, where Whitman taught school" (see Figure 1). The event was arranged by the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, and it attracted "about 200 pilgrims." Whitman's birthplace, now a New York State Historic Site, was then still privately owned, and the owners graciously "threw the place open to the party, which inspected the old house, the apple orchard and the rest of the setting in which was reared the poet, who was generally acclaimed yesterday as America's greatest."

Tributes were read by those present and from writers who could not attend, such as Edgar Lee Masters, who presented his "verdict upon Whitman": "he has more nearly justified the ways of God to man than any writer that we have produced, and perhaps more so than any poet who has lived. ...He found life good, and sang of its goodness; and he found death not evil, and proved it as nearly as man may prove a thing." Whitman, Masters said, absorbed our history, including "the civil war" and made "an epic all inclusive of our life, our America, our new world, with its tragedy, its humor, its audacity, its courage, its inventive power, its energy, its hopefulness, and its faith."

The only other coverage of the Whitman Centennial in the Times was a brief piece on the mysterious appearance and disappearance of "Walt Whitman, in the shape of a stolen bust," in the New York University Hall of Fame, where, rumor had it, he had suddenly appeared on "his hundredth anniversary" but just as quickly and mysteriously disappeared (see Figure 2). NYU's chancellor wasn't talking, nor was the watchman for the Hall of Fame. "The only person who would talk of the episode was Mary, who scrubs the tile floor," but, since she "had never heard of the poet," all she could add was that there was "something funny about it all, how he got in and out again without any one seeing it done." Maybe it did not happen at all but rather was another incident of the poet being everywhere and nowhere: "Missing me one place search another. . . ."

As 2019 dawned, itbecame clear that we were about to experience an explosion ofWhitman activity for the Bicentennial. In this Bicentennial Issue of WWQR., we offer several special features to document just a fraction of the events. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of special readings of Whitman's work this spring by book clubs, college and high school classes, public libraries, reading groups, and others, including marathon readings of "Song of Myself" in over fifty cities. The three cities that Whitman lived in for long periods of time- New York, Philadelphia/Camden, and Washington DC-all planned extensive and impressive series of events. Major Whitman exhibitions were held (some are still being held) at The Grolier Club, the New York Public Library, and the J. P. Morgan Library and Museum in New York, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Iowa, and elsewhere. …

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