Washington celebrates work of Whitman

By Glen Elsasser
Special to the Chicago Tribune
Published April 26, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Like multitudes before and after, Walt Whitman came to the nation's capital as a job seeker and presidential admirer. His experiences -- and their impact on his writing -- made him one of America's most original and innovative poets.

"I celebrate myself," he wrote. "And what I assume you shall assume. For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

Now, 150 years after these words appeared in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Washington is celebrating this seminal figure from New York.

Although Whitman feared he might be disillusioned by the political scramble for power and prestige, he found a comfortable niche for his talents, and enriched his masterpiece with new poems inspired by his 10-year stay in this haven of bureaucrats.

"I went to Washington as everybody goes there, prepared to see everything done with some furtive intention," he wrote in 1888, "but I was pleasantly disappointed." These words now greet visitors to Pennsylvania Avenue's Freedom Plaza, an architectural welcome mat located between the White House and the Federal Triangle.

His initial mission was to locate his brother, who reportedly had been wounded in an 1862 Civil War skirmish. After finding his brother miraculously spared serious injury, Whitman decided to stay and care for the thousands of wounded soldiers confined to some 40 hospitals.

He also landed part-time work in the Army paymaster's office, Interior Department and the attorney general's office, while living in long-vanished rooming houses.

Now, a grass-roots movement has sprung up to mark the special anniversary of this consummate American, whose poetic voice celebrated the common man and his shared destiny with them:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing as he measures his plank or beam . . .
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands ...
The delicious singing of the mother, or the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing ...

Lincoln's assassination at the end of the Civil War, the bloodiest in U.S. history, left a festering wound on Whitman and the nation's psyche.

Two of his most familiar poems were inspired by Lincoln's untimely death:

- The more traditional "O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is one The Ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won/The port is near, the bells I hear. The people all exulting/While follow eyes, the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring . . ."

- And his undisputed masterpiece, "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd/And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night/I mourn'd and yet shall mourn with every returning spring."

By all accounts, Whitman was plagued by a monster ego until coming to wartime Washington. From photographs and contemporary accounts, he was the P.T. Barnum of rhyme -- his long hair and beard carefully coifed, his studied simple garb more appropriate for a stage carpenter or workman than a dockworker or mill hand.

"Before the war Whitman believed he was the greatest poet since Shakespeare," said Daniel Mark Epstein, an award-winning poet and author of Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington (Ballantine Books, 2004). By visiting the legions of wounded in hospitals, Epstein added, "he began to gain a certain amount of humility seeing these men struggle and seeing so many people give their lives to the ideal of liberty and union."

The cultural fortress known as the Library of Congress has spent a year combing its vast archives to mount an anniversary exhibition of the first edition Leaves of Grass, considered the emotional core of several later editions.

Unrivaled collection

According to Alice Birney, the library's manuscript historian, its unrivaled collection of Whitman materials will be displayed in the American Treasures section of the library's venerable Jefferson Building.

Opening May 16, the library exhibit will illustrate key periods of the poet's life, beginning with his early years as a teacher in the late 1830s on his native Long Island. There, he had come under the spell of Elias Hicks, the liberal Quaker preacher who questioned traditional Christian beliefs. After his family moved to Brooklyn, Whitman started writing for newspapers and literary journals.

Livening up the nearby Capitol Hill neighborhood, the Folger Shakespeare Library will also pay tribute to Whitman on May 16 with a special program of readings featuring two contemporary poets: Mark Doty, whose works have won a number of prizes; and Anne Waldman, who along with Beat generation idol Allen Ginsberg founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo.

The first edition of Leaves of Grass contained such familiar poems as "I sing the body electric/The arms of those I love engirth me and I engirth them . . . " and "There was a child went forth every day/And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became . . . "

Not shy about his work, Whitman sent a copy to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the grandee of American letters. Emerson responded with his famous letter of praise: "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. ... I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start."

On a visit to Boston in 1860, however, Emerson urged him to expurgate poems some readers complained were too frank and erotic. The third edition of Leaves (1860), for instance, celebrated the love of men for men:

"When I wander'd alone over the beach, and undressing bathed,
laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise,
And when I thought how my dear friend and lover was on his way coming,
O then I was happy . . . "

Petition to rename street

Martin Murray, president of the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman, has petitioned the city to rename a section of a downtown street near the old Patent Office, Walt Whitman Way. The building, now the National Portrait Gallery, was used as a temporary hospital during the Civil War.

Another organization member, Kim Roberts, has assembled a special issue of Beltway -- an online literary quarterly -- dedicated to Whitman. It contains the works of 38 area and regional poets.

A former professor and arts administrator, Roberts rejects arguments that Whitman's genius tapered off during his time in Washington. He was then in his 40s and early 50s. "It was a very prolific time," she said. "We know he wrote some 100 new poems here."

After Lincoln's death, Whitman became increasingly disenchanted with the nation's spiritual decline. In his meditative Democratic Vistas of 1871, he observed:

"Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ'd in (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ'd in. What penetrating eye does not see through the mask!"

Suffering a paralytic stroke in 1873, Whitman was forced to move to Camden, N.J., to live with a brother and his elderly mother. In 1879 Whitman began a series of nine lectures on the death of Lincoln in which he said that after his mother, the martyred president "gets almost nearer to me than any body else."

Among the prominent members of the audience, Cuban poet Jose Marti recalled how they listened "in religious silence, for its sudden grace notes, vibrant tones, hymnlike progress, and Olympian familiarity" that seemed at times "the whispering of the stars."


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