Walt Whitman
Celebrating the Poet's History -- and Washington's
By Mary Quattlebaum
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page WE27

 

But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooks you round the waist,
My right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.

-- Walt Whitman, untitled version of "Song of Myself"
in
Leaves of Grass, 1855

In 1855, an itinerant printer and journalist self-published those lines in his first volume of verse -- and the raw, rich land of which he wrote found its national poet. Breaking with tidy English verse, Walt Whitman let his long lines roll across the pages of Leaves of Grass, lines that embraced carpenters, shoemakers, sewing girls, flax, black bears, buckwheat, ants, even "the alligator in his tough pimples" -- all the vast sprawl that was his native country. This year, America celebrates the 150th anniversary of that book with readings aplenty, especially in Washington, Whitman's home from 1863 to 1873.

Even today's frantic pace and high-tech gear don't dull the "jolt of excitement" many people feel when reading works by the 19th-century poet, says David McAleavey, director of the creative writing program at George Washington University. McAleavey hopes to tap this energy with a marathon reading of Leaves of Grass at the university April 16, during National Poetry Month. "We've invited actors, poets, politicians and the public," he says, with plans for a "multiplicity of voices" to reflect the "democratic spirit of Whitman's work, that sense of inclusiveness and expansiveness."

The reading is but one event in the citywide festival that begins Saturday (marking the poet's death in 1892) and runs through May 31 (his birth date in 1819). The Library of Congress, the world's major repository of his work, bookends the festival with noon poetry readings Friday and May 31.

"Few people realize that Whitman lived and worked here for 10 years," says Martin Murray, founder in 1987 and president of the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman, which spearheaded the festival. Though publishing Leaves of Grass in New York, his home state, the poet continued to revise and expand the volume throughout his life, releasing two new editions while in the nation's capital. "Washington was the time of his maturity," says Murray, an economist by profession and Whitman historian by passion, with scholarly papers on the local people and places that formed the poet's world. (Murray's work can be read at the academic site www.whitmanarchive.org.) "Whitman's experience here, especially nursing Civil War soldiers, helped inform his revisions," Murray says, and spurred essays, newspaper pieces and new poems on the war and President Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

 

I hear the tramp of armies, I hear the challenging sentry . . .
Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood

-- Whitman, "Drum-Taps," 1865

Washington was in turmoil when Whitman arrived in December 1862, searching for his younger brother George, a wounded Union soldier, in one of the city's many makeshift hospitals. Like poets past and present, Whitman had kept day jobs -- teacher, journalist, printer, government clerk -- throughout his life. But in finding George (slightly injured on the front lines in Virginia), Whitman also found an important calling: nursing. Whitman stayed through the war's end to tend, on a volunteer basis, "these thousands . . . of American young men, badly wounded, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia," as he described in a letter to New York friends.

"The city really is suffused with Whitman's presence," says Kim Roberts, local editor of Beltway, an online journal with historic essays on prominent area poets, including her own "Whitman in Washington," and map of attendant sites (www.washingtonart.com, click on Beltway: A Poetry Quarterly). None of the poet's many boarding-house residences still stands, though his first is now the site of offices for the American Medical Association (1101 Vermont Ave. NW). Roberts combed Whitman's correspondence, biographies and city directories to pinpoint the houses' locations. "It was a lot of work," Roberts admits, "but I like driving or walking past some of those areas and thinking, 'Walt lived here.' "

The massive government structures where Whitman worked still loom, though. One of the most important is the National Portrait Gallery (Eighth and F Streets NW, closed for renovation until 2006), formerly the U.S. Patent Office and a temporary hospital during the war. Here, Whitman cared for the wounded and attended Lincoln's second inaugural ball in 1865. The "beautiful women, perfumes . . . and waltz" contrasted sharply with "the groan . . . the clotted rag, the odor of wounds and blood" of his previous experience, he wrote in 1865 for the New York Times.

After the war, Whitman toiled as a clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, located in the building's basement. He was soon fired, though, when newly appointed secretary of the interior James Harlan seized upon Leaves of Grass and declared its author immoral. Part of Harlan's larger purge, which included female workers, Whitman was quickly transferred to the Attorney General's Office (15th and F streets NW, now the site of Hotel Washington). This marked a return for him to the building that housed his wartime job as a copyist for the Army Paymaster. The last year of his Washington working life was spent as a Justice Department clerk at the U.S. Treasury (Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street NW).

Whitman's firing from the Bureau of Indian Affairs galvanized his champions. Abolitionist William O'Connor, a friend since his earliest Washington days, defended Whitman in a pamphlet titled The Good Gray Poet, picked up by newspapers at home and abroad. Whitman himself sometimes burnished his own image. The first edition of Leaves of Grass named no author or publisher but did carry a poet-of-the-people likeness: Whitman in work shirt and casually cocked hat. While in Washington, the poet freelanced for two local newspapers, the Evening Star and Morning Chronicle, and sometimes contributed letters to the New York Times. "He especially liked to cover himself," says Friends of Walt Whitman's Murray, with a laugh. Some of Whitman's pieces, which ran without bylines, as was usual then, glowingly describe his own readings in the third person, says Murray, who has carefully analyzed Whitman's writing style to determine authorship.

 

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. . .
Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.

-- Whitman, untitled version of "Song of Myself," 1855

In 1873, Whitman suffered a debilitating stroke and had to leave the city for the care of his family in Camden, N.J. He died there in 1892. To this day, though, the poet can still be found in Washington, especially when your "boot-soles" stroll the same streets and places.

That path has even been traced for you, thanks to Murray, poetry editor Roberts and Mark Meinke, co-authors of a self-guided walking tour published by the Rainbow History Project, of which Meinke is founder and chair. Launched this week, their "Whitman in DC" brochure (available at www.rainbowhistory.org/whitman-web.pdf) presents Whitman sites and poems for the journey. In addition to the aforementioned places, the guide highlights the former Center Market (Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, now the site of the National Archives), where Whitman bought small gifts for hospitalized soldiers. For Ford's Theatre (511 10th St. NW), the guide provides lines from "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," Whitman's great poem of mourning for the assassinated Lincoln. (Dramatic readings of Whitman's popular tribute to Lincoln, "O Captain! My Captain!," will be held at the theater on April 14 and 15.)

The guide takes walkers down part of Pennsylvania Avenue where in 1865, Whitman, riding the streetcar, met Peter Doyle, the conductor and a former Confederate soldier. Doyle became the poet's dear friend and, many biographers believe, his lover, according to Murray. English professor McAleavey agrees: "Though there is no hard evidence, the tenor of the correspondence" strongly suggests Whitman was gay. McAleavey sees Whitman, in poems celebrating the body, as a "kind of early advocate for gay pride."

 

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or
ever so many generations hence

-- Whitman, "Sun-down Poem," 1856, retitled "Crossing
Brooklyn Ferry," 1860

Whitman can also be found in his influence on the writers that followed him. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously praised his "free and brave thought" in a letter to the poet dated July 21, 1855. And that example still shines. "Whitman broke open the forms and subject matter of poetry," Roberts says. "We can date the beginning of modern American poetry to Leaves of Grass." For McAleavey, Whitman, "as a spiritual and intellectual guide, is never far from what's important" to the professor's own poetry. McAleavey's tender, humorous "Invention of the Sonnet" joins poems by 38 local writers in Beltway's tribute to Whitman, online through April 1 (and then available in the site's "archives" section). On May 16, the Library of Congress opens an exhibit that should prove intriguing to writers and Whitman fans alike. "Revising Himself: Celebrating 150 Years of Walt
Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass' " gives a glimpse of his process in creating the nine editions and includes manuscripts, letters, pen, eyeglasses and Civil War haversack.

The national bard makes his influence felt in things modern as well. Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School bears his name and Freedom Plaza (Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th streets NW) his words. The Whitman-Walker Clinic honors his role as nurse and the skills of his contemporary, Mary Edwards Walker, an assistant surgeon during the Civil War.

And another Whitman honor may soon come to pass. Murray and the Friends of Walt Whitman have been working toward a city designation of Walt Whitman Way, the one-block strip outside the National Portrait Gallery. A bill is being considered by the D.C. Council. Rather than a monument, a simple plaque noting his popular route seems most appropriate, Murray says, "since Whitman was such a great walker."

How to best find Whitman today? The clue lies in his groundbreaking book. "I loafe and invite my soul," he wrote. "I lean and loafe at my ease." Take a cue from him: Lean and loaf with his verse. With Whitman, you might contemplate "a spear of summer grass," embrace contradictions, "contain multitudes," sing.

Mary Quattlebaum is a frequent contributor to Weekend and author of several books of poems for children, including the forthcoming "Winter Friends" (Doubleday).

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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Events Around Town

Explore Whitman's Washington. Your group might take a self-guided walking tour or visit the Library of Congress exhibit "Revising Himself: Celebrating 150 Years of Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass,' " which runs May 16 through Dec. 3.

DC CELEBRATES WHITMAN: 150 YEARS OF "LEAVES OF GRASS"
-- March 26 through May 31, with readings and programs throughout the city. Organized by the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman. Beltway, an online poetry journal, provides the most comprehensive list of events; check www.washingtonart.com/whitman/events.html for any additions.

BOOKS

"WALT WHITMAN: THE COMPLETE POEMS," edited by Francis Murphy. Penguin, 2005, $17. Contains the final edition
of the poet's Leaves of Grass (1892), with earlier versions of poems provided in notes. Entire 1855 text of the poem later known as "Song of Myself" is included.

"WALT WHITMAN: POETRY AND PROSE," by Walt Whitman. Library of America, 1996, $17.95. Includes the first (1855) and ninth (1892) editions of Leaves of Grass, other poems and most of his prose.

READINGS

Check with local libraries and book stores for additional Whitman-inspired events throughout this anniversary year.

ARTS CLUB OF WASHINGTON -- 2017 I St. NW. 202-331-7282. www.artsclubofwashington.org.
On May 25 at 12:30, the club hosts a luncheon and reading by poets David McAleavey, Clarinda Harriss, Linda Joy Burke and Robert Giron. All will read from their own work and Whitman's. $15 (includes lunch); reservations required by calling 202-331-7282, Ext. 16.

BROOKLAND VISTOR'S CENTER -- 3450 Ninth St. NE. 202-526-1632. www.geocities.com/bawadc.
On May 4 at 7, the Brookland Poetry Series presents a reading of work by Whitman and Beat poets. Free.

CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA -- Herzfeld Auditorium's Hannan Hall, 620 Michigan Ave. NE.
202-319-5488. publicaffairs.cua.edu/news/05springpoetry.htm.
On April 20 at 4:30, poets Patricia Gray, Saundra Rose Maley, Judith McCombs, Kim Roberts and Richard Sharp join David Bottoms, winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, to read their poems honoring Whitman. Sponsored by English Department. Free.

CHAPTERS, A LITERARY BOOKSTORE -- 445 11th St. NW. 202-737-5553. www.chaptersliterary.com.
On April 7 at 7, David Bergman, Myra Sklarew and Rosemary Winslow read from Whitman and share their own poems. Free.

FOLGER SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY -- 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. www.folger.edu.
On May 16 at 7:30, Mark Doty and Anne Waldman read Whitman's poems in celebration of his birthday. $10; for advance tickets, call 202-544-7077.

FORD'S THEATRE -- 511 10th St. NW. 202-426-6924. www.nps.gov/foth or www.fordstheatre.org.
On April 14 and 15 at 9:15, 10:15, 11:15, 2:15, 3:15 and 4:15, dramatic readings of Whitman's poem "O Captain! My
Captain!" presented with the story of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and Whitman's regard for the president. Sponsored by the National Park Service. Free.

GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY -- Marvin Center's Kayser Room, 800 21st St. NW. 202-994-6180. www.gwu.edu/~english.
On April 16, from noon to 5, the Department of English hosts a reading of the entire 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass by local poets, actors and politicians. Others interested in participating can sign up for a slot that day. Free.

GRACE CHURCH -- 1041 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-333-7100. www.gracedc.org.
On Tuesday at 7:30, Mark DeFoe, Grace Cavalieri, Sarah Browning and Hilary Tham read selections from their own and Whitman's work. Free.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. MEMORIAL LIBRARY -- 901 G St. NW. 202-727-1111. www.dclibrary.org/mlk.
On April 23, from noon to 3, the annual D.C. public library celebration of poetry features numerous readings and programs. At 12:30, retired librarian Sherwood Smith reads poems by Whitman and talks about his connection to Washington. Free.

WRITER'S CENTER -- 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. 301-654-8664. www.writer.org.
On April 29, poets and prose writers invited to read creative work inspired by or in the voice of Walt Whitman. Open mike sign-up at 7, reading at 7:30. Free.

RESOURCES

ACADEMY OF AMERICAN POETS -- 588 Broadway, Suite 604, New York. 212-274-0343. www.poets.org.
Web site features information on many poets and the newly launched "reading guides" to encourage formation of poetry-oriented book groups, including a guide to Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The academy sponsors National Poetry Month in April and is the largest organization in the country devoted solely to poetry.

BELTWAY -- www.washingtonart.com, click Beltway: A Poetry Quarterly.
A Whitman tribute in this online journal, co-edited by Kim Roberts and Saundra Rose Maley, features work by 38 local poets, including David McAleavey and Linda Pastan. The poems can be read through April 1 and thereafter by clicking on "Archives," which also includes Roberts's "Whitman in Washington," an account of Whitman's 10 years in the nation's capital and their impact on his poetry.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS -- www.loc.gov. 202-707-8000 (visitors information), 202-707-4604 (exhibits).
Houses the world's largest collection of Whitman's work, including manuscripts and letters. Two buildings are hosting free special events. At the Madison Building (101 Independence Ave. SE), readings of Whitman's poems will be held Friday at noon in the sixth-floor Mumford Room (call 202-707-5383 with questions), and a birthday tribute by television and radio personality Robert Aubry Davis on May 31 at noon in third-floor Pickford Theater (call 202-707-1308 with questions). At the Jefferson Building (10 First St. SE), on April 14 at 7:30, Daniel Mark Epstein reads Whitman's "Death of Lincoln" lecture, with music by the Air Force Band, in Coolidge Auditorium. From May 16 through Dec. 3, "Revising Himself: Celebrating 150 Years of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass" runs in the Jefferson Building (open Monday through Saturday, 10 to 5).

WASHINGTON FRIENDS OF WALT WHITMAN -- Founded by D.C. resident Martin Murray in 1987, the group offers occasional walking tours, readings and socials that revolve around Whitman and his Washington years. To join the group and receive notices of upcoming events, e-mail CalvertMartin@starpower.net. On April 16 from 10 to 11:30 a.m., the group hosts a talk on and exercise related to Whitman's meditation practices. Friends Meeting of Washington (Quaker meeting house),
2111 Florida Ave. NW in Dupont Circle. Free, but donations welcome. Registration required; e-mail ananda001@aol.com. Limit 20 people.

WALT WHITMAN ARCHIVE -- www.whitmanarchive.org.
This electronic research and teaching tool includes or provides links to the poet's images, manuscripts, prose essays, notebooks, letters and all editions of his books. In conjunction with the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, a scholarly journal, the archive also maintains an up-to-date bibliography of books, essays and reviews about Whitman. Local Whitman scholar Martin Murray's articles can be read on the Web site, including "Traveling With the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals" and "'Pete the Great': A Biography of Peter Doyle."

WALKING TOURS

"WHITMAN in DC" -- www.rainbowhistory.org/whitman-web.pdf.
A brochure detailing a self-guided walking tour of Whitman's Washington can be downloaded from this Web site maintained by the Rainbow History Project. Hard copies will be available at many of the aforementioned Whitman events. Founded in 2000, the volunteer-run group collects and preserves information on the history and arts of the city's sexually diverse communities. The site includes essays, information on exhibits and walking tours of Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods.

WHITMAN'S WASHINGTON -- On April 17 from 10 to noon, Martin Murray and Craig Howell share history related to Civil War Washington and Whitman as they take visitors on a walking tour of the sites of boarding houses, offices and hospitals frequented by Whitman. Free. No advance registration required. Meet in front of Hotel Monaco at Seventh and F streets NW. Sponsored by Cultural Tourism DC. 202-661-7581. www.culturaltourismdc.org.

CONGRESSIONAL CEMETERY -- On May 7 at 10:30, Steven Carson and Martin Murray walk participants through the 32-acre historic cemetery, established in 1807, where some of Whitman's friends and the soldiers he nursed are buried. Free. No advance registration required. Meet at cemetery chapel at 1801 E St. SE. Rain date: May 8 at 10:30. Sponsored by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery. 202-543-0539. www.congressionalcemetery.org.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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Create Your Own Poem Fest

Want to raise a poetic yawp with friends? National Poetry Month offers the perfect chance. On April 1, the Academy of American Poets launches a "Reading Guide to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass," the first in a series on American poetry. (Guides and book-group details will be available April 1 at www.poets.org/bookclub.) "We're emphasizing the pleasures of reading and sharing poetry," says Charles Flowers, the academy's associate director. "This is not homework!" Flowers offers tips for hosting a one-time gathering on Whitman -- which could be the start of a regular poetry group.

Start small. Limiting the group to three to seven people gives everyone a chance to share opinions.

Read aloud. Take turns reading favorite poems or sections of longer works.

Focus discussion. Prepared questions encourage participants to delve deeper. An example from the guide: "Consider the book's title. What does a 'leaf of grass' mean to Whitman? To you?"

Serve food. Dish out a few morsels with the metaphors to heighten the fun. You might serve "red fruit" and "polish'd breasts of melons" and suck cider "juice through a straw," all mentioned in "Leaves of Grass."

Be not afraid. "People can shy away from poetry, feeling dumb because they didn't understand the symbolism or theme or some of the language," Flowers says. "There are no right and wrong answers; there are many ways to read and interpret a poem."

Take up your pen. Reading Whitman may inspire verse of your own. Many groups share their own poems as well as those by others.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company