poetry quarterly

10th anniversary

LITERARY ORGANIZATIONS ISSUE

The Washington Friends of Walt Whitman

by Martin G. Murray

 

The Washington Friends of Walt Whitman is a group of enthusiasts who have been celebrating Walt Whitman’s life in DC through tours, lectures, and concerts since 1988. It started with a modest walk I led on Whitman’s birthday (May 31) of sites associated with the poet: the Treasury Building where he worked for the Attorney General’s Office, Ford’s Theater where Whitman’s beloved President Lincoln was assassinated, and the Old Patent Office Building (now the National Portrait Gallery) which housed a Civil War-era hospital that Whitman frequently visited to comfort the wounded. The group was “created” as a temporary convenience to lend an air of legitimacy to the tour’s announcement in local media calendars (the Washington Blade and City Paper). But the participants in the tour enjoyed themselves so much that they insisted the Washington Friends must continue, and so we did.


Martin G. Murray leads a Downtown DC Whitman Walking Tour for Cultural Tourism DC's annual
"WalkingTown DC" event, 2009.  Photo taken inside the Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery.

Our founding members included Morgan McDonald and his partner Peter Scott, Civil War buff Craig Howell, local historian Jerri Linder (now deceased), and myself. Over the years, our membership has ebbed and flowed but the stalwarts include the above, as well as Woody Smith, Neil Richardson and Karen Loeschner, Robert Jones and Donna Jones, Rosemary Winslow, Patricia Gray, Richard Anderson and his partner Bill Hopkins, the late Steve Carson, Saundra Rose Maley, Kim Roberts, David Brundage, David McAleavey, Richard Sharpe, Alice Birney, Barbara Bair, Richard Claude, E.T. Ballard, Barret Brick, Dan Vera, Michael Gushue, Ryan Shephard, Kathleen O’Reilly, Ed Folsom, Ken Price, Larry Plumlee, Grace Cavalieri, Richard McCann, and Vinod Busjeet and Nessa Busjeet.

Over the years, Craig Howell has led a number of interesting battle site tours, including Fredericksburg, where Whitman began his Civil War ministry to the wounded by visiting his brother George and fellow soldiers of the 51st NY Infantry at the Lacy House hospital. Other battleground visits were made to Antietam (where George and Whitman’s Rebel buddy Pete Doyle fought against one another) and Culpeper (where Whitman helped the Army Paymaster distribute pay to the troops). Steve Carson helped us honor the memories of soldiers Whitman befriended, with visits to Arlington (final resting place for Lewy Brown and Oscar Cunningham), and Congressional Cemetery (soldier-friend John Mahay and Whitman’s lover Pete Doyle are buried there). Dan Vera also led an observance on the 100th anniversary of Doyle's death at his gravesite.

On other occasions, the group has attended musical concerts featuring settings of Whitman’s work. Some memorable performances included Thomas Hampson at the Library of Congress, the Cathedral Choral Society’s presentation of Paul Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d and the Choral Arts Society’s rendition of R. Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony. Interspersed have been lectures and book-signings by leading Whitman scholars Kenneth Price (To Walt Whitman, America), Jerome Loving (Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself), Michael Robertson (Worshiping Walt: The Whitman Disciples), and Woody Smith, David Kuebrich, Alice Birney, Neil Richardson, Rosemary Winslow and Martin Murray (contributors to The Walt Whitman Encyclopedia).

In 2005, the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman sponsored a city-wide celebration of the 150th anniversary of the landmark first edition of Leaves of Grass. Chaired by Kim Roberts, and presented in partnership with twenty local arts and culture organizations, the sesquicentennial saw poetry readings by Mark Doty and Anne Waldman at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a meditation inspired by Whitman’s poetry and journals guided by Neil Richardson at the Friends’ Meeting House, readings of “O Captain, My Captain” by park rangers at Ford’s Theater, a published walking tour brochure by Rainbow History Project, a marathon reading of the first edition of Leaves of Grass at the George Washington University, and several discrete afternoons and evenings devoted to poets Mark DeFoe, Grace Cavalieri, Sarah Browning, Hilary Tham, David Bergman, Myra Sklarew, Rosemary Winslow, David Bottoms, Patricia Gray, Saundra Rose Maley, Judith McCombs, Kim Roberts, Richard Sharp, David McAleavey, Clarinda Harriss, Linda Joy Burke, and Robert L. Giron. The celebration culminated with the passage by the DC City Council of the "Walt Whitman Way Designation Act of 2005," Bill 16-169, giving an honorary designation to F Street NW between 7th and 8th Streets, facing the National Portrait Gallery.

In 2008, the Washington Friends celebrated its own 20th anniversary that featured a dramatic reading of selections from “Song of Myself” by Annie Houston of the Washington Shakespeare Company at the home of Vinod and Nessa Busjeet. And this year, we will mark the sesquicentennial of Walt Whitman’s third edition of Leaves of Grass, which introduced the world to the “Calamus” and “Children of Adam” poems exploring same- and opposite-gender sexuality, respectively. On May 31, the Friends will pay tribute to Charles Eldridge, the publisher of this remarkable edition, with a gravesite visit at Rock Creek Church Cemetery.

Thanks to the efforts of Dan Vera, the Washington Friends now live in cyberspace as the Yahoo Group “Cyberwalt.” All Whitman lovers are cordially invited to join!

Joy! Joy! in freedom, worship, love! Joy in the ecstasy of life!
Enough to merely be! Enough to breathe!
Joy! Joy! all over Joy!


— Walt Whitman, "The Mystic Trumpeter"

 


Further Reading

The Washington Friends of Walt Whitman web site (and the "CyberWalt" list serve)

The Whitman Issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly was published in Winter 2004, co-edited by Kim Roberts and Saundra Rose Maley, co-sponsored by the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman.

"Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals" by Martin G. Murray

"Pete the Great: A Biography of Peter Doyle" by Martin G. Murray

The Rainbow History Walt Whitman Walking Tour (pdf) by Martin G. Murray and Kim Roberts

"DC Celebrates Whitman: 150 Years of Leaves of Grass" festival web site

 

 

Martin G. Murray is is an independent researcher and founder of the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman. He has written and lectured extensively on Whitman for both academic and nonacademic audiences. His essays have been published in A Companion to Walt Whitman (Blackwell Publishing), The Walt Whitman Encyclopedia (Garland Publishers), Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (University of Iowa Press), the Yale University Library Gazette, and Washington History (The Historical Society of Washington DC), as well as on The Classroom Electric and the Walt Whitman Electronic Archive websites. His contributions include several pieces of uncollected Whitman prose journalism, biographical annotations of soliders appearing in Whitman's Specimen Days, and a biography of Whitman's companion Peter Doyle. An economist by profession, Murray has a graduate degree from The George Washington University, and an undergraduate degree from Rutgers College. He is employed by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a federal regulatory agency.

 

Published in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.