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 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.
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 Smith, 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 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 1st 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,
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"
Washington Friends of Walt Whitman web site
(and the "CyberWalt" list serve)
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.
with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals"
by Martin G. Murray
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
Celebrates Whitman: 150 Years of Leaves of Grass"
festival web site
Martin G. Murray is...
in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.