With the most extensive collection of Walt Whitman archival holdings anywhere, the Library of Congress is well-suited to illustrate the creativity and impact of this great American poet in the exhibit "Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and 'Leaves of Grass.'" The display, which mimics the physical exhibition that closed Dec. 3, 2005, can be accessed online at www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/whitman-home.html.
"Revising Himself" features approximately 75 items from the Library's collections donated by Whitman's heirs and close friends Thomas Harned and Horace Traubel, rare first editions collected by author and Whitman bibliophile Carolyn Wells Houghton and other selections from the incomparable collection of Whitman manuscripts, photographs and books amassed by Detroit businessman Charles Feinberg now held by the Library.
During his lifetime, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) repeatedly altered his persona and revised his writing in reaction to the changing world around him. The exhibition is divided into sections that follow the development of Whitman's life and careers—from "Journalist and Teacher," "Leaves of Grass" and "Wound Dresser in the Civil War" to "Poet of the Nation," "Sage" and finally "Legend."
Beginning in 1855 and continuing until he died, Whitman published nine different editions, plus variants, of "Leaves of Grass." As the exhibition shows, Whitman remade himself and his reputation while he simultaneously produced new and more comprehensive versions of "Leaves of Grass," the work that revolutionized American poetry in both style and content. As the many revised editions circulated, "Leaves of Grass" became increasingly recognized as one of the key texts of 19th century American literature, and appreciation of Whitman spread around the world.
Highlights of the exhibit include two copies of the rare July 4, 1855, edition, along with what many consider to be the most important letter in American literary history: Ralph Waldo Emerson's July 21, 1855, endorsement of Walt Whitman, praising his new book as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." Rare copies of all the major editions of "Leaves of Grass" on view show the evolution of the book from a slim volume to the great compendium of Whitman's lifetime poetic output.
The exhibition also includes one of the earliest extant Whitman manuscripts, an 1840 letter written during his unhappy teaching stint in rural Long Island. Other unique items include the only known surviving page from the manuscript of the 1855 edition of "Leaves of Grass" and several original notebooks, including one with trial lines for what became "Song of Myself" ("I am the poet of slaves/ And of the masters of slaves"). Portraits of Whitman illustrate the poet's evolution from the young working man of 1855 to the bearded Camden, N.J., retiree surrounded by piles of manuscripts.
Also on view are major Whitman artifacts such as the calamus cane given the poet by his friend the naturalist John Burroughs, a cardboard butterfly Whitman poised on his hand and used as a motif in the designs for several editions of "Leaves of Grass" and his pen. Items from Whitman's later years include a manuscript draft of his last poem, "A Thought of Columbus," as well as Whitman's design for his own burial vault and an eyewitness description of the last moments of his life.
Some of the Whitman notebooks, as well as the cardboard butterfly can also be viewed online at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwhtml/.
In addition to the exhibit, "Revising Himself," the Library of Congress scheduled other events to mark the 150th anniversary of the first publication of "Leaves of Grass." The first, held on March 25, was a serial reading of Whitman's Lincoln elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," which was recorded and can be viewed at the Library's Web site at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/.
The second, held on June/July/August 14, featured a re-creation of Whitman's "Death of Lincoln" lecture by playwright and biographer Daniel Mark Epstein, held at the Library on the anniversary of Lincoln's assassination. It was preceded by instrumental selections by the United States Air Force Band ceremonial brass quintet, followed by art songs set to Whitman lyrics, sung by tenor Paul Eschliman. The event was sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and the Library's Manuscript and Music divisions. It can be viewed on the Library's Web site at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/.