By YVONNE FRENCH
It was almost as if Walt Whitman himself were there when his most recent biographer gave a talk in the Mumford Room for a "Books & Beyond" lecture March 22.
Not only did Jerome Loving, author of Walt Whitman: Song of Himself (University of California Press, 1999), show a number of slides of Whitman and his family and play a recording of the poem "America" (believed to be the only extant recording of the poet's actual voice), but on display were a larger-than-life white plaster bust of Whitman, a lock of his gray hair cut on the day of his death, a bronze cast of his hand, his fountain pen, spectacles and Calamus-root cane, his hastily hand-drawn design for his burial vault and an 1892 Frank Leslie's Weekly showing various scenes from his funeral.
The exhibition, mounted by American Literature Manuscript Historian Alice Birney of the Manuscript Division, was selected from items in the Charles Feinberg/Walt Whitman Collection. Notably, the exhibition also included the famous July 21, 1855, letter in which Ralph Waldo Emerson greets the upstart Whitman at the "beginning of a great career" and an 1870 broadside copy of the letter reprinted by Whitman. Mr. Loving described how Whitman rearranged the original paragraph to emphasize the complimentary phrase.
Said John Y. Cole, director of the Center for the Book, which sponsors the "Books & Beyond" lecture series: "Professor Loving relied on the Library's holdings and on help from Alice Birney in the research for his book. ... Alice and Jerry have worked on and off on various Whitman projects for almost nine years." Mr. Cole also noted that Mr. Loving had been interviewed earlier in the day on National Public Radio and that his talk was filmed for telecast on C-SPAN2's "BookTV." It was to air on May 2.
The biography begins before the Civil War as "Whitman was making his way through that now-famous 'long foreground' [also mentioned in the letter] that Emerson recognized when he first read Whitman's poetry in 1855," said Mr. Loving. Eventually, though not during his lifetime, Whitman's "free versification and daringly fresh content would revolutionize American poetry," Ms. Birney said.
Mr. Loving explained: "His poetic career began almost by accident, in the early composition of Leaves of Grass. A former printer, he set up part of the first 1855 edition himself and first discovered the transformative power of the printed page. The printer's term for such experimental writing was 'grass,' or the job to be put up during idle times."
He discussed the influence of the Civil War on the book, and said: "Its mettle 'tested' by the Civil War, Leaves of Grass reshaped the canon of American literature and probably remains today its central document. ... [It] pretty well put America on the world literary map, certainly in terms of the 20th century appreciation of our national literature.
"In the first Leaves of Grass he introduced two ingredients thus far unknown to American poetry, at least as directly and significantly as they appeared in Whitman: sex and jobs. The first was inspired by Emerson and the transcendentalists, who said that all nature was an emblem of spirit, or God. If so, why not celebrate sex, which was a part of nature? The second was the American pastime for work. The work of the average: the lawyer, the laborer, the seamstress, the mother, the brother, the sister, even the Irish prostitute. Whitman celebrates what he calls 'the Divine Average' -- probably the most wonderful oxymoron democracy ever produced. ... The poet reasoned that if -- according to transcendentalist doctrine -- everyone was divine because nature was emblematic of God, then all were equal, politically equal, including women, whom Whitman treated equally with men.
"This idea of equality and self-divinity also meant that one could celebrate himself or herself. And so the first poem of the first edition of Leaves of Grass began: 'I celebrate myself [and sing myself] / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.'"
Mr. Loving had first contemplated writing a book about Whitman's biographers, but feared "we were getting away from the facts. I felt we needed a new critical and freshly documented life of the poet after almost 40 years -- something representing the scholarship and discoveries occurring since the publication by my mentor, the late Gay Wilson Allen, of The Solitary Singer in 1955. Hence, Mr. Loving's book is promoted as "the first full-length critical biography of Walt Whitman in more than 40 years."
Mr. Loving also said he wanted to refocus attention on what makes Whitman great: his poetry. "After the war ... [and] after he had been dismissed from his government job in Washington for being the author of a 'dirty book,' Whitman set aside the rest of his life to seek the acceptance of Leaves of Grass by the American people. As he wrote in the preface to his first edition: 'The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.'"
If the appreciative murmurings and attentive questions of the audience at the lecture were any indication, Mr. Whitman may rest assured that it has.
Mr. Loving has written many articles about Whitman, Whitman's friends and his biographers. He also is the author of four books: Lost in the Customhouse: Authorship in the American Renaissance (1993); Emily Dickinson: The Poet on the Second Story (1986); Emerson, Whitman and the American Muse (1982); and Walt Whitman's Champion: William Douglas O'Connor. He has edited, among other works, an edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass that was published in 1990 by Oxford University Press. He is a professor of English at Texas A&M University.
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.