Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > America's First Look into the Camera

Back to Collection Connections

[Detail] United States Capitol [ca 1846]

Walt Whitman and the Picture Gallery | Creative Writing | Literary Biography | Ichabod Crane | Penny Papers

America's First Look into the Camera offers portraits of authors, politicians, tradesmen, and other people in the nineteenth-century United States. These images can be used to spark biographical and critical assessments of an author's work. Other portraits can be used in creative writing projects and can prompt the analysis of the evolution of media outlets from their origins in the 1830s.

Walt Whitman and the Picture Gallery

In a July 2, 1846, edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, editor Walt Whitman described daguerreotype portraits as a spectacle:

In whatever direction you turn your peering gaze, you see naught but human faces! There they stretch, from floor to ceiling--hundreds of them. Ah! what tales might those pictures tell if their mute lips had the power of speech! How romance then, would be infinitely outdone by fact.

Whitman celebrated the connection that a viewer has with the subject of a portrait and noted, "An electric chain seems to vibrate. . . between our brain and him or her preserved there so well by the limner's cunning. Time, space, both are annihilated, and we identify the semblance with the reality." Whitman made reference, again, to this spectacle in his poem, "My Picture Gallery."

In a little house keep I pictures suspended, it is not a fix'd house,
It is round, it is only a few inches from one side to the other;
Yet behold, it has room for all the shows of the world, all memories!
Here the tableaus of life, and here the goupings of death;
Here, do you know this? this is cicerone himself,
With finger rais'd he points to the prodigal pictures.

  • In "My Picture Gallery," what does the metaphor of the "little house" represent?
  • What does the metaphor of the pictures represent? Why are they described as "prodigal"?

Whitman's biographer, David S. Reynolds, observed in Walt Whitman's America, that "photography was an essential metaphor behind [Whitman's] democratic aesthetic." This collection provides the opportunity to examine Whitman's work with an understanding of the impact of early photography in mind.

I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and that they
are my poems.
Man's, woman's, child's, youth's, wife's, husband's, mother's, father's,
young man's, young woman's poems.

"I Sing the Body Electric" (1855)

  • In what ways does Whitman's poetry resemble photography or a picture gallery?
  • Do his poems annihilate time and space?
  • What are some examples of what Reynolds calls Whitman's "democratic aesthetic"?
  • What does photography have to do with democracy?