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Ever popular, poet Walt Whitman’s legacy lives on

September 28, 2005

By Deepa Babington

NEW YORK (Reuters) – He thought blacks were no more capable
than baboons and was a reputed womanizer who may have actually
been gay, but 150 years after his masterpiece first hit the
shelves, populist poet Walt Whitman is still the rage.

After inspiring a steady stream of books and movies for
decades, a wave of exhibits, conferences and even a jazz
composition set to his work have emerged in recent months to
commemorate the 150th anniversary of his lifelong labor — a
collection of poems called “Leaves of Grass.”

Among them is an exhibit at the New York Public Library
featuring faded photographs, rare manuscripts and even a lock
of Whitman’s golden-brown hair. Titled “I am With You: Walt
Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ (1855-2005)” the exhibit opened
earlier this month and runs through the beginning of January.

The poetry expressed much of what Whitman publicly
championed: a vision of inclusiveness in a changing society.
Privately, his views were far less accommodating.

Living in the Civil War era, Whitman’s private musings
suggested he believed blacks were inferior and could not be
successfully integrated into society, even though he wrote
sympathetically of the runaway slave, the exhibit’s curator,
Isaac Gewirtz, said.

Whitman even once wrote in a magazine article that blacks
were no more capable than baboons, though he crossed off that
reference before the article was printed, Gewirtz added.

But all that has failed to put a damper on Whitman’s
growing popularity, and today he is widely accepted even by
African American authors.

AMERICAN VOICE

Scholars say his writing helped develop a distinctly
American sensibility that remains as relevant today as it did
during the Civil War, while others have latched on to the
strong sexual undertones in some of his writing and propelled
him to the status of gay icon.

“There’s a way in which Whitman has provided a comfort zone
in which to consider same-sex love because he is this
larger-than-life literary figure,” said Kenneth Price, a
University of Nebraska professor. “So he’s somewhat immune to
the sharp criticism that might be leveled from some quarters.”

Whitman himself downplayed any suggestion of his own
homosexuality in his writings.

Instead, he earned notoriety — and the threat of
censorship — for his unabashed description of heterosexual
intimacy in a later volume of “Leaves of Grass,” which included
references to his impregnating many women.

None of that helped book sales at the time. Today though,
Whitman is viewed as something of a U.S. national poet.

“I think of Whitman as being for American culture something
akin to what Shakespeare is for England or Goethe for Germany
or Cervantes for Spain,” said Price. “He’s this national figure
who articulated something fundamental about American
consciousness.”

Later writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were
captivated by Whitman’s message. More recently, jazz pianist
Fred Hersch composed a piece set to Leaves of Grass, while
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham’s latest novel
was also inspired by Whitman.

Yellowing manuscript pages on display offer a glimpse into
the reasons behind the continuing fascination: Whitman wrote of
simple working class pursuits like riding the Brooklyn ferry
and wrote it simply, in words equally at home on the streets of
New York as they were in a poet’s notebook.

“Whitman was a poet 100 years before his time,” said
Gewirtz, adding that his direct, conversation style was “very
new in English poetry.”

At a time when American writers sounded little different
from their British counterparts — sometimes even referring to
birds that hadn’t been seen on this side of the Atlantic —
Whitman was happy to ditch literary eloquence in favor of
gritty working class themes.

In one of the first editions of “Leaves of Grass” on
display, Whitman’s portrait gracing the inside cover shuns the
ruffle-shirted elegance favored by poets of the day, showing
him instead as a simple artisan.

For all his impact on the American literary landscape,
Whitman’s star in his homeland never shone during his lifetime
as much as it did across the Atlantic, a fact he noted in
scratchy black ink in a manuscript on display at the exhibit:
“In the British islands and cities, London, Edinburgh and
Dublin, the poet seems to have a more settled state and more
appreciative readers than in his own country.”




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