Encompassing Multitudes: The Song of Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass may well be the greatest work-in-progress in literary history. The story of this work and its iconic creator has a little bit of everything, from its decades-long creative process to its revolutionizing of the American poetic form to incorporate free verse. Now that story is being told by the University of Virginia Library as part of a celebration of the bicentennial of Whitman’s birth through the exhibition Encompassing Multitudes: The Song of Walt Whitman.
On view in the Main Gallery of the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library through July 27, 2019, the exhibition features items from throughout the project’s life cycle, and from many of the various editions that Whitman published from 1855 until his death in 1892. In addition to these rare pieces, drawn almost entirely from the world-renowned Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, the exhibition takes visitors on a journey through one of the most fascinating of American lives, which included stints as journalist, Civil War hospital volunteer, and unofficial national elegist for Abraham Lincoln, who inspired legendary Whitman works including O Captain, My Captain!
The exhibition features the research and story-telling of chief curator George Riser along with co-curators and poets Stephen Cushman (Robert C. Taylor Professor of English) and Lisa Russ Spaar (Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program). The room’s outer ring is dedicated to Whitman’s life, introducing visitors to moments and milestones from his upbringing as well as correspondences with and from a who’s who of nineteenth-century arts and culture, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vincent Van Gogh, William Henry Longfellow, and others. The inner ring features Whitman’s immortal work, Leaves of Grass, starting with the 1855 first edition--and proof that the book was not exactly an overnight sensation in the form of some less-than-stellar reviews at the time of its publishing.
As the editions mount, the world takes notice, and visitors get an inside glimpse at how one of the most revolutionary figures in American literary history transformed the way the nation read, felt, and thought. While Whitman’s abandonment of traditional verse was a sort of artistic earthquake of its own, it was the way he was able to truly see America as the growing and complicated nation it was, and more importantly, how he saw shared humanity as the hope for our future that makes the man, and this exhibition, unforgettable. As if the work and life are not fascinating enough, the exhibition caps off the visitor experience with a digital exclamation point of sorts in Whitman, Alabama (whitmanalabama.com). Featured at the heart of the exhibition and center of the gallery space, Whitman, Alabama is a work-in-progress that showcases filmmaker Jennifer Crandall’s two-year tour of Alabama to film residents reciting pieces of Whitman’s famedSong of Myself. The subjects represent a stunning cross-section of classes and races, of ages and of gender, and yet the words they speak, create a certain kind of chorus sung from the hymnal that represents America at its most quintessential core. They are Whitman’s vision of a nation come to life, and the real-life embodiment of some of his masterpiece’s most unforgettable words: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”