The poets life and works are being explored in three exhibitions in New York, the city that saw him create some of his most profound poems
In July 1855, a pair of Scottish immigrant brothers, Andrew and Thomas Rome, published about 800 copies of a book of a dozen poems at their Brooklyn Heights printing press. The title of the text, Leaves of Grass, was printed in vine-like gold letters on its rich green front cover, which made no mention of its author, Walt Whitman, a friend of the Rome brothers who had talked them into publishing his book of poetry.
The text was like no other book that ever was written, a critic for Life Illustrated claimed at the time. Readers cracked open Leaves of Grass to find an engraved frontispiece of Whitman, his gaze direct, one hand on his hip and the other in his pants pocket, framing an outfit consisting of a wide-brimmed hat and a loose, unbuttoned shirt that was unusually bohemian for a member of his contemporary literary class. To some, the text was even more surprising than the image of Whitmans likeness: the author penned the 12 poems in free verse, eschewing traditional standards of rhyme and meter, and addressed his readers directly and often in the first person while inquiring ideas about death, democracy, sexuality and the body.
Within weeks of the initial publication, Ralph Waldo Emerson called the text the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. And Sara Willis also known as Fanny Fern, Americas first professional female newspaper columnist praised Whitmans work in her column in the New York Ledger the following year. But outrage over Whitmans frank, sensual literary musings reverberated throughout the following decades among moral fundamentalists: the book got Whitman fired from his job in the Department of the Interior in 1865, and was banned by the district attorney of Boston in 1882.
Despite the mixed reviews, Leaves of Grass would become one of the most influential works of American literature over the course of the next century. And Whitman might have predicted it: I celebrate myself, he wrote in the first line of the book. This summer, in the year of the bards bicentennial, a trio of exhibitions across New York City celebrates the poets life, work and legacy. At the New York Public Library, Walt Whitman: Americas Poet examines the people, places and experiences that most influenced Whitman. The Morgan Library & Museums Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy considers the writers evolution over the course of his career. And at the Grolier Club, Poet of the Body: New Yorks Walt Whitman highlights Whitmans formative years in New York, as well as the intimate relationships that shaped both his work and his personal life.
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