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This article is taken from PN Review 212, Volume 39 Number 6, July - August 2013.Pictures from a Library 9: Whitmaniana
Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester.
The John Rylands Library holds a small assortment of oddments - ink-stained pen nibs, a crumpled lining of a man's hat, a jacket button and a desiccated bunch of flowers - that once belonged to the great American poet Walt Whitman. Humdrum in their own right but hallowed by their contact with the Good Grey Poet, these objects are charged full 'with the charge of the soul'.
Famous in his own time for his compassion as a wound dresser on the battlefields of the American Civil War, Whitman is distinguished as one of the world's first modern poets. Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855 and refined through a further nine iterations, presents a democratic vision of society, with ordinary human beings, and their bodies, as its focus:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be
blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work,
or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat,
the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the
hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in
the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young
wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day - at night the party of
young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Whitman hears the 'varied carols' of America and sings the song of an American self that is large, multitudinous, diverse and contradictory.
As his reputation spread his ideals made a great impact in Britain, especially on the socialist movement. In Bolton, Lancashire, he inspired a group of working men to establish the Bolton Whitman Fellowship. These men met regularly to read and discuss Whitman's work. Some members of the group corresponded with Whitman and made pilgrimages to New Jersey to meet him. After his death, the objects shown here were collected and cherished as mementos alongside fragments of his literary remains. 'Electric with significance' (Esther Leslie), they continue to exert their power over us. Despite the fact we know that it is the poet's words that really count, they entice us to believe that they carry some element of Whitman's genius that 'will spill over and bless us' (Marcia Pointon).
This article is taken from PN Review 212, Volume 39 Number 6, July - August 2013.