May 31, 2019 marks Walt Whitman’s two-hundredth birthday. In his lifetime, Whitman was a schoolmaster, journalist, editor, novelist, poet, and more, though his posthumous legacy has depended largely on his career as the author of a distinctly American volume of verse, Leaves of Grass, which begins famously: “I celebrate myself…” As a reviewer of his own work, his words rang true enough. But Whitman has also been celebrated by readers, scholars, and statesmen since the advent of his muscular, free verse, not to mention by devoted friends and followers such as Horace Traubel, who would describe Whitman on the occasion of his seventieth birthday as “our largest and most varied life.” We’re still coming to terms with exactly how large and varied Whitman’s life was, as new discoveries of lost volumes of his prose, including a novel, have landed him on the front page of the New York Times twice in as many years (2016 and 2017), and for the first time(s) since the Civil War.
Whitman’s bicentennial occasions a look back not only at these new discoveries from Whitman’s lifetime, but also at Whitman’s influence that extended well past his own life into new centuries in which his democratic optimism and Jacksonian populism would be championed, utilized, and also called into crisis. This exhibition prompts such examination by presenting a retrospective glance at (1) the many faces of Walt Whitman as he self-fashioned from dandy to sage; (2) the process by which he developed his signature poetic line that would be a hallmark of Leaves of Grass; (3) his interventions in the American Civil War; (4) how Whitman’s legacy has been shaped by those who have come after.