Hailed as “America’s poet” by poet Ezra Pound and others, Walt Whitman is a familiar name to most Americans, even if they haven’t read his most famous work Leaves of Grass. Even 200 years after his birth, Whitman finds himself the center of countless research questions and an inspiration for modern writers. For someone who starts one of his famous poems with “I celebrate myself, I sing myself,” it only makes sense that the University of Iowa Libraries follow suit and take time to celebrate Whitman’s legacy with the exhibit Walt Whitman: A Bicentennial Celebration.
Curated by Stephanie Blalock, a Digital Humanities Librarian, James O’Neil, a Ph.D candidate in English, and Ed Folsom, a professor of English, this exhibit aims to highlight Whitman’s life through his early works of fiction, as well as his famous editions of Leaves of Grass.
“What we’re going to have on display here is just the tip of the iceberg in our collection, really,” O’Neil said.
All three of the curators have a different focus when it comes to Whitman’s life. This aided to the curation of the exhibit, as each curator was able to fill in specific gaps of knowledge about the poet’s life.
This exhibit has been in the works since 2016. With the vast amount of resources available about Whitman through the Whitman Archive and the holdings at University of Iowa Libraries’ Special Collections, the exhibit looks at several versions of his notable work Leaves of Grass, including a first edition. However, the curators also want to focus on his fiction, journals and old age prose.
“Whitman is generally remembered as the author of Leaves of Grass, but not as a fiction writer,” Blalock said. “He actually got his early start in the early 1840’s when he was about the age of some of our undergraduates here, writing for newspapers as a journalist and writing fiction.”
There will also be a connection to Iowa. The University Press reprinted several of Whitman’s political pamphlets he wrote after the Civil War, so there will be a case about Iowa, as well as other references sprinkled throughout the exhibit. The curators also stress looking at the screen outside of the exhibit entrance. The screen will have different artwork and interactive maps to give viewers more areas of exploration outside of the exhibit space.
Walt Whitman: A Bicentennial Celebration will open April 5th and there will be a talk in the exhibit space from 3:30-6:00 by curators Stephanie Blalock and Ed Folsom that day. Their talk will kick off a series of events to take place throughout spring and the beginning of summer. The schedule of Walt Whitman Symposium Events can be downloaded through the link.