The bicentennial of the birth of the great poet Walt Whitman [1819-1892] is today, May 31, 2019. The irrepressible Whitman still sings in the 21st century, but if you would like to check out his sole surviving recording, circa 1889-90, you can listen to it here. The recording is a recitation of the following poem, though the last two lines are not captured on the wax cylinder:
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,All, all alike endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old,Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,Chair'd in the adamant of Time.
The story of how it came about, and its technical aspects, can be read in Professor Ed Folsom's "The Whitman Recording." The scholarship on Whitman is of course vast, with (re)discoveries in recent years including Whitman's novel, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, and a lengthy newspaper series curiously called "Manly Health and Training," both texts being uncovered by Zachary Turpin.
The University of Iowa has long been a center for Whitman scholarship, with Prof. Folsom and others maintaining the extensive Walt Whitman Archive and editing the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. The first MOOC (or Massive Open Online Course) that Iowa's International Writing Program ever offered, in 2014, was "Every Atom: Walt Whitman's 'Song of Myself.'"
In 2005, Iowa mounted a major exhibition that drew heavily upon the Whitman collection of Dr. Kendall Reed, and for which Prof. Folsom wrote an extensive illustrated catalog, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog & Commentary. The catalog delves deeply into not only Whitman's writing practice but how his knowledge of printing influenced the design and make-up of his ever-evolving masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. A fascinating study (and freely available online), it begins:
Walt Whitman is the only major American poet of the nineteenth century to have an intimate association with the art of bookmaking. Everyone knows Whitman as a poet and the author of one of the most studied books of American poetry, Leaves of Grass. What is less well known is that Whitman was trained as a printer and throughout his life spent time in printing shops and binderies, often setting type himself and always intimately involved in the design and production of his books. Whitman did not just write his book, he made his book, and he made it over and over again, each time producing a different material object that spoke to its readers in different ways.
No nineteenth-century American author was more involved in the range of actual activities of bookmaking than Whitman. He began his career as a newspaper worker, learning typesetting at the young age of twelve as an apprentice on the Long Island Patriot under the tutelage of William Hartshorne (1775–1859), a master printer (Whitman called him "the veteran printer of the United States") who later became Brooklyn's city printer. Late in his life, Whitman wrote a poem called "A Font of Type," in which he imagines all the "unlaunch'd voices—passionate powers, / Wrath, argument, or praise, or comic leer, or prayer devout" that lie "within the pallid slivers slumbering" in "This latent mine" of the type-box . . . .
To commemorate Whitman's enduring body of work, the University of Iowa Libraries offers the exhibition, Walt Whitman: A Bicentennial Celebration, through August 9, as well as Walt Whitman at 200: The Bicentennial Symposium, on June 18-19. Additional events and programming nationally can be found at the Walt Whitman Initiative website.
Note: The illustration above is from the frontispiece for the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), as found in the University of Iowa Libraries' copy.