Walt Whitman’s legacy lives on as one of America’s best-known poets. He was born 200 years ago on Long Island, New York. His poetry, his life and his St. Louis connections are being celebrated with a special exhibit at Maryville University.
In early adulthood, Whitman worked as type compositor, printer, teacher and clerked in various government offices. During the Civil War, he sat in hospitals with injured soldiers.
Whitman’s first edition of “Leaves of Grass” was published in 1855. Whitman introduced poetic expression free of restrictions of rhyme, standard meter and line length. His topics ranged from celebrations of American greatness to observations of the natural world to chronicles of ordinary people. He was not afraid of sensuality and sexual innuendo, as expressed in his lengthy “Song of Myself.”
In an 1879 St. Louis Post-Dispatch interview, Whitman says about poetry:
“The whole tendency of poetry has been toward refinement. I have felt that was not worthy of America. Something more vigorous, al fresco, was needed, and then more than all I determined from the beginning to put a whole living man into the expression of a poem, without wincing. I thought the time had come to do so, and I thought America was the place to do it.”
Whitman spent time in St. Louis because his brother, Thomas Jefferson “Jeff” Whitman had come to St. Louis in 1867 to be the chief engineer in charge of building a new waterworks for the city. Jeff Whitman later became Water Commissioner.
Walt Whitman, who lived in New Jersey, traveled west to Kansas and Colorado in 1879. He is believed to have suffered a mild stroke on that journey and spent some months recuperating in St. Louis with his brother’s family.
As his health improved, he walked daily from their home near Jefferson Avenue and Pine Street to the river from where he could admire the Eads Bridge in changing patterns of light.
Years after the poet’s death in New Jersey in 1892, his St. Louis niece, Jessie Whitman, became the executor of the poet’s legacy and mementos.
The Missouri History Museum in Forest Park has a special author’s edition of an 1882 edition of “The Leaves of Grass” with added poems Whitman had written for the Theodore Taylor family. Taylor was an associate of Jeff Whitman’s at the water department.
The exhibit at Maryville University was researched and compiled by Humanities Professor Germaine Murray and her associates. The exhibit occupies a portion of the library at Maryville and will remain on display through October 18. The library is at 610 Maryville University Drive, 63141.
I CELEBRATE myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.
– opening lines of “Song of Myself”