‘Bard of Democracy’ Exhibition Celebrates Whitman’s 200th Birthday

By Penny Zhou

Walt Whitman, The Bard of Democracy. Imagine a completely unknown author received this email from novelist Jonathan Franzen about his recently self-published book that had an initial print-run of just 795 copies:

“I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed … I greet you at the beginning of a great career … I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.”

This same ecstasy was inspired in Walt Whitman when he received the letter on July 21, 1855. It was from Ralph Waldo Emerson, an extremely famous author at the time, curator Sal Robinson told NTD.

A letter from Ralph Emerson, then a famous author, to Walt Whitman in 1855, displayed at the Morgan Library and Museum. (Shenghua Song/NTD)
A letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, then a famous author, to Walt Whitman in 1855, displayed at the Morgan Library and Museum. (Shenghua Song/NTD)

Robinson is the curator of the exhibition “Walt Whitman, The Bard of Democracy” at Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. The show is among many across the country celebrating the 200th birthday of this beloved American poet.

The exhibition showcases Whitman’s early days as a local New York journalist; the publication of his poetry collection “Leaves of Grass;” the civil war; his post-war years in Washington, D.C.; as well as a final section about how he has influenced writers and artists in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Inspiration From Opera

Among the collections showcasing the factors that shaped Whitman and his poems is a sketch of a New York opera house, as well as a portrait of Jenny Lind, a Swedish soprano whom he admired.

Another opera singer who attracted Whitman was the Italian contralto Marietta Alboni, who gained fame for her classic “bel canto.” Whitman claimed to have never missed even one of her New York performances.

A portrait of Jenny Lind, a Swedish soprano Whitman admired, displayed at Morgan Library and Museum. (Shenghua Song/NTD)
Portrait of Jenny Lind, a Swedish soprano Whitman admired, displayed at Morgan Library and Museum. (Shenghua Song/NTD)

Robinson said inspiration from this traditional Italian art contributes to the captivating sentiment in Whitman’s poems.

“He very much wrote as a soloist. And I think that’s why his work is so appealing for composers,” she told NTD. “Whitman writes about the way opera gives you a sense of the power of the voice and teaches you how to use your voice.”

Robinson said, “I think he really learned from the example of the aria that you would have this solo moment on stage, in which you have to sort of command the entire audience.”

“But for opera,” Whitman confided to his friend John Townsend Trowbridge late in his life, “I could never have written ‘Leaves of Grass.’”

Volunteer During the Civil War

“Whitman was a firm believer in the virtue, the intelligence, the honesty, the trustworthiness of the American people,” Robinson said, “He saw that particularly proved during the civil war; he saw the kind of voluntary taking-up of arms …”

Whitman arrived at Washington, D.C. in December 1862 to attend to his brother George, who was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg. During the days at the hospital, the empathetic poet was so touched by the soldiers’ sacrifice that he stayed on as a nurse to look after them.

“He was really selfless,” Robinson said, “He would bring anything for them. He wrote letters for them. He wrote to their families. He wrote about them, to drum up money [for them].”

In his poem “The Wound-Dresser,” he wrote: “I pacify with soothing hand, I sit by the restless all the dark night … Some suffer so much”

‘You Cannot Legislate Men Into Morality’

Apart from being known as “America’s national poet,” during his early years as a journalist, Whitman also wrote extensively in prose about his ideals—democracy, individuality, and freedom.

Robinson said in Whitman’s life, he remained critical of many politicians, and hoped the country could rid itself of corruption.

Whitman also believed the best government is “that which governs the least,” and is limited in scope and power.

“You Cannot Legislate Men Into Morality,” he wrote in his 1842 article Legislation And Morality, “The more lumbering and numerous become the tomes in a lawyer’s library—the longer and stronger grows the list of penalties for crime.”