hand-colored photograph portrait of an older Walt Whitman with his arms crossed in front of him, white beard, and dark bluegreen suit
Mathew Brady (1822–1896)
Walt Whitman, ca. 1865
Digitally enhanced
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, Photography Collection

Two hundred years after his birth, Walt Whitman (1819–1892) remains one of America’s most influential writers, arguably our national poet. His life’s work, Leaves of Grass, is a perennial bestseller, and Whitman himself has attained the status of cultural icon—his name a byword for notions of inclusivity, equality, sensuality, and the value of the individual.

Whitman’s rise to prominence, however, was relatively slow, marked at times by public indifference, confusion, and hostility. In hindsight, such initial reactions are understandable. Eschewing traditional rhyme and meter, and treating themes such as democracy, nature, death, and sexuality in an idiosyncratic diction, his verse was like little else that had gone before. Yet for all its strangeness, Leaves of Grass derived squarely from its author’s world, from the myriad events and ideas he absorbed and ultimately expressed.

The years preceding Whitman’s death would see his encompassing vision—a mix of earthy and cosmic, common and highbrow—gradually embraced and celebrated by readers throughout the world. And his advances in format and language, resulting in a distinctly American poetics, would prove formative for generations of writers, artists, and thinkers.

Drawing from collections across The New York Public Library, Walt Whitman: America’s Poet examines many of the individuals, beliefs, and experiences that shaped Whitman’s work while exploring his literary legacy and continuing cultural impact.

This exhibition is organized by The New York Public Library and curated by Michael Inman, Curator of Rare Books.

Installation views

Walt Whitman: America's Poet opened March 29, 2019 in the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

photograph of exhibition, looking down the center
photograph of back wall of exhibition, wall is dark blue and walt whitman signature is in white across wall
photograph of exhibition, looking down the center of the gallery
photograph of lightbox featuring portrait of Walt Whitman
photograph of blue wall with white text and vitrine with three open books
photograph of vitrine with three open books

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