Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass

Translated around the World

Leaves of Grass has been translated into most of the major languages of the world. The Library holds examples in twenty-five languages, including Dutch (1898) and Kirghiz (1970), plus Whitman selections in additional languages. His poetry influenced world literature chiefly through its themes of love, freedom, brotherhood and democracy. Shown is a sampling of translations in French, Chinese, Japanese, Yiddish, Bulgarian and Hebrew. Featured are the first Russian translation, Pobiegi Travy (1911), and an early volume in Catalan, Fulles d'herba (1910).

Popularizing Whitman

Whitman feared he had not reached the common people, but his name has been used to sell cigars, coffee, whiskey, and insurance. His poetry was distributed to workers during the Depression and to soldiers during World War II. In 1957 the Walt Whitman Bridge opened between Philadelphia and Gloucester City, New Jersey. His words are inscribed in such public places as Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. and Fulton Ferry Landing in lower Manhattan. His image has been in cartoons and on matchbooks, postcards, and stamps. His life has inspired televison episodes and motion pictures. Hotels, buildings, plazas, camps, parks, truck stops, corporate centers, schools, AIDS clinics, think tanks, and shopping malls now bear his name.

Walt Whitman Cigars “Blades O' Grass.” Cigar box, ca. 1898. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (65)

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Hispanic Tributes to Whitman

Whitman had an enormous influence on Hispanic literature and politics. Whitman was first celebrated in Latin America in an1887 essay by his Cuban revolutionary counterpart, José Marti, and was later championed by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, translated into Portuguese by Fernando Pessoa, and into Spanish by Chilean Pablo Neruda. Antonio Frasconi's 1959 woodcut artfully reproduces Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca's ode to Whitman, which first appeared in a 1934 collection of poems published in Mexico.

Antonio Frasconi (b. 1919), artist. Frederico Garcia Lorca's (1898-1936) “Oda a Walt Whitman,” 1959. Woodcut print. Digital ID# ppmsca-07150. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (66)

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From Yawp to Howl

Allen Ginsberg's Howlbrought Whitman's “barbaric yawp” into the mainline of twentieth-century poetry in 1955. As one of the “Beat” generation writers, Ginsberg applied Whitman's tone and stylistic innovations to the anti-authoritarian politics and insurgent thinking of the post-World War II era. Ginsberg was one in a long series of poets to pay homage to Whitman. In 1915, Ezra Pound had first heralded Whitman as the father of modernist poetry. Hart Crane felt “directly connected” to Whitman's “bequest” while writing his epic of American modernity, The Bridge (1930). American poets from William Carlos Williams to Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot have responded to Whitman's revolutionary call.

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Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997).
Howl and Other Poems
.
San Francisco: City Lights Pocket Bookshop, 1956
Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (67)

The Arts Celebrate Whitman

A single page from the nineteen leaves of an original score by Elliott Carter for soprano and chamber orchestra, serves to represent some 500 composers who have set Whitman's poetry to music, including Charles Ives, Howard Hanson, Roger Sessions, Ned Rorem and Philip Glass. In the twentieth century, Whitman's spirit is reflected in the artistic expressions of Isadora Duncan's dance, the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joseph Stella's artwork, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the prose innovations of Gertrude Stein, and the transformation of folk culture into art in the Harlem Renaissance as led by Alain Locke.

Elliot Carter (b. 1908). Warble for Lilac-Time, 1943. “Revised” manuscript score. Music Division, Library of Congress (68)

Whitman Makes Boston

Whitman always wished to be accepted by the literary bastion of Boston. Ironically, many of the key items from his life, which are featured in this exhibition, are shown in this photograph of an historic Boston storefront. Built in 1718 as an apothecary and residence, during the mid-nineteenth century it was the site of Ticknor & Fields Publishing Company. Later, as the Old Corner Bookstore, it became the center of literary Boston when such noted authors as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Dickens, and Oliver Wendell Holmes gathered here.

F.W. Birchall, photographer. Old Corner Bookstore [Boston], ca.1897-1899. Copyprint made from original cabinet card. Digital ID# ppmsca-08990. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (70)

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