Few great artists can truly capture the spirit of a time or place, but poet Walt Whitman does so masterfully in his writing. His poetry expresses the essence of a bustling and burgeoning 19th-century New York City in a voice that was unheard of before. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth and the Morgan Library and Museum is honoring his memory with the exhibit, Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy. Borrowing its title from an 1859 notebook, the exhibit explores the writer’s life and career from his birth on Long Island and early days as a Brooklyn-based journalist, to his later life as a famous poetic visionary and the legacy he has left today. You can join Untapped Cities for a special inside look of the exhibit guided by curator Sal Robinson on August 19th if you are an Untapped Cities Insider! Not an Insider yet? Become a member today to gain access to free behind-the-scenes tours and special events all year long!

The Morgan’s exhibition is made up of examples of Whitman’s personal letters, first editions of his most famous works, photographs and paintings, posters, news clippings and related ephemera that paint a picture of New York City and America during Whitman’s time. Whitman’s career spanned the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination and the rapid development of New York City into an important global metropolis and all of this affected his writing. The Morgan dug deep into its archives to pull out rare examples of Whitman’s early and lesser known works of temperance novels and stories on his wanderings around New York City. Paintings of Manhattan and Brooklyn along with souvenirs from contemporary events and Whitman’s own observations of the growing city help to establish the setting in which he was writing.

Whitman began to experiment in poetry in the mid-1800s and in 1855 self published his seminal work, Leaves of Grass. You will find all three of the Morgan’s first editions on display in the exhibit, including one given by Whitman to Samuel Hollyer, the artist who designed the frontispiece portrait. This debut book of poetry introduced the world to a new kind of poetic language and an unprecedented celebration of self.

There are many interesting items in the exhibit including the paper butterfly which rest on Whitman’s hand in his famous portrait, a plaster cast of his hand, and a ticket from a lecture Whitman gave at Carnegie Hall about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This lecture was attended by Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, John Burroughs and other notable figures. The Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination were major events in Whitman’s life which directly impacted his writing and the course of his life.

Whitman labeled himself in his famous poem Song of Myself as “the poet of the slaves and of the masters,” taking on the tasks of speaking for all classes and colors Americans. He was a trailblazing figure in many regards, especially as a role model for gay readers and writers. In a section of the exhibition filled with photographs and letters, this personal side of Whitman’s life is explored through his relationship with Confederate soldier and streetcar conductor Peter Doyle.

The exhibition traces Whitman’s legacy beyond his death and into the art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Whitman had a profound impact on contemporaries and writers who followed including Oscar Wilde, Hart Crane, Federico García Lorca and Allen Ginsberg, who are all featured in the exhibit through various items and documents. The ripples of Whitman’s influence continue to show through the literature and art of our time, a testament to the quality of work the bard produced and the universality of his words.

Bard of Democracy will be on display through September 15th. You can join us for a free guided tour of the exhibition with curator Sal Robinson on August 19th. Learn more and book your spot here!
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Next, check out 10 of NYC’s Oldest Libraries and Their Secret Histories