Walt Whitman was everything to everyone – and so much of him still lives on at Western.
“What’s amazing about Whitman is that he was so many personae to different people – everything from an escaped slave, to a woman, to a person of the woods,” English professor Joshua Schuster said. “He was a leader, a mystic, a utopianist, especially for men. He is also what we’d now call a queer hero. Anything you wanted him to be, he was.”
This week, you will find Schuster celebrating the famed poet’s 200th birthday, as part of the annual Words: London’s Literary and Creative Arts Festival, taking place Nov. 1-3 at Museum London. In its sixth year, the festival is an annual event, organized in partnership with the Public Humanities at Western, bringing together Canadian authors of local, regional and national acclaim, for a celebration of creative ideas, artistic expression, and cultural diversity.
As part of Words, Schuster is delivering a public lecture, Legacies of Walt Whitman’s Summer in London, on Saturday.
Considered the father of free verse and the first modern American poet, Whitman expressed language about sexuality, ecology and identity that no one had heard before, in ways no poet had conveyed before.
“He invented out of nowhere a new form of poetry, between poetry and prose – these long lines that took the shape of whatever he needed them to be,” Schuster said. “He was a poet transforming what poetry could be.”
Among Whitman’s many admirers was world-renowned psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke (founder of what became the London Psychiatric Hospital), who invited Whitman to visit London in 1880 – Whitman’s only trip outside of the United States.
That three-month stay proved to be a fertile literary ground for Whitman and Whitmanians alike – a time when the poet continued to revise and add to Leaves of Grass and when Canadians fell in love with his writing, philosophy and personality.
He created something of a personality cult, Schuster said, as Bucke ranked his friend with the likes of Dante, Jesus, Mohammed and Francis Bacon (and, incidentally, higher on the heroes list than Moses or Socrates).
Members of the Canadian artists collective, the Group of Seven, adored him. Sir William Osler was at one time the poet’s personal physician.
Whitman also attracted London-area acolytes such as noted naturalist Henry S. Saunders, bibliophile John Barnett and wartime physician/commander Dr. Edwin Seaborn, all of whom became avid collectors of everything Whitmanian.
And that’s how Western eventually found itself caretaker of Canada’s richest trove of rare first editions and Whitman memorabilia.
Held within Western Archives and Special Collections, that trove includes a rare, 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, one of just 1,000 Whitman wrote, designed and self-published – which, even at a dollar per copy, sold poorly at the time. (Whitman’s original, anonymously written 1855 Leaves of Grass consisted of 12 untitled poems and just 200 of the original 795 copies remain.)
Western’s collection also has two 1860 first editions, including a ‘pirated’ version that copied the original plates but wasn’t authorized by the poet.
Over time, the original Leaves evolved to become editions with about 400 poems. Whitman himself evolved; his idealism modulated in part by world events. “Whitman thought his poetry would prevent the (American) Civil War – just friendship and reading poems would suffice,” Schuster said.
The poet was later to write O Captain! My Captain! to eulogize assassinated president Abraham Lincoln.
Bucke became a font of information, biographies, analyses and publications by and about Whitman.
Western’s collection has a selection of Whitmanian ’zines includes one called the Sunset of Bon Echo. Schuster’s students are paying tribute to the publication by making a Bon Echo Echo ’zine with poems that follow Whitmanian rhythms.
In December, the D.B. Weldon Library will host an exhibition of rare Whitman volumes and student poetry and prose. For that, students are also researching the different first editions – not just the history of the work, but of the book itself, including who owned it and how it got to the library.
“Each edition tells a story of Western and each individual book tells a story, often with a London connection,” Schuster said.
Whitmania in Ontario faded by 1950, but the poet’s works continue to be memorized and memorialized in classrooms, popular culture and movies.
Two centuries after Whitman’s birth, celebrations are popping up across the United States, including at the University of California at Los Angeles that held a year-long celebration of Whitman.
Western will be home to Canada’s only Whitman celebration in this one-of-a-kind exhibit and public lecture. It goes beyond London’s Wordsfest and beyond Western, Schuster said. “It’s really for all of Canada.”