Much is to celebrate when it comes to Walt Whitman — naturalist, poet, activist, journalist, humanist, transcendentalist, realist, the father of free verse and one of America’s first LGBTQ icons.
Though the Whitman at 200 program started at the beginning of 2019, the month of May is central to the celebration, as Whitman’s birthday is May 31.
“A number of programs underscore Whitman’s importance as a forerunner to gender studies and LGBTQ issues,” said Whitman at 200 head Judith Tannenbaum.
One such event, Whitman Vignettes: Camden and Philadelphia – an exhibition by Penn Libraries, steered by project director Lynn Farrington, covers the last two decades of Whitman’s life and includes Anne Gilchrist’s “romantic, yet unrequited love” for Whitman, his preference for her son, and what Mr. Leaves of Grass represented to heterosexual women during that time period.
Whitman’s correspondence with Gilchrist and her family is an important piece of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries’ Whitman Collection.
“Whitman’s poetry recognized women as sexual beings, something that resonated with Gilchrist, whose marriage — she was widowed at a young age and left to raise four children — emulated Victorian views that men were sexual beings and women were nurturers whose bodies were intended to give, but not necessarily get, pleasure from sexual encounters,” noted Farrington.
After she read “Leaves of Grass,” Gilchrist thought she had found in Whitman a soul mate.
Instead, it was Gilchrist’s son, Herbert — an artist who read and admired Whitman’s poetry — to whom the author was drawn. The exhibition follows the trajectory of the trio’s letters and the wrought emotions they caused.
Another event, Tom Wilson Weinberg’s “Oscar Visits Walt,” concerns the meeting of Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman. Wilson Weinberg paints the two brilliant poets at a crossroads — the former, at age 27, hadn’t published anything of substance and was known only for his participation in the aesthetic movement, his attire and his wit.
“Sixty-two, frail and feisty, was Walt,” said Wilson Weinberg. “They spar, they dish, they jest, they show off to each other. Wilde was a social snob and Whitman was a lower-case emocrat, a poet of the people. The events in the play, sung and spoken, are heavy and light, stand-offish and très flirtatious. The two meet with different needs and expectations of each other. The actors and the audience and I are flies on the wall. We watch and listen as these two dudes work it out.”
Wilson Weinberg said he envisioned this one-act piece as both an admirer of “Leaves of Grass” and also as someone who didn’t find Whitman particularly heroic.
“The poet and the poetry are flawed, which appeals to me greatly,” said the queer playwright. “Whitman revised ‘Leaves of Grass’ over and over for 40 years, and it still reads like a first draft. The book’s astonishing words, phrases and verses, its boastfulness and its candor, are thrilling.”
For John Jarboe, Artistic-Directing cofounder of the always-outrageous Bearded Ladies Cabaret, Whitman was an ancestor, “a sort of queer progenitor.”
“I was drawn not to the expansionist Whitman or even the nurse Whitman, but to the animist Whitman, the one who combines sexuality, spirituality and nature. I also loved his ‘Calamus’ poems for obvious reasons,” said Jarboe.
In BLC’s commissioned queer cabaret, “Contradict This!: A birthday funeral for heroes,” the group plays with Whitman’s famed lines, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.).” BLC “woos the audience with a birthday party, and gives them a trial instead.”
“The great thing about this commission is that we are part of a whole festival offering a diverse array of responses to Whitman,” Jarboe added. “However, many people are thinking of it as merely a celebration of Whitman. We are going to use that to our advantage.”
Whitman is a flawed hero. With a funeral, birthday, and trial, onlookers can celebrate, call out or put to rest the iconic literary figure. They can revel in the artistic freedom and real-time collaboration afforded by the Beards — all 11 members and guest/longtime associate Mary Tuomanen.
“This piece is massive and full of wild spectacle,” said Jarboe. “It starts looking like a birthday party, a big birthday party, and like a birthday party we will have presents and cake — and unison dancing and opera singing, and a choir, lots of puns and, of course, a wish. We hope that audience members leave with some joy and with a sense that they are not alone in their need.”
With many other events, 2019’s celebration of Whitman is only beginning. Whitman at 200 tackled an almost insurmountable feat, and is offering a yearlong dedication to a flawed but famous, Walt Whitman.
For all dates, times, locations and prices, visit www.whitmanat200.org/.