Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Whitman on the Green

On June 26, 1872, a bearded, robust poet of moderate fame appeared before the graduating class and faculty of Dartmouth College to deliver the Commencement poem.  Listed in the account books simply as “Poet $17.50,” Walt Whitman was not an obvious choice.  In fact, it was reported that he was invited by the United Literary Societies in an effort to offend the genteel, conservative tastes of the Dartmouth College faculty.  Whitman was also considered risqué in most American literary circles.  He had his supporters—Ralph Waldo Emerson perhaps chief among them—and he could command substantial payment for his poems by well-established literary magazines such as the Atlantic.  But to middle-class American readers, and to the faculty of most New England colleges, his expansive free verse was far too sensual and unorthodox for their liking.

Eyewitness accounts of the recitation vary: one claims a disheveled poet mumbled his way through an incomprehensible poem while another states that he gave a fine, clear reading.  Whitman himself provided the New York media with a press release that apparently was never used, though both the New York Times and the Boston Daily Advertiser had reporters on the scene to cover the Commencement exercises.

Whitman’s own account of his stay in Hanover provides a telling portrait of Dartmouth in 1872.  He reported to his longtime companion Pete Doyle:
It is a curious scene here, as I write, a beautiful old New England village, 150 years old, large houses and gardens, great elms, plenty of hills—every thing comfortable, but very Yankee—not an African to be seen all day—not a grain of dust—not a car to be seen or heard—green grass everywhere—no smell of coal tar.—As I write a party are playing base ball on a large green in front of the house—the weather suits me first rate—cloudy but no rain.  Your loving WALT.
If you are interested in Whitman, come in and ask to see our first edition of Leaves of Grass (the picture above is the frontispiece to the first edition), Val 816 W59 S8.

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