James Joyce had Dublin. Saul Bellow has Chicago. And Walt Whitman, when he emerged as a great poet of the American Renaissance, had Manhattan and Brooklyn.
That's the theme of a exhibit currently on hand at the Kenneth R. Spencer Research Library. Called "Mannahatta: Whitman and his City,'' the show features books, artifacts and pictures dating from New York in the 1840s, '50s, and early '60s, the time when Whitman self-published "Leaves of Grass'' from a Brooklyn printing shop. The show also takes a detour both in time and place to show artifacts from Whitman's 1879 visit to Lawrence.
"The exhibit shows the aspects of Whitman in his place,'' said Alexandra Mason, a librarian at the Spencer. "It shows his place in the world and what he thought about New York. It was very important for him to be a part of the city.''
THE SHOW, curated by Robert Melton, takes visitors back to the era when New York claimed its place as the largest and pre-eminent city in the United States. Whitman, who was born in 1819 on Long Island, was drawn to the growing metropolis like a bee to a flower. He worked as a printer in Brooklyn and on Manhattan; he eventually published his own anti-slavery newspaper called "The Freeman,'' a copy of which is displayed in a Spencer showcase.
Other highlights of the exhibit, which continues through this month, include an original edition of "Leaves of Grass,'' printed in 1855, as well as drawings of various neighborhoods Whitman would have known. Landmarks from Whitman's day that survived Manhattan's mad dash to modernity include Grace Episcopal Church, where Whitman ran afoul of parishoners at a Christmas concert, and the Astor Library, which is now the Joseph Papp Public Theatre.
EVEN THE steam ferry that connected Brooklyn and Manhattan in the days before the Brooklyn Bridge had its impact on him, according to organizers.
"The passage between Brooklyn and Manhattan became, in Whitman's imagination, the symbol of the back-and-forth connection between the present and the future,'' Melton wrote.
1992 marks the 100th anniversary of Whitman's death. Librarians culled the pieces in the exhibit from the library's own collection and the collection of Edward Grier, an emeritus professor of English at KU and a well-known authority on Whitman, Mason said. The exhibits are all the more remarkable because the library makes no special effort to collect material on New York City.
"He (Grier) was always interested in the library's acquisitions of Whitman material, and here we use some of his private collection,'' she said.
WHITMAN MOVED to Washington, D.C., during the Civil War and worked as a nurse in a hospital. He stayed in Washington until 1873, when he fell ill. He moved to Camden, N.J., where his brother lived, and spent most of the rest of his life there holding court for a stream of visitors.
In 1879, he undertook a tour that brought him to Lawrence on Sept. 14 and 15. The Spencer collection has an autographed photograph of Whitman that the poet sent to John Palmer Usher Jr., the son of Judge John Palmer Usher, Whitman's Lawrence host and interior secretary under President Lincoln.
"Whitman was particularly taken with Judge Usher's two sons,'' Melton writes. "Linton (Usher) had just returned from working on a ranch in Texas, which was an exotic location for Whitman, and the three of them sat in the west parlor or the front porch of the house talking. One of the brothers apparently drove Whitman around Mount Oread and the infant KU campus.''
WHITMAN'S FAME, and to a certain extent his infamy, would have made him an appropriate visitor for Lawrence, Mason said. After all, Lawrence had been a hotbed of anti-slavery activity and free thought, which Whitman had supported.
"It was fashionable to have the great men of the day visit and discuss their ideas,'' she said. "It was in the era before TV. The reason may have been the fact that there wasn't much public entertainment. . . . "By then he was quite well known by the public. Of course, he wrote a great poem about the assassination of Lincoln that was famous, and he was really a very controversial man.''