‘Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose." This excerpt from Walt Whitman’s poem "Song of the Open Road" echoes the wide open American spirit of the mid-19th century. It is from one of the best-known and widely loved poems from "Leaves of Grass," which many scholars consider to be a cornerstone of modern American poetry, a slim volume of verse that nonetheless jolted the collective consciousness of the nation like a cultural lightning strike when it came out in 1855, exactly 150 years ago. Whitman lived in Camden, New Jersey, from 1873 until his death in 1892.
"Not only does the main tradition of American poetry come out of ‘Leaves of Grass,’" says Whitman scholar David Blake of the College of New Jersey, "but many of today’s musicians, filmmakers, and artists see themselves in the line of Walt Whitman." Blake, who lives in Pennington with his wife and two children, is associate professor of English and author of "Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity," forthcoming from the Yale University Press.
He is also co-director of a three-day Whitman symposium at the College of New Jersey, which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of the book in conjunction with the college’s own sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary, with several events.
The symposium runs from Thursday through Saturday, September 22 through 24, and features some of the nation’s most prominent poets and scholars. Thanks to a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, the first day, Thursday, is completely free and open to the public, including a one-man show, "Unlaunch’d Voices" by Stephen Collins performing as America’s beloved poet. The show takes place in Kendall Hall on Thursday, September 22, at 9:30 a.m.
Accompanying the Whitman symposium is an art faculty exhibition that opens with a reception on Wednesday, September 14, from 5 to 7 p.m., in the College Art Gallery in Holman Hall. Titled "Reflections on Whitman: Word to Image," it features the work of the art department faculty, who were invited to read "Leaves of Grass," select an excerpt to interpret, and create a work in his or her chosen medium.Another highlight is the performance of an original jazz composition, "Leaves of Grass" by the Fred Hersch Ensemble, in Kendall Hall, on Friday, September 23, at 8 p.m.
"From the beginning we thought a joint celebration was particularly appropriate," says Michael Robertson, symposium co-director and professor of English at the College of New Jersey, where he teaches courses in literature and gender studies. "We knew that a New Jersey institution should be holding something to celebrate the publication of this book by a New Jersey poet." Author of the award-winning "Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature," Robertson’s new book, "Worshiping Walt," a group biography of the Whitman disciples, will be published by Princeton University Press. Robertson lives in Princeton with his wife and daughter.
Blake adds that the symposium will feature poetry readings and scholarly panels, as well as teaching roundtables that will involve close to 100 teachers from all over New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. "We also invited high school students. We wanted this to be there for our students as well, to celebrate the College of New Jersey as well as a great American poet," Blake says.
Says Robertson: "We’re trying to show the great influence Whitman had and how he is still relevant to Americans in a broad variety of perspectives. We’ll have papers on Whitman and hip-hop, Whitman and global democracy, and Whitman and film makers. People all over the world with different identities and interests come back to Whitman as a particular touchstone."
Represented in the gallery exhibit are 25 works that include video, printmaking, photography, sculpture, digital printmaking, along with many other media. "The annual faculty exhibit is always a popular show with everybody on campus because they get to see what direction their teachers are going with their artwork," says Judy Masterson, director of the gallery. "The works are varied and insightful, a view into the heart and mind of the artist. They may be outside the scope of what most people expect to see in a fine arts exhibition and yet this is part of the curriculum that we’re teaching here in the art department."
Masterson starting working at the gallery part-time after receiving a BFA from Trenton State College (the former name of the College of New Jersey) in 1990. After three years she was offered the director’s job and this year she begins her 16th year in that position. She and her husband of 40 years, John Masterson, a dentist in Lambertville, live in Pennington. They have two children and two grandchildren.
"One of the pieces in the art exhibit is an interactive multimedia piece that resembles a game because it has a podium with a joystick," says Masterson. "A projector allows the visitor to see an image on the wall." Created by Ricardo Miranda, professor of digital arts, the piece is called "Invasive Species," a statement about deforestation and the environment. It is based on a Whitman excerpt that vividly describes the rot of a contaminated body: "Lungs rotting away piecemeal, stomachs sour and cankerous, Joints rheumatic, valves clogged with abominations, Blood circulating dark and poisonous streams."
Another professor of digital arts, Anita Allyn, has created a work called "Imaginary Lines," based on the excerpt from "Song of the Open Road" quoted at the beginning of this article. Masterson says: "She has reassembled the genre of the road movie to form a meta-narrative about wanderlust, searching, and getting lost. Her video installation includes eight shorts based on her own interpretations of Whitman with many titles recognizable as movies or songs: Easy Rider, Road Warrior, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and My Own Private Idaho, for example."
William Nyman, professor of graphic design, has produced two exquisite giclee prints to go with an excerpt that starts "After the dazzle of day is gone, Only the dark, dark night shows to my eyes the stars." One of the prints depicts a field of golden cornstalks on a very misty day that fades into a horizon with a farmhouse, a large tree, and a shed.
The title of professor Bruce Rigby’s acrylic on canvas is "Slumber," a photorealist landscape of snow in a forest that looks like a photograph and is based on an excerpt from "Song of Myself, 21: "Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth! Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees! Earth of departed sunset-Earth of the mountains misty-topt!"
"When you look at the painting," says Masterson, "you have a feeling of wanting to walk right into it. It invites you to enter. You feel like climbing right in."
Robertson says that it is not just works based on Whitman’s poetry but the poetry itself that still speaks to us as strongly in 2005 as it did 150 years ago. He explains that it has to do with historical timing. "Born in 1819, Whitman dies in 1892, so he’s present at the creation of modern America. He lives through the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the end of slavery and through the beginning of the civil rights movement and the beginning of massive immigration. All of his issues are still our issues."
Adds Blake: "Whitman’s America is still our America because the roots of modern America were created in the 19th century. His poetryhas sparked even greater creativity in others. So even if people are not necessarily fans of Whitman or even poetry, they can find something in the symposium, whether it’s in the jazz concert, the hip-hop, or the artwork that lets them see the poet in a different way."
Walt Whitman Symposium Events: Events range from poetry readings by scholars to a bus trip to Whitman’s home in Camden. Many events require preregistration. For complete information and schedule and driving directions, visit www.tcnj.edu~whitman. Free and open to the public.
Wednesday, September 14, 5 to 7 p.m. College of New Jersey, Holman Hall, Ewing. Opening reception for the art faculty exhibition featuring works inspired by Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass." On view through October 19. Free and open to the public. 609-771-2198.Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m.; Thursday evenings, 7 to 9 p.m.; and Sundays, 1 to 3 p.m.
Friday, September 23, 8 p.m., College of New Jersey, Kendall Hall, Ewing. Fred Hersch Ensemble presents Hersch’s original jazz composition, "Leaves of Grass." $10 to $25. Register; also available at the door. 609-771-2775.
Thursday, September 22, 9:30 a.m., College of New Jersey, Kendall Ewing. Stephen Collins performs his one-man show "Unlaunch’d Voices." Free.
Thursday and Friday, September 22 and 23, 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Saturday, September 24, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., College of New Jersey, Kendall Hall, Ewing. Three-day symposium includes scholarly panels on Walt Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass," including poetry readings, roundtable discussions, an art faculty exhibition featuring works inspired by Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass," and scholarly panels.