Happy 202nd Birthday, Walt Whitman

By Andrew Rimby

The Ivory Tower Boiler Room is full of Whitmanic energy as we celebrate Whitman’s 202nd birthday on May 31st! As I (Andrew) am writing this, I’m currently visiting my family in South Jersey and am about 15 minutes away from Whitman’s family tomb in Harleigh Cemetery (in Camden, see below).

Walt Whitman’s final resting place, a crypt he designed, in Camden.

While I grew up where Whitman spent the last part of his life, I now reside in Suffolk County, Long Island (not too far from where Whitman was born, in West Hills, NY). And, this is a birthday celebration so let’s move from death to life with an image of Whitman’s birth home (thank you Walt Whitman Birthplace for this image, see below).

The home where Walt Whitman was born. Photo courtesy of the Walt Whitman Birthplace.

When Whitman writes, in “Song of Myself,” that he “contains multitudes,” the Ivory Tower team relates to this and grew up surrounded by Whitman’s aura (Andrew and Mary are from South Jersey and Adam and Erika are from Long Island). Before our birthday special comes out on Saturday, we want to share with you previous episodes that featured discussions on Whitman, including the following:

“Welcome to the Ivory Tower Boiler Room” (our first episode where Adam and Andrew discuss all things Whitman and Renaissance Lit

“Starting from Paumanok with Caitlyn Shea” (our two part discussion about Caitlyn’s role as the Events and Media Director of the Whitman Birthplace)

“Freed Verse: A Conversation on Academia and Public Engagement with Dr. Karen Karbiener” (we discuss Karen’s pedagogy and public scholarship on Walt Whitman and her role as the Director of the Walt Whitman Initiative)

Both Erika and I are obsessed with the Fame movie and always think of Whitman when listening to the climactic final song of the film, “I Sing the Body Electric” (an allusion to Whitman’s 1855 poem). If you’ve never watched the scene in Fame, we highly recommend it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vh-sUhHBoU), and of course, you should read the Whitman poem (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vh-sUhHBoU). 

To celebrate Whitman’s birthday, we’ll be featuring our first partnership with the Walt Whitman Initiative, where you’ll hear “Walt Whitman, Racism, and American Literature” a discussion with Matt Miller and Lavelle Porter (two 19th-century American Lit. scholars). This talk kicked off the Whitman Initiative’s “Robust American Love Series” on August 13, 2020, and we can’t wait for all of you to hear this timely and urgent discussion. After you listen to our birthday episode, head on over to the Whitman Initiative’s website (https://waltwhitmaninitiative.org/) to check out the 18th Annual “Song of Myself” marathon (happening on June 6th). Our previous guest, Caitlyn Shea won the poster award for the marathon so please check out her interpretation of Whitman (see below). I recently learned that both Rosanne Cash and Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith’s guitarist) will be featured readers during the “Song of Myself” marathon so that’s pretty awesome! 

From our partners at the Walt Whitman Initiative

When wrapping up this Whitman birthday celebratory blog post, I was discussing with Mary (who was with me at Endgrain Coffee Roasters, a really comfy cafe in Pitman) that Whitman’s presence is always around us. Patti Smith spent a short time in Pitman, and a couple, sitting next to us outside, while drinking their coffee explained the history of Patti Smith in Pitman (who coincidentally rented an apartment from the woman we had just met). The conversation quickly turned to Whitman (who is always lingering in the air). Not only did the woman know Patti Smith, but her great-grandfather skipped school, on the day of Whitman’s burial in Harleigh Cemetery, and as she narrated, he hid in a tree and watched as Whitman was laid to rest in his tomb. Whitman would have been thrilled with this moment in Pitman where his legacy lives on in a story that combines realism and folklore. And on that note, we want to end with Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” that she sang for Whitman’s 200th Birthday (in 2019) in Center City, Philadelphia. 

Andrew and Mary at the coffee shop.

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