Sing the Body Electric

'Poet of the Body' Exhibition Curated by Whitman Scholar Karen Karbiener, M.A. '90

One of the many celebrations of Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday (May 31, 1819) taking place around the country is focusing on his New York years as a Long Islander, Brooklynite, and self-described “Manhattanese.”

But some of the treasures on display are full-time residents of Bryn Mawr’s Special Collections. Poet of the Body: New York’s Walt Whitman, curated by Whitman scholar Karen Karbiener, M.A. ’90, and collector Susan Jaffe Tane for the Grolier Club, includes five books—complete with marginal notes and inscriptions—from the Great Gray Poet’s personal library.

Karbiener describes Bryn Mawr’s Walt Whitman Collection as “an incredible resource that has remained unknown to the general public as well as most Mawrters.

“For example,” she adds, “we are displaying several books from Whitman’s library, heavily annotated by Whitman himself (including his copy of the Iliad and Shelley’s Poetical Works).”

Another book, Hedge’s Prose Writers of Germany, features two photographs of Whitman’s friend John Frederick Schiller Gray. A central figure in Whitman’s social circle in 1860s New York, Gray was at the heart of a loose confederation thought to have been the city's first gay society. In his letters, Whitman writes of the group’s adventures while “wandering the east side of the city ... in the lager beer saloons.”

Also on loan are artifacts associated with Whitman’s masterpiece: an official 1881 copyright notice from the Library of Congress for Leaves of Grass, correspondence confirming Whitman’s ownership of the electrotype plates for the 1881-82 edition of Leaves, and a postcard to the English socialist and early activist for gay rights Edward Carpenter with a personal note from Whitman saying, “… the present edition of L of G satisfies me more than any hitherto.”

The books and publication and copyright records were given to the College in 1950 by Julia Harned Paree ’39 and Louise Harned ’50, granddaughters of Thomas B. Harned, one of Whitman’s literary executors. Karbiener gives special thanks to Marianne Hansen, curator and academic liaison for Rare Books and Manuscripts, for her help. “Marianne has been incredibly generous with her time and expertise,” she says, “and deserves a shout-out in the Bulletin.”

The Friends of the Bryn Mawr College Libraries provides critical support for internships, exhibitions, programs, and special projects. To learn more about Friends of the Bryn Mawr College Libraries and to become a member, visit the Friends website.