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Celebrating Walt Whitman and His Enduring Legacy

International Walt Whitman Week includes public symposium June 28 and 29

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June 25, 2013 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Walt Whitman was fired from his job at the U.S. Department of the Interior when the Secretary of Interior deemed his self-published collection of poems, “Leaves of Grass,” offensive. Almost 160 years later, scholars and students from around the world are gathering at Northwestern University to discuss the life, work and vision of Whitman, the enduring 19th century poet.

“It’s one of those curious things that America’s great poet is also its great gay poet,” says Northwestern Professor Jay Grossman, who is coordinating the Sixth Annual International Walt Whitman Week with Betsy Erkkila, Helen Sanborn Noyes Professor of Literature. The Northwestern English professors are co-editors of “Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies.”

Held from June 24 to June 29 on the Evanston campus, the event marks the first time that the Transatlantic Walt Whitman Association is holding its annual meeting in the United States. A Whitman symposium -- the portion of the week that is free and open to the public -- begins at 2:30 p.m. Friday, June 28, and continues Saturday, June 29, in Room 108, Harris Hall, 1881 Sheridan Road.

Whitman transformed poetry around the world with his disregard for traditional rhyme and meter and his celebration of democracy and sensual pleasure. A landmark of modern poetry and world literature, “Leaves of Grass” today is studied by an ever-expanding group of poets and politicians, set to music, translated into multiple languages and widely quoted.

Whitman is the world’s poet of democracy, according to Erkkila. “He used to be regarded as a spiritual or Emersonian poet with political ideas viewed as vague, possibly naïve and even dangerous,” she says. “Today, political philosophers and democracy theorists talk about his democratic vision.”

Pointing to a stamp from an emerging African republic that bears his image, Erkkila insists that Whitman is on everyone’s map. “As countries move from authoritarian to democratic rule, you inevitably find his influence on their thinkers, poets and writers.”

To celebrate Walt Whitman Week,  Northwestern MFA candidate Caroline Carlsmith has installed a piece in University Library titled "I Am Now With You: Playing Nomic With Walt Whitman 1855-2012." Nomic,  created by Northwestern alum and philosopher Peter Suber  as a representation of of Democratic systems,  involves changing rules through group consensus. Carlsmith engaged Whitman in the game by manipulating the language of Song of Myself into a conversation between her and the poet, agreeing on rules and awarding points while attempting to stage an earnest exchange. Her work is now located on the walkway connecting Deering Library's Architecture Reading Room with the 3 South Tower of University Library.

The International Whitman Week brings students from different countries together each year for intensive seminars taught by an international team of Whitman specialists. The seminars are followed by the free, public symposium.

For more information about International Walt Whitman Week and the public Whitman symposium at Northwestern, call (847) 491-7294.