Celebrating Walt Whitman’s Radical Optimism

In celebration of Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday, the Maryville Humanities Department and the Medart Lecture Series, in collaboration with the St. Louis Poetry Center, is presenting Whitmania!, a semester-long series of events.

Widely considered the father of American poetry, Whitman has had continuous influence on contemporary poets, writers, artists, composers and thinkers in America and abroad. The celebration is led by Germaine Murray, PhD, professor of English, and Dana Levin, MA, distinguished writer-in-residence.

“Whitman’s words speak beyond time and place,” Levin said. “He captured what it means to be inclusive in the American dream and that is something we are still wrestling with today.”

Whitmania! kicked off with the opening of “Whitman: Up Close,” an exhibit in the Morton J. May Foundation Gallery. Visitors to the gallery experience a three-dimensional anthology of poems by Whitman and his contemporaries, as well as other works of art influenced by Whitman like music, photography, painting and sculpture. The exhibition demonstrates Whitman’s cultural influence in the United States and across the globe.

The celebration continued with a lecture by Stephanie Burt, a poet, literary critic, professor of English at Harvard University and transgender activist. Burt discussed how Whitman is “the great poet of American democracy at its highest and most egalitarian hopes.” Whitman wants everyone to hear and be heard, she said. The lecture also shared potential inheritors of Whitman’s optimism including poet Tommy Pico and the “X-Men” comics and films.

“American culture has always wanted to do more than it can in terms of opportunity and welcome,” Burt said. “That’s not a new problem, but it takes on new form today because of the ways institutions are being undermined. Whitman is interesting to read because he was trying to keep utopian aspirations alive in a moment of division in this country that was even more radical and more violent than what we’re seeing now. He tries very hard to get the reader to envision a better, more fulfilling and welcoming future.”

Whitmania! runs through November and concludes with a concert with Peter Henderson, artist-in-residence and associate professor of music. For a full schedule of events, visit maryville.edu/whitmania.

Maryville faculty discussed Whitmania! on an episode of Saint Louis Speaks Podcast. Thank you for helping share our good news!

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