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Speaking Volumes: How to celebrate Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday at your local library

South Manatee Library celebrates 50 years

Manatee County's South Manatee Library celebrates 50 years of service.
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Manatee County's South Manatee Library celebrates 50 years of service.

This year marks the 200th birthday of one of America’s finest writers.

For most people, his most famous work was “Leaves of Grass,” which was published in 1855. He quickly found that he was drawn to poetry. He struggled for several years to establish himself. He used his own money to publish “Leaves of Grass” and subsequently revised and expanded it over the next few decades.

When “Leaves of Grass” was published, it was attacked for its sensuality and homosexual overtones. Fellow writers came to his defense — the celebrated poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a five-page letter to Whitman praising the work and spoke highly of it to his friends, which helped give the work wider distribution and more attention.

During the Civil War, he worked in hospitals caring for the injured in Washington, D.C. This sobering experience as well as personal tragedies inspired his poetry.

He had a personal connection to the war, as his brother George served in the Union Army, and was captured by Confederates in Virginia in 1864. George was released a year later because of poor health.

At about the same time, Whitman lost his brother Andrew to tuberculosis and alcoholism and was forced to commit another brother Jesse to a mental asylum. Yet another brother Edward was an invalid from birth.

Through the intervention of a friend, he worked as a clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the Department of the Interior. One of his duties at the office was the interviewing of former Confederate soldiers applying for Presidential pardons. During this time, Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” — a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln — appeared to great acclaim and became popular.

In 1873, he suffered a serious stroke, which forced him to move to his brother’s house in Camden, N.J. Here he was visited by admirers such as Oscar Wilde, the artist Thomas Eakins and Bram Stoker, the author of “Dracula.” He also prepared three new editions of “Leaves of Grass.”

By 1891, he was near death, and finished the final edition of “Leaves of Grass.” He died in March 1892 of bronchial pneumonia.

If you’re interested in learning more about Whitman or want to check out his writing, your library has a range of Whitman’s works, from the famed “Leaves of Grass” to anthologies such as “American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century,” which contains excerpts from “Leaves” and “O, Captain!” as well as “By Blue Ontario’s Shore”.

If you’re interested in an analysis of his works, we have those, too, such as “Bloom’s Poetry: Walt Whitman.” We also have two excellent books in our children’s area: “Walt Whitman: A Biography” by Milton Meltzer, and Barbara Kerley’s Walt Whitman: Words for America.”

The latter features splendid illustrations by Brian Selznick, author-illustrator of the children’s books “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” and “The Marvels.”

These and other materials await you at your public library.

Call your local branch for more information on available titles.

Central Library — 941-748-5555;

Braden River — 941-727-6079;

Island — 941-778-6341;

Palmetto — 941-722-3333;

Rocky Bluff — 941-723-4821;

South Manatee — 941-755-3892.

You also can access the library via the internet at mymanatee.org/library.

David Breakfield is a Central Library librarian. Speaking Volumes, written by Manatee County Public Library System staff members, is published each Sunday in the Bradenton Herald.

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