College celebrates ‘Leaves of Grass’ sesquicentennial with symposium

When David Blake, associate professor of English, and Michael Robertson, professor of English, received an e-mail two years ago asking College faculty for ideas regarding how to celebrate the College’s 150th birthday, they didn’t have to think for very long.

The professors, who have been studying Walt Whitman since graduate school, already realized there were three coincidences that made it seem necessary for the College to host a celebration of Whitman: 2005 would be the 150th anniversary of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” it was already known as the year the College would celebrate its own sesquicentennial, and Whitman was a New Jersey poet.

“So it seemed naturally appropriate,” Blake said. He and Robertson contacted Janis Blayne-Paul, major events director and chief sesquicentennial officer in the office of College and Community Relations, and they immediately received her support, as well as that of Stephen Briggs, chief academic officer/provost, and Eleanor Fogarty, executive assistant to the provost.

College President R. Barbara Gitenstein also gave her nod of approval. “Whitman is one of the most important American poets and his poetry represents a major change in the history of poetry,” she said.

“He was, in other words, as challenging, imaginative and American in the world of literature as the Normal School movement was in education,” Gitenstein said, explaining that the New Jersey State Normal School, the College’s predecessor, was one of the earliest normal schools – or teacher education schools – in the country. It was also the first state institution of higher learning in New Jersey, she said.

“Thus, to celebrate Whitman at (the College) in this particular year is a particularly apt celebration,” she said.

And so, Blake and Robertson went to work on putting together the three-day celebration of Whitman that the College will host this weekend.

They hand-selected experts and scholars from across the country to speak about Whitman, arranged for the Fred Hersch Jazz Ensemble to come and play its rendition of “Leaves of Grass” and even coordinated with the art department, whose faculty created works inspired by Whitman, currently on display in Holman Hall.

Accordingly, Gitenstein said she feels “the symposium and all that has led up to that weekend are manifestations of the kind of research, scholarship and learning that is happening on the (College) campus.”

For the speakers, Robertson was quick to say that while it was important to include Betsy Erkkila, Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, whom he considers “three of the greatest living Whitman scholars,” he and Blake also wanted more than “the usual suspects” at the symposium.

Some of these non-traditional Whitman speakers include Angela Miller, an art historian from Washington University, and University of Maryland’s Benjamin Barber, who was an advisor to former president Bill Clinton.

Barber also served as director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy at Rutgers University, and held the Walt Whitman chair of political science there as well.

“We also found some young scholars who will be really big in a few years,” Blake said. “We wanted to bring them here too – a handful are just tenured or not even.”

In addition, Blake and Robertson invited four poets, including Sherman Alexie, and even an actor, Stephen Collins, who will do a one-man show about Whitman as the symposium’s first event Thursday morning.

“It will be a wonderful introduction,” Robertson said. “You don’t have to know anything about Whitman to enjoy it. It shows his human dimension, the fact that he nursed soldiers in the war.”

One of their biggest concerns, though, was to ensure that the students of the College could participate in the event, and that it wouldn’t be “just a conference.”

“We wanted conversation,” Blake said. “That’s why we’re calling it a symposium.”

“Academic conferences are often off-campus at a hotel,” he said. “And they’re usually just with academics talking to one another,” Robertson added.

“We wanted it here on campus and we wanted students to participate, so people could come here and see what (the College) is all about,” Blake said. “We wanted to bring the most interesting minds in our field here.”

With the exception of the Fred Hersch Jazz Ensemble’s performance of “Leaves of Grass,” for which tickets must be purchased, all symposium events are free and open to College students. Thursday’s events will be free and open to the general public, thanks to a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.

Also, two of the speakers are professors from the College. “It shows the talent that we have,” Blake said, noting that they’ll be presenting alongside scholars and professors from prestigious schools like Harvard University. “That’s the company that the faculty of (the College) is keeping,” he said.

Janet Gray, associate professor of women’s and gender studies, said she will speak about Edgar Allen Poe’s influence on Whitman and how each of them positioned themselves in relation to “a literary marketplace that was very nearly dominated by women writers.”

Gray said she looks forward to “a collegial discussion with two eminent scholars” whose work she admires.

“I’m grateful to the symposium organizers for the opportunity to present with them – and also pretty freaked out,” she said.

Blake said Gray is “such a natural person to ask about Whitman” because she has written about so many of his contemporaries.

The other faculty member representing the College will be Anita Anantharam, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies.

“Her work on Indian verse provides so much perspective on Whitman,” Blake said, noting that Whitman’s work has many followers in India.

The weekend of panels and performances commemorating Whitman will conclude with a bus trip to his house in Camden.

“It’s amazing, most people don’t know he lived in New Jersey,” Robertson said. “We thought, let’s celebrate him as a New Jersey poet.”