Student rises to ‘Whitman Girl’ fame after finding interview

Although she has lived 10 minutes from the Walt Whitman Bridge her entire life, senior English major Nicole Kukawski knew nothing about its namesake before last spring aside from the fact that he was “some poet.” Now, she finds it difficult to remember what her life was like before Whitman became so inextricably twisted into it. “I go to parties and I’m called ‘the Whitman Girl,'” she said.

Her name has achieved a kind of celebrity status on campus, as well as in the literary community. She was cited in stories by the Associated Press that were distributed across the United States and even in other countries such as Italy and Canada, as well as in New York Newsday and The New York Times.

She spoke at Whitman’s Long Island birthplace in June to an audience that included such renowned poets as Diane Wakoski, Alan Planz and former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins. This fall, the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review will publish an article she wrote. And she will be introducing one of the panels at the Walt Whitman Symposium on campus this weekend.

What did Kukawski do to become such a revered source on Whitman, to acquire a nickname like “Whitman Girl”? She read The Signal – the February 1888 issue – and unearthed an interview with the poet that was completely unknown to Whitman scholars. That finding threw her into a whirlwind of Whitman-mania, and she hasn’t had a chance to look back.

Though she expresses a passion for learning, Kukawski admits she was not thrilled to take her junior seminar – the course that led to her research and the interview recovery – on Whitman last spring. “It was 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning for three hours, and I hardly knew anything about Whitman,” she said.

However, she said it didn’t take her long to “really fall in love with his poetry.”

It was soon time to start thinking about a research paper topic for the course, which was taught by David Blake, associate professor of English. She was interested in looking into Whitman and education for her research paper, because she felt he “had a similar mind to those who started (the College), with the ideas of Horace Mann,” often called the father of public school education.

To look for similarities between Whitman and the origins of the College, she went to the reference section at Roscoe L. West Library. While there, digging through boxes of books, a stack of old Signal issues bound together caught her eye.

“I pulled them down and went for the oldest one: 1885-1888,” she said. “I pulled it off the shelf and the first article was called ‘A need for a true American poet,’ making the argument that we need to break away from the British style of poetry. I figured, ‘there’s gotta be something about Whitman in here’ since at that time, The Signal was part news, part literary magazine and part alumni magazine.”

She began leafing through the faded volumes, so interested in the pages of the College’s past that she almost forgot why she was there. “At this point I didn’t even care about the paper,” she said. “I was just curious – all the old advertisements and seeing what it was like back then.”

Five hours later, still sitting in the same seat she sat down in at 9 a.m. that morning, she found out how right her earlier assumption – that there must be something about Whitman in the old Signal issues – really was.

“I triple-taked and kind of did a quiet ‘yes,'” she said, recalling that life-changing moment. “I kind of felt like I didn’t want to let on that I’d found anything that big. I made copies, and I read it.”

Two days later, her class was scheduled to take a train ride down to Camden to visit Whitman’s house. On the ride, Blake was holding informal office hours, giving his students the chance to run their research progress by him. Kukawski took the opportunity to tell her professor what she had found and see what he thought, and she knew within an instant.

“His face just dropped and he couldn’t stop smiling,” she said. “He said, ‘OK, we have to talk to Ed Folsom,'” who is responsible for the Walt Whitman archives and would know whether the interview was known or not.

Looking back on the moment, Blake said, “Right away I knew this had potential to be very big.”

Folsom had never heard of the interview, and told Blake to contact a friend of his, who was working on Whitman interviews at the University of Nebraska, and was therefore aware of every Whitman interview known to the scholarly world. “He hadn’t heard of it either,” Blake said.

The Whitman interview expert was able to verify that the interview was valid by looking at the language in it. “Expressions like ‘whack away’ showed it was real,” Kukawski said. “That was one of his favorite terms. You can just tell it’s him from language like that.”

Blake and Kukawski next met with College President R. Barbara Gitenstein to tell her what Kukawski had found. “She was so excited,” Kukawski said. “She was pumped.”

Not only did she understand the enormity of what Kukawski had found, but she also was proud of what it reflected about the College. “Ms. Kukawski’s work was research that is characteristic of our exciting new curriculum,” Gitenstein said.

“The combination of our intellectual work on the campus with the additional energy of the national and international scholars are typical of an exemplary undergraduate institution of higher education.”

Gitenstein put Blake and Kukawski in contact with Matt Golden, director of public information, who wrote some press releases about the interview Kukawski found, and it wasn’t long before articles were being printed about it in newspapers everywhere.

Blake said the story was so appealing for two reasons: “The first is simply because of the funny lines, with Whitman saying ‘don’t write poetry.'” he said. “Second, people love the story of a college junior uncovering this in her college newspaper.”

But what appealed to Kukawski most was what she learned about the students who studied so many years before her at the College. She did research at several historical libraries to learn all she could about Whitman’s interviewers, George Worman and Francis B. Lee.

“One of the most exciting things was what she’s been able to discover about (College) students,” Blake said. “Our students there in 1888 had the confidence and interest to travel to Camden, which was not easy in those days, and interview him – and call him one of the most sublime creatures to walk the earth.”

Worman was “most likely the cause of the interview,” Kukawski said, due to the fact that he worked for Camden area newspapers and may have crossed paths with Whitman on other occasions. After attending the Model School, which was an advanced secondary school that was part of the College in the late 1800s, he attended University of Pennsylvania Law School.

In 1890, Kukawski said, Worman worked on the presidential campaign for Benjamin Harris, and he also worked for Thomas Harned, who had been close friends with Whitman.

The article was written by Lee, under the penname Cessator, Kukawski said. She pieced his identity together after looking at the Signal staff box in to find who else had worked alongside Worman and was likely to don such a penname.

Along with Worman’s, Lee’s name was in the staff box of the very first issue of The Signal in 1885. Kukawski also found references with his name and the title of “the old Roman” of The Signal. Kukawski figured he was a likely candidate.

She decided Lee had to be the writer after discovering a parallel in the meaning of Cessator – one who loiters – and the beginning of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which discusses him loafing around.

After studying at the Model School, Lee studied journalism at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote back to The Signal at times, until Worman died of typhoid fever in 1890. Lee’s last submission was Worman’s obituary.

He later became a Trenton historian, writing two books about Trenton and even having a street, Lee Avenue, named after him.