Philadelphia, Camden to celebrate Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday

Philadelphia and Camden are planning a year of events and exhibitions to honor the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman, America’s visionary poet of nature and democracy.

This year, you will probably be hearing a lot about Walt Whitman. May 31 will be the 200th anniversary of his birth, and a year of events and exhibitions will celebrate that fact.

Walt Whitman is most known for his collection “Leaves of Grass,” originally published in Brooklyn in 1855; he revised it constantly for the rest of his life.

Arguably his most famous poem, “Song of Myself,” contains the memorable passage:

Do I contradict myself?

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Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Whitman was a free spirit. Some of his contemporaries regarded him as obscene (he was gay, and his poetry could be explicit). To others — including Thomas Eakins and Oscar Wilde (two men with their own histories of controversy) — he was a friend and hero.

History has upheld him as a visionary who created a cornerstone of American literature.

For the last 20 years of his life he resided in Camden, and he is buried there.

“People know there’s a bridge named after him, but most people don’t realize that he lived here that long and was part of the Philadelphia-Camden cultural community,” said Judith Tannenbaum, a contemporary art curator.

Tannenbaum is the artistic director of Whitman at 200, a central hub for myriad Whitman-related events and exhibitions planned in the Philadelphia region this year. The dozens of participating organizations represent a wide range of interests — including arts, poetry, design, music, the LGBT community, the natural environment, and democracy.

“There’s the famous quote about ‘I am multitudes.’ [Whitman] covered everything and anything,” said Tannenbaum. “He was really part of humanity. His work becomes a portrait of America.”

Some Whitman-related events are beginning soon, including a film installation of “Whitman, Alabama” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; a printing workshop at the University of Pennsylvania; and an artist book exhibition at Arcadia University.

However, the lion’s share of events — including four newly commissioned works — is planned for May and June around Whitman’s actual birthday.

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