Philadelphia Celebrates Poet Walt Whitman’s 200th Birthday

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Walt Whitman, regrettably, was not a Jew. The Long Island-born poet and writer, whose great works include “Song of Myself” and “Leaves of Grass,” has, however, long been an object of fascination for Jews who have seen themselves as kindred spirits.

Allen Ginsberg, most famously, styled himself as a bit of an update on Whitman, and the poet Karl Shapiro was a noted devotee. Naomi Shemer translated his “O Captain, My Captain” into Hebrew after the death of Yitzhak Rabin, the original having been written following the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Whitman’s 200th birthday is on May 31, and one Jewish Philadelphia woman, Judith Tannenbaum, will be instrumental in its celebration.

“I thought a lot people don’t know that he lived here,” said Tannenbaum, a nationally recognized curator. “They know there’s a bridge, but they don’t make the connection.”

Not “here,” exactly — Whitman lived in Camden, New Jersey, for the last few decades of his life, visiting Philadelphia and then returning to his house on what was then Mickle Street and what is today Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. But both cities figure into Tannenbaum’s motivation to conceive and create the Whitman at 200 at celebration.

Since the beginning of this year, cultural events related to Whitman have taken place across Greater Philadelphia, with the goal of heightening awareness of the poet and the ideas he sought to spread. There have been lectures, symposia, readings and even a look-alike contest. The RiverLink Ferry is featuring ticketed rides organized around an interactive work about Whitman.

The culminating event on May 31 will be a birthday party for the poet in the courtyard of City Hall, to be attended by a massive, Whitman-themed contest-winning cake (edible) and Mayor Jim Kenney (not edible). There will be poetry readings, scenes from a soon-to-be-produced play that imagines a recorded meeting between Whitman and Oscar Wilde, and the performance of an original piece by renowned musician Patti Smith, who will be joined by her daughter, Jesse Paris Smith.

That last piece took a little finagling and a lot of persistence on Tannenbaum’s part; she had organized a retrospective of Smith’s work with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in 1988, back when she was the interim director of the Institute for Contemporary Art at the University Pennsylvania, where she worked from 1986 to 2000.

Judith Tannenbaum
Judith Tannenbaum (Photo courtesy of Whitman at 200)

That’s when she became familiar with Smith’s work, as well as her love of Whitman. Smith is also a native of the area, and her daughter has even made a documentary about Whitman. Tannenbaum pitched the idea to Smith through a friend and, after eight months of emailing, Smith accepted. “It was a good lesson in perseverance,” Tannenbaum said.

Aside from the performance at City Hall, Smith will deliver a lecture/performance at the Philadelphia Museum of Art the evening before.

The planning for the Whitman at 200 celebrations began in earnest closer to his 195th birthday. Tannenbaum, who most recently served as a curator of contemporary art at the Rhode Island School of Design, saw a confluence of factors that would lend itself to a celebration of Whitman in Philadelphia. This “cockamamie idea,” as Tannenbaum called it, sounded great; now it just had to be planned.

Tannenbaum first enlisted Tom Devaney, a poet and assistant professor at Haverford College. Together, they applied for a planning grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and were successful. They began to solicit ideas and partnerships from the Philadelphia-area poetry community, and Tannenbaum also connected with Lynne Farrington, senior curator of special collections at Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, under the auspices of the Kislak Center (a major organizer and partner of Whitman at 200). Farrington loved the idea, and joined in during the fall of 2016.

“This was a collective project from the very beginning,” said Farrington, who’s now the project director.

It wasn’t until about this time last year that full funding was secured (to the extent that something can be “fully” funded, Tannenbaum joked) and the planning was completed. The stringency of grant applications, Tannenbaum said, helped to sharpen the focus of the planning.

Now, nearing the project’s penultimate event, Tannenbaum hopes that even those with a casual knowledge of Whitman will find the time to engage with the work and ideas of a singularly important figure of American letters.

“We hope that it has many ways of seeping into people’s lives,” she said.

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