Celebrating Walt Whitman and 'Leaves of Grass' On the Fourth of July, 1855, a book of poetry by an unknown by the name of Walt Whitman came out to mixed reviews and widespread disinterest. Eventually, it changed the way poets thought... and sang... of themselves. Lynn Neary leads a discussion on Leaves of Grass.

Celebrating Walt Whitman and 'Leaves of Grass'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary filling in for Neal Conan in Washington.

Today marks not only the anniversary of America's independence but also a major literary event in the life of the nation, the publication of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." One hundred and fifty years ago Walt Whitman declared literary independence from Europe with his remarkable collection of poetry. The first edition, published by Whitman himself, contained 12 untitled poems. Some would later become famous under titles like "I Sing the Body Electric" and "Song of Myself." Unlike his contemporaries, Whitman chose the common vernacular to evoke visceral images of American life. He was one of the first poets to extol the virtues of the human body in exquisite detail and to write in free verse.

Unfortunately for Whitman, no one appeared to notice. Sales at first were abysmal. With few exceptions, critics dismissed the work as rubbish. Whitman himself wrote glowingly of his collection and waged a campaign of self-promotion. This hour, an examination of Whitman's transformation from literary nobody to the Good Gray Poet and the lasting impact of "Leaves of Grass."

Later in the program, we'll talk to the speaker of the House of the nation of Georgia about her country's road to political independence. But first, Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."

If you have questions about Walt Whitman and his definitive collection of poems, give us a call. When did you first come across a copy of "Leaves of Grass"? Which pieces left an impression on you? Our number here in Washington, (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Joining us now is Ed Folsom, a professor of English at the University of Iowa and the editor of the Whitman Quarterly Review. He joins us from a BBC studio in Paris.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Professor ED FOLSOM (University of Iowa): Good to talk with you, Lynn.

NEARY: Why did "Leaves of Grass" create such a sea change in poetry when it was published?

Prof. FOLSOM: Well, I think--it didn't exactly create a sea change immediately but over the years it certainly has. And I think the key is that for Whitman, the development of an absolutely new style, a style so radical, so open, so flowing, the free verse lines, the brash announcement of a strong self that would sing of itself, all of these things led to a remarkably strange and radical book that when reviewers, except for Whitman himself, first looked at it, reviewers would talk about it not even being a book of poems, being unable to really decipher what it was. The form was so strange and radical. Many of the ideas were familiar from writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who sent Whitman a letter early on and greeted him at the beginning of a great career and helped Whitman along. Whitman took that phrase from Emerson's letter without permission and emblazoned it on the second edition of "Leaves of Grass" in 1856. As you mentioned, he was a great self-promoter...

NEARY: Mm-hm.

Prof. FOLSOM: ...and if he had lived in a time where publication dates were announced, as they are today, he certainly, I think, would have announced his book to have appeared on July 4th. Unfortunately, that's a bit of wishful thinking now.

NEARY: It didn't really get published on July 4th?

Prof. FOLSOM: No, it didn't. That was an argument that was made by a critic who really wanted it to happen back in the 1930s and he made the argument on the basis of the dates that advertisements for "Leaves of Grass" that Whitman had placed in New York area newspapers appeared, but since then we've found earlier advertisements from as early as late June that were advertising the book already available in the bookstores.


Prof. FOLSOM: So, unfortunately, we don't have a literary declaration of independence appearing on Independence Day, but it was close.

NEARY: Well, we're going to celebrate it today anyway.

Prof. FOLSOM: Yeah, it's a good time to celebrate it.

NEARY: You know, as his poetry suggests, Walt Whitman was not a shy, retiring person. In fact, he had kind of a Messianic view of himself as a poet, didn't he?

Prof. FOLSOM: Well, he did, and I think one of the things that happens when you pick up a copy of "Leaves of Grass" and begin reading it is that you either hear that voice as a tremendously self-involved, egocentric voice or you begin to hear it as I think Whitman intended it, which is the voice of what democracy is going to sound like.

I think what Whitman set out to do in "Leaves of Grass" was nothing less than to invent the democratic voice, invent a voice that would basically be a void of nondiscrimination. It's interesting to me that Whitman was the very first writer to use discrimination in the pejorative sense. At the time Whitman was writing, a person of discriminating taste, a person who discriminated was seen positively. This would be a person who would be able to sort out the beautiful from the ugly. Whitman set out to invent a voice that did not discriminate because Whitman began to see--as I think most of us hear the word discrimination today in the United States--see discrimination as primarily a negative attribute; that is, every time we discriminate in favor of something, we discriminate against other things. And he began to see democracy as--well, he compared it to photography, the new visual invention of his time, that is, a plate that was open to the impress of the world. Anything that would appear, anything that the sun would shine on would be part of the fullness and the new beauty. And so that self that he sings is a huge, absorptive, vast self that is trying to get to the point that it can absorb and contain every aspect of America's vast diversity and eventually the world's diversity. So it is a brash, vast voice; but I think it's a voice that Whitman believed everyone in America, every democratic-thinking being in the world would eventually have to have, a voice that did not discriminate.

NEARY: We are talking about Walt Whitman and his "Leaves of Grass." If you'd like to join our discussion, the number is 1 (800) 989-8255. Have you been influenced by Walt Whitman and his poetry? When did you first encounter it? Give us a call. It's 1 (800) 989-8255.

And we're going to go to Lynn. She's in Old Mission, Michigan, I believe it is. Hi, Lynn.

LYNN (Caller): Well, I'm a he. Well, I was just wondering what Abraham Lincoln's--I'm sorry. I was just wondering what Walt Whitman's relationship to Abraham Lincoln was.

Prof. FOLSOM: Well, Abraham Lincoln, of course, was Whitman's hero president, the president who was struggling to preserve the Union. And one of Whitman's greatest poems, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," was a poem that--an elegy that he wrote upon Lincoln's death, probably his most familiar poem, a poem that by the end of his life Whitman said he regretted having ever written. "Oh, Captain, My Captain," which I'm sure many of your listeners, Lynn, memorized when they were in junior high school...

NEARY: Um-hm.

Prof. FOLSOM: ...a very uncharacteristic Whitman poem but a poem that, I think, where Whitman was actually trying to capture what a sailor, having heard of the death of his commander in chief, would be thinking. Whitman always talked about a kind of personal relationship that he had with Abraham Lincoln, but the relationship actually involved Whitman often standing in Washington, DC, where Whitman was living while Lincoln was president during the Civil War, and standing on the street because he knew the path that Lincoln followed. Often on hot summer nights he would actually sleep outside of town in a camp north of Washington, and Whitman knew the path, as most people did, that Lincoln would follow. And Whitman would always stand out there and tip his hat as Lincoln went by and, according to Whitman, Lincoln would tip his hat back again.

They--there's some evidence that Lincoln himself read "Leaves of Grass" early on. There's a book by Daniel Mark Epstein that came out recently that argues that Lincoln's rhetorical style--his great change of rhetorical style that led to things like the Gettysburg Address were actually derived from his having read and been inspired by "Leaves of Grass." But there's no evidence that the two ever met and yet there's a great deal of evidence, of course, that Lincoln, for Walt Whitman, was a tremendously important figure, probably the most important figure in American history.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for your call-in. I apologize for assuming your gender.

LYNN: OK, thanks. Bye.

NEARY: I'm sure you can understand why I did. OK, we're going to try and get a quick call in before we have to take a break. Ryan, in Florida. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN (Caller): Hello.

NEARY: Go ahead.

RYAN: I wanted to say that I was first introduced to Walt Whitman through a Chautauqua program where an actor actually became him. And I thought it might be appropriate to mention "I Hear America Singing" on this Fourth of July, which is one of Walt Whitman's poems.


RYAN: I think it was in "Leaves of Grass."

NEARY: Yeah, can you read an excerpt of it? I understand you have an excerpt there to read.

RYAN: I'd love to. (Reading) I hear America singing the varied carols I hear. Those of mechanics each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong. The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam.

NEARY: That's beautiful. Thank you.

RYAN: Thank you.

NEARY: I appre--is that your favorite Whitman poem?

RYAN: Oh, it's hard to pick a favorite. I'd say it's one of them.

NEARY: Yeah, thanks so much for your call, Ryan.

RYAN: ...the program.

NEARY: Yeah.

Prof. FOLSOM: That's a great passage that Ryan just read and points out that quality that I was trying to describe in Whitman of here it's a non-discriminative music. It's music that takes in all sound, sound that otherwise would be dismissed as noise, and includes it in a song that he now calls America.

NEARY: And, again, also reflects that great belief in democracy.

Prof. FOLSOM: That's right.

NEARY: You can hear it in that one--those few lines, which, of course, then became the theme of "Leaves of Grass."

We are talking about Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." We are joined by Ed Folsom, professor of English at the University of Iowa. When we come back, Michael Cunningham, author of "The Hours," will be joining us to talk about his most recent book, which was inspired by guess what?

What's your story about "Leaves of Grass"? Yours, not the one involving Bill and Monica. We're taking your calls at (800) 989-TALK and you can send us an e-mail. The address is totn@npr.org. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is on vacation.

We're talking about "Leaves of Grass." When Walt Whitman first published these poems 150 years ago, one review called them `a mass of stupid filth,' while another cheered `an American bard, at last.' Of course, the author of that second quote was Whitman himself in an anonymous review.

A century and a half later what's your relationship to "Leaves of Grass"? Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK, and our e-mail address is totn@npr.org. For excerpts of poems as they originally appeared in the first edition of "Leaves of Grass," you can go to our Web site at npr.org.

Our guest is Ed Folsom, editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and co-director of the Walt Whitman Online Archive.

Professor Folsom, I'm wondering if there is any verse in the first edition of "Leaves of Grass" that you think particularly captures Walt Whitman's spirit?

Prof. FOLSOM: Well, it's always difficult to pull out a particular passage but the nice thing about Whitman is you can almost never go wrong. You can pick out any passage and it begins to unfold into all the other passages of "Leaves of Grass." It's a tremendously organic work in that sense. Here's a passage I'm fond of from the poem that he eventually entitled "Song of Myself."

(Reading) I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise. Regardless of others, ever regardful of others. Maternal as well as paternal. A child as well as a man stuffed with the stuff that is coarse and stuffed with the stuff that is fine. One of the great nation, a nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same. A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter, nonchalant and hospitable, a Yankee bound my own way, ready for trade. My joints the limberest joints on Earth and the sternest joints on Earth. A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings. A boatman over the lakes or bays or along coasts. A Hoosier, a Badger, a Buckeye, a Louisianan, a Georgian, a poke-easy from the sand hills and pines. At home on Canadian snowshoes or up in the bush or with fishermen off Newfoundland. I resist anything better than my own diversity and breathe the air and leave plenty after me and am not stuck up and am in my place.

NEARY: You know, Walt Whitman set out in this work--he really wanted to appeal--not only was he democratic in the writing of his poetry, he really wanted the widest range of people to read his poetry. It must have been a pretty bitter disappointment, I would think, when so few people actually were interested in his poetry, at least in the first go-round.

Prof. FOLSOM: Yes, I think that's true and Whitman, you know, when he wrote the 1855 "Leaves of Grass," at the last minute he added a preface to--a prose preface to the poems explaining what--in many ways what he was trying to accomplish in the poetry. And he ended that preface by saying `The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.' And I think when he wrote that line he began--he really set for himself a pretty high bar; that is, that the success of his poetry would actually be measured by the affection with which his country would absorb him. He would become the American bard only if America absorbed him.

He later dropped that line and--when he reprinted the preface--because I think he began to see that the absorption that he dreamed of was going to take a lot longer than he had hoped. You know, when he printed the second edition of "Leaves of Grass," the 1856 edition, he--instead of putting it in the large page format of the first edition, he put it in a very small pocket-size format because he dreamed that the working men and working women of America would be carrying it in their pockets and reading it on their lunch breaks on their jobs. Whitman, by the end of his life, realized that it was going to be a slow process but he already, by the end of his life, was seeing the signs that a lot of young, very passionate readers were beginning to spread the word, to keep the books in print, to see that the 20th century would have an opportunity to read Whitman. And when he died in the early 1890s I think he was fairly secure in the notion that his work would have a chance.

NEARY: Well, most fans of Whitman read and reread his work. Dedicated aficionados may make a pilgrimage to his birthplace in West Hills, New York, but Ed Centeno has gone one step beyond. He has sacrificed a significant amount of his free time to collect advertising and other pop cultural artifacts which bear Whitman's image. Mr. Centeno is with us now by phone from his home in North Granby, Connecticut. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. ED CENTENO (Whitman Collector): Oh, thank you.

NEARY: How did you get started collecting this so-called Whitmania?

Mr. CENTENO: I started 18 years ago and my main interest started with stamp collecting. I was writing a short article on the depiction of Walt Whitman on six countries that have already issued stamps on him. And from there on I--the article that I was writing ment--on the publication for this local stamp club--came to find out that he actually was born in Camden, New Jersey, and this is the city that I grew up, you know, as a teen.

NEARY: How much interest do you find people have in this collection? Do you have a lot of people that want to know what you have and are really interested in a Walt Whitman collection?

Mr. CENTENO: Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, I just putting--I just came back from New York. The South Street Seaport Museum has asked me and have at least 20 items of my collections in the museum. There has been several publications that have used a lot of images from my collection. And then a few days ago--in just a few days I'm going to be putting in an exhibit of my entire collection at the Connecticut--Center Connecticut State University.

NEARY: What do you think these artifacts tell us about Walt Whitman and the way that he has been interpreted in our culture?

Mr. CENTENO: It shows foremost that he was a self-promoter and he knew the importance of promoting himself. The fact that using his images--for example, there has been over 130 images of himself in photograph throughout his lifetime. That he knew that images in, you know, color and just, you know, anything, you know, that piques--gets the people's attention and curiosity was very important.

NEARY: What kinds of things are we talking about? What kinds of things have Walt Whitman's image on it?

Mr. CENTENO: Oh, my God, I have over 300 items in my collection, but most interesting will be matchbooks, insurance advertising, whiskey ads. I have over 300 postcards. CDs, for example, anyway uses his image or depicts his name. From cigarette advertising to even most recently the post office just issued a postal cancellation to go along with the event at the South Street Seaport Saturday. So all these images you can see anyway he's still very alive and pretty much sought after.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today, Mr. Centeno.

Mr. CENTENO: Well, thank you for the chance.

NEARY: Ed Centeno collects cultural artifacts of Walt Whitman. His collection is currently on display at South Street Seaport Museum in New York City. As of Thursday, it will also be displayed at Central Connecticut State University. Mr. Centeno joined us by phone from his home in North Granby, Connecticut.

Walt Whitman's work is still influencing the literary world a century and a half after "Leaves of Grass" made its debut. Among the most exquisite recent examples of this is "Specimen Days," the latest book penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham. "Specimen Days" contains three stories loosely threaded together by "Leaves of Grass." Michael Cunningham is with us now by phone from Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM (Author, "Specimen Days"): My pleasure.

NEARY: Now in your book "The Hours," which won the Pulitzer Prize, you sort of reimagined Virginia Woolf's book "Mrs. Dalloway." In "Specimen Day" you tell three stories set in New York. How does Walt Whitman come into it? And they cross over time from the Industrial Age to the present to the future.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, yeah, "Specimen Days" is three linked novellas that span about 300 years. There is a ghost story, a thriller and a science fiction story. And I hadn't really intended to put Whitman in. You know, I didn't want it to look like I'd cashed in on Virginia Woolf, now maybe I can make a bundle off Walt Whitman. But as I researched New York in the 1860s, which was the setting for the ghost story, I understood that it was for most people a terrible place. People worked seven-day weeks, 12- to 14-hour shifts. It was an endless flood of immigrants, mostly from Ireland, people who were starving, who would do anything for any amount of money. It was polluted. There was no trash pick-up. If a horse dropped over dead in front of your house, the horse just remained there. And through all this walked Walt Whitman, our American dervish, to me the greatest poet, saying, `I have appetite for it all. I find it all marvelous and strange.' And I thought, well, I can't leave that out. He--here's--here is the ecstatic soul of all this dark and difficult stuff I'm writing about. And then I thought, well, if Walt Whitman's going to be in one, he really should be in all three stories.

NEARY: I love that, `the American dervish.' What a great description.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, I think--I don't know if you know that there's a 12th century Persian poet named Rumi who just kind of twirled around extolling ecstaticisms and his assistants walked behind him and dutifully wrote them down. Whitman did us the courtesy of writing them down himself. But, yeah, I do think of him that way, as our great ecstatic.

NEARY: And so, had you always been a fan of Walt Whitman's, I mean, before you came to writing this book, before you made this decision?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I read Whitman in college. I remember--I wish I could quote the passage, I can only paraphrase it. There's a stanza in "Leaves of Grass" in which he says something like, `Reader, know that I am as alive and present in my body and in a room as you are when you read these lines. Though I may be dead and the room in which I'm sitting may be gone, know that I was here as surely as you are there. Are you alone? Is it night? Is the lamp lit?' And I was and it was and it was. And it actually kind of terrified me. So I--`Walt, Walt, get back in the book.' There was this sense of--my first really palpable sense of great art's ability to, if not transcend mortality, at least stretch it close to the breaking point. And for years after I walked around like the factory worker that Walt Whitman had hoped to reach with a little--with a pocket-size copy--prone--more prone than was really necessary to read passages to anyone who would listen, which most people found incredibly irritating. But he was my muse and my--the genie in my pocket for a long, long time.

NEARY: Michael Cunningham is my guest today on TALK OF THE NATION and we are discussing "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman. We're also joined by Ed Folsom, professor of English at the University of Iowa, an editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. If you'd like to join our discussion about "Leaves of Grass," the number is (800) 989-8255.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I wanted to ask you, Mr. Cunningham, you mentioned factory workers and one of your characters is, in fact, a factory worker.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, yeah. In the--the first story concerns a young boy, a boy of 12, whose brother has been sort of sucked into the machine at the foundry where he works and, by way of recompense, the foundry has given the man's job to his younger brother, which this little boy is in no way able to really do. But there he is. And he becomes convinced that the spirits of the dead inhabit machinery. And he, as a sort of antidote to this machine world that he sees all around him, begins to memorize "Leaves of Grass" and develops a sort of almost Tourette's-like syndrome whereby when he gets excited or feels threatened, he spouts lines involuntarily from "Leaves of Grass."

NEARY: Tourette's syndrome with Walt Whitman.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I know, I know. I know it's a bit of a stretch.

NEARY: We're going to take some calls now. The number is 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go first to Billy in De Kalb, Illinois. Hi, Billy.

BILLY (Caller): Hi. I wanted to call and say that I was introduced to Whitman as a young college student. I was a young gay man in rural and conservative Missouri and was introduced to Whitman as a very democratic poet. But when I arrived at the "Calamus" poems, I thought that I had found something else, a sort of kindred spirit, somebody who I thought was talking about being gay in some way. It was sort of seen as scandalous when we talked about it in class, but to me it was affirming and allowed me to go on to read other poems and poets like Dickinson or Adrienne Rich or Audre Lorde and even other prose like Michael Cunningham, for example.

NEARY: Professor Folsom, could--Professor Folsom?

Prof. FOLSOM: Yes?

NEARY: What's your reaction to this caller's take on his exposure to Walt Whitman and how it affected him?

Prof. FOLSOM: I think it's an experience that many, many, many people have had reading Whitman over the years, and I think Billy's experience, too, of having read Whitman or having been taught Whitman without having Whitman's sexuality brought up in any way is an all-too-common experience as well. I think that's changing a bit now, and certainly in our culture, in American culture, Whitman--it's an odd way to put it, but Whitman became gay after the Stonewall revolution in the '70s. He was considered a gay poet in Germany, for instance, at the turn of the century, and there were those who were talking about Whitman's homosexuality in the 19th century. But in this culture, it really was kept out of the main discussions about Whitman for many years.

NEARY: Michael Cunningham, was that part of your own reaction to the reading of Walt Whitman?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely. I think "Leaves of Grass" was the first great gay book I ever read. You know, "Dancer from the Dance" came much later. And also, I think that part of what is so great about "Leaves of Grass" is that so many of us can see ourselves in it. It would be one thing if it was an epic poem about gay people. It's an epic poem about all people, and it doesn't stint on gay people.

NEARY: And, Professor Folsom, was his celebration of the body, the sexuality of that poetry, part of why there was a negative, perhaps, reaction when it was first published?

Prof. FOLSOM: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, I think there are passages in the 1855 "Leaves of Grass" that certainly would raise eyebrows if we read them on NPR today.

NEARY: Oh, let's. What are...

Prof. FOLSOM: There are some remarkably explicit passages. And the interesting thing to me is that in Whitman's own time, the passages that caused the most outrage, when the book, for instance, was banned in Boston in 1881, became the first banned-in-Boston book when it was ruled obscene and barred from the mails in Boston. And one of the nice things about that incident is that the attorney general listed all of the things that...

NEARY: Hold that thought. Hold that thought...

Prof. FOLSOM: OK. I'll hang on.

NEARY: ...'cause we're going to have to take a short break. And we will finish this discussion when we return.

It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.


NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington; Neal Conan is away.

Tomorrow, as the pressure grows on military recruiters to bolster the slipping enlistment numbers, the hard-sell tactics they direct at young men and women have rubbed a lot of parents the wrong way, with high schoolers in the middle. We'll look into the tension between parents and military recruiters on tomorrow's show.

Today we're talking about Walt Whitman and his seminal book of poetry, "Leaves of Grass," which turns 150 years old this month. Join the conversation; the number's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address: totn@npr.org.

And we have an e-mail here that I'd like to address to Professor Ed Folsom. `What's the significance of the title, "Leaves of Grass," and why would Whitman have chosen it?'

Prof. FOLSOM: That's a very, very good question. The significance of the title is that I think Whitman viewed the leaves of grass--and I think we've got to remember what grass was in Whitman's time as opposed to the chemically enhanced lawns of today; grass was a wild variety. And if you think of the prairie grasses, which Whitman always loved to look at and think about, it was a vast variety of grasses that somehow grew together and the root systems intertwined, and so you had this amazing image of a vast plain of individuals that formed this prairie. And in some ways, that was Whitman's conception of the country.

"Leaves of Grass" also had to do with Whitman's basic conception that it's a cycle of life and death that we live in and that death is continually pushing forward new life, and therefore death is not something to be mourned or feared, but rather something to be celebrated as part of that endless cycle of life and death. And "Leaves of Grass," in the poem, the first long poem that becomes "Song of Myself," leaves of grass become that image of the life growing out of the graves and the sustenance for a new cycle of life.

NEARY: Let's see if we can get one more call in. That's from Roset(ph) in Phoenix, Arizona. Hi, Roset.

ROSET (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

ROSET: Thanks for taking my call.

NEARY: You're welcome. Go ahead.

ROSET: I am interested--I love the poetry of Walt Whitman, and I think that he is the essential American poet. I'm interested in his background, his educational background. I know he did a lot of printing; he worked for printers and so forth. So could you elaborate on his education?

NEARY: Yeah. Thanks for your call. Professor Folsom?

Prof. FOLSOM: Yes...

NEARY: And he printed "Leaves of Grass" himself, did he not?

Prof. FOLSOM: Well, he certainly set some of the pages. He printed it in a very small print shop run by a guy named Andrew Rome in Brooklyn; first book that Rome had ever printed. He printed very few books during his career; it was mostly legal forms printing that he was doing. And, yeah, Whitman was a skilled printer, was always, his whole life, fascinated with--he once said, `I'm really more interested in the making of books than I am in the reading of books.' He loved that idea of the physicality of the material of the books.

He had a very rudimentary education, a public school education in Brooklyn that lasted until he was about 12 years old. And then after that, he really was a kind of autodidact. He picked up tremendous amounts by going to the museums in New York and by attending free lectures whenever he could, reading journals. He amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge, but it was a self-taught knowledge.

NEARY: And, Michael Cunningham, just one last question: To what extent do you think American writers have to, in some way, sort of confront the influence of Walt Whitman?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, I think American writers should not confront the influence of Whitman, but absorb it, rejoice in it and be grateful for everything he's given us, which is, to me, anyway, this sense of sort of limitless scope, the idea that there was nothing in the world, not one thing, that you can't write about, and that there is nothing ordinary in the world; there are only inadequate ways of looking at it.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks for joining us today, Michael Cunningham.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Thank you for having me.

NEARY: Michael Cunningham is the author of several books, including "The Hours." His most recent book is "Specimen Days," which is loosely based on the poems of Walt Whitman. He joined us by phone from Provincetown, Massachusetts.

And thanks also to Professor Ed Folsom. He is the co-director of the online Walt Whitman Archive and author of the forthcoming book "Rescripting Walt Whitman." He joined us from a BBC studio in Paris.

Thanks for being with us, Professor Folsom.

Prof. FOLSOM: Thanks, Lynn.

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