Professor Robert O. Harris Jr. lends prolific Walt Whitman collection for exhibit at SMU to celebrate great poet's 200th birthday

Share
Robert Harris UNT Dallas Walt Whitman exhibit SMU

Professor Robert O. Harris Jr., one of the foremost collectors of Walt Whitman books and papers in the world, is lending selections from his extensive private collection to be exhibited at SMU’s DeGolyer Library in celebration of the great American poet’s 200th birthday.

The exhibit, “All Goes Onward and Outward: Walt Whitman at 200,” opens Thursday, September 12, at the library located on the SMU campus at 6404 Robert S. Hyer Lane in Dallas.

Harris’ Whitman collection, works that number in the thousands and acquired over nearly 40 years, provides an extraordinary opportunity for the public to view close to 200 rare items devoted to one of the most enduring and influential poets in American history.

Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, Long Island, New York.

“‘All Goes Onward and Outward,’ those words of Walt Whitman hold a special meaning for this exhibition marking his 200th birthday,” Harris wrote in the Preface to the exhibition’s catalogue. “This exhibition has its own unique personality. I have always said that I am quite frankly fascinated by the boldness, candor and vigorous sense of individual freedom and democracy that Whitman so passionately embraced. And so, we embrace this birthday year and present this exhibition to bring all of us a little closer to this great American poet.”

For Harris, a lecturer of English and the director of the First-Year Writing Program at UNT Dallas, this exhibit is his third featuring selected Whitman-related items at the DeGolyer Library, the first being in 1987, and the second in 2004.

Among the many highlights of this exceptional exhibition is one of the first 200 copies of arguably the greatest collection of American poetry ever written, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, from 1855.

“There were 795 copies in total in various formats, but only about 150 have survived,” Harris said. “It is one of four or five copies especially prepared by Whitman to try and get major newspapers in New York to promote the book. Generally speaking, the effort was not a success.”

Other exhibition highlights include:

  • Every American edition of Leaves of Grass published during Whitman’s lifetime, starting with the 1855 edition, as well as important foreign editions and fine press editions
  • Copies of first editions of Whitman’s other books
  • Examples of Whitman’s apprenticeship as a writer, including poems and stories contributed to newspapers and magazines, including the very rare novel, Franklin Evans, and his first published piece, in the New-York Mirror
  • Materials from Whitman’s household, including scrapbooks, ephemera and a book from his library
  • Over 20 original photographs of Whitman, his friends and family
  • Plaster casts of Whitman’s hand and his death mask
  • Correspondence and association copies from Whitman’s literary executors, including Horace Traubel, R. M. Bucke, and T.B. Harned
  • Ephemera and realia, including tickets to lectures, menus from Whitman’s 70th birthday celebration, a Walt Whitman cigar box, and even a token for the Walt Whitman Bridge

The exhibition runs through Nov. 15. However, it will not be last time that Harris’ Whitman collection will appear at the DeGolyer Library. Harris has informed DeGolyer Library director and longtime friend, Russell L. Martin III, that one day the library will serve as the permanent home for his collection.

“My goal is to protect and promote our literary heritage as much as possible,” Harris said. “My collection will remain intact, and present plans are for it to occupy a special place in the DeGolyer Library at SMU in honor of my mother and father.”

Everything Goes Onward and Outward: Walt Whitman at 200,” an annotated catalogue based on the exhibition, with color illustrations and an introductory essay by Harris is available for sale for $10 at the DeGolyer Library, and online at smu.edu/libraries/degolyer.