Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Abbott, Dr. Henry (1812–1859)
Author:
Winslow, Rosemary Gates
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

During the years Leaves of Grass was first being composed, Walt Whitman passed many afternoons in conversation with Dr. Henry Abbott at Abbott's Egyptian Museum on Broadway. In a catalogue published to promote the exhibit, Abbott describes himself as "merely an amateur of antiquity as appeared to me illustrative of the religious and other customs of the ancient Egyptians, in whose country I have passed the last twenty years of my life" (Abbott 3).

An Englishman, Dr. Abbott departed on an expedition to Egypt when his family moved to America upon completion of the education of the children. He stayed in Egypt, practicing medicine, marrying an Armenian, and settling in Cairo. He amassed a collection of over one thousand ancient artifacts, often going into tombs himself for objects and spending by his account $100,000. He brought them to New York to find a buyer, but failing that, he opened the museum in 1853. He returned to Cairo in 1855, and the New-York Historical Society purchased the collection for $34,000 in 1859, a few months before his death.

In an essay written for Life Illustrated in 1855, Whitman praises the Egyptians' habit of living in daily awareness of a spirituality made keen by constant reminders of death. Reaching back past Greece and Rome to praise the life and religion of their forerunner, Whitman saw Egypt as alive, energetic, freedom-loving, and great—an older kindred of the American people. This sense of a culture teeming with life was captured by Dr. Abbott's talks of his life in Egypt and the vivid relics Whitman saw. Whitman also read books recommended in Abbott's Catalogue, chiefly the first on the list, by Sir John Gardner Wilkinson.

Bibliography

Abbott, Henry. Catalogue of a Collection of Egyptian Antiquities, the Property of Henry Abbott, M.D., Now Exhibiting at the Stuyvesant Institute. New York: J.W. Watson, 1853.

New-York Historical Society. Catalogue of the Museum and Gallery of Art of the New-York Historical Society. New York: New York Historical Society, 1893.

Whitman, Walt. "One of the Lessons Bordering Broadway: The Egyptian Museum." New York Dissected. 1936. Ed. Emory Holloway and Ralph Adimari. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1972. 30–40.


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