Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Centennial Exposition (Philadelphia)
Author:
Lueth, Elmar S.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Commemorating the 100th anniversary of American independence, the Centennial Exposition opened in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park on 10 May 1876. Inaugurated by President Ulysses S. Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil, the exposition included 31,000 exhibitors from 56 countries and colonies. Over a six-month period, close to 10,000,000 visitors came to Fairmount Park, which offered such spectacular sights as a 1,400-horsepower steam engine and the future arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty. By closing day in November, the Centennial Exposition had set a new record for attendance at international fairs and had boosted America's reputation as an industrial and economic power.

In the spring of 1875, while Fairmount Park was little more than a construction site, Walt Whitman began collecting material for a new edition of his writings to coincide with the opening of the Centennial Exposition. He probably hoped that the timely appearance of this Centennial edition would convince the exposition committee to let him write the official poem for the opening ceremony. In Two Rivulets, the second volume of the Centennial edition, Whitman included a poem entitled "Song of the Exposition" and prefaced it with remarks about the Centennial Exposition. In the preface, Whitman invites the muse mentioned in the poem to Philadelphia and praises "those superb International Expositions." The poem had originally been published under the title After All, Not to Create Only in 1871, when Whitman had delivered it as the inaugural poem at the 40th Annual Exhibition of the American Institute in New York.

Despite Whitman's efforts to get the attention of the Philadelphia exposition committee, he did not receive an invitation to participate in the opening ceremony. Instead, the honor to write for the Centennial Exposition went to three other poets. Bayard Taylor, who ironically had satirized Whitman's inaugural poem in 1871, delivered an ode at the exposition's Fourth of July celebration. Sidney Lanier wrote a cantata for the opening ceremony, and John Greenleaf Whittier contributed a hymn. Although Whitman had tried more consistently than any of these poets to write about America in his poetry, his controversial reputation made him an unlikely choice for the exposition committee. In the end, Whitman came to the Centennial Exposition as an ordinary visitor, paying the same fifty cents admission as everyone else. Living with his brother George in Camden, New Jersey, Whitman did not have to travel far to get to the exposition. He was still weak from a paralytic stroke suffered in 1873, however, and there is little to suggest that the exposition made much of an impression on him after it had started.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Ingram, J.S. The Centennial Exposition, Described and Illustrated. Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers, 1876.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Post, Robert C., ed. 1876: A Centennial Exhibition. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of History and Technology, 1976.


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