Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Crystal Palace Exhibition (New York)
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.

As the main attraction of the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, the Crystal Palace opened its doors in New York on 14 July 1853, two years after the original Crystal Palace had been a great success at the World's Fair in London. The palace, an imposing structure of iron and glass with a 148-foot dome at the center, contained 173,000 square feet of exhibition space and allowed some 6,000 exhibitors from 24 nations to display everything from cannons to artificial flowers. The palace also housed a sculpture show and the largest collection of paintings ever assembled in America. Despite its impressive scale, the privately organized exhibition did not draw as many visitors as expected, and the organizers soon found it necessary to hire P.T. Barnum to help with promotion. A fire completely destroyed the palace on 5 October 1858.

In an article for the Brooklyn Daily Times, Walt Whitman called the Crystal Palace "an original, esthetic, perfectly proportioned, American edifice" (qtd. in Greenspan 7–8). For almost a year after the opening of the exhibition, he was an enthusiastic and frequent visitor to the palace, browsing through the displays both during the day and at night, both alone and with friends. Whitman especially enjoyed the vast collection of paintings, which he preferred to see at night when the palace was lit by thousands of gas lamps. The exhibition also allowed Whitman to indulge his interest in photography. A large display of daguerreotypes included local exhibitors from New York and Brooklyn, among them Gabriel Harrison, who in 1854 took the picture of Whitman that inspired the frontispiece for the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

Much of the public response to the Crystal Palace exhibition celebrated it as an example of America's industrial potential and as a step towards peaceful cooperation between nations. Theodore Sedgwick, the president of the Crystal Palace association, hoped that the exhibition would unite the continents of Europe and America, and Horace Greeley welcomed the palace as a place where America could self-confidently measure its strengths and weaknesses in a cosmopolitan setting. The optimistic atmosphere generated by this exhibition which temporarily fused commerce, science, technology, and art into a harmonious whole likely affected Whitman as he tried to conceive of a national poetry. Both Paul Zweig and Ezra Greenspan detect echoes of Whitman's Crystal Palace experience in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Bibliography

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

Greeley, Horace. Art and Industry as Represented in the Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, New York: 1853–54. New York: Redfield, 1853.

Greenspan, Ezra. Walt Whitman and the American Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Rubin, Joseph Jay. The Historic Whitman. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1973.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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