Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Egyptian Museum (New York) (1853–1859)
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.

Owned by Dr. Henry Abbott, a collection of over one thousand artifacts ranging from fragments of cloth, glass, and pottery to human and animal mummies was opened as the Egyptian Museum in 1853 in Brooklyn and exhibited at various locations, including 659 Broadway and the Stuyvesant Institute at 65 Broadway. Dr. Abbott, a native of Britain, spent twenty years in Egypt and, by his account, one hundred thousand dollars acquiring the artifacts. When attempts to sell them in America failed, he put them on exhibit to recover some of the expense. The collection was bought by the New-York Historical Society in 1859 for thirty-four thousand a few months before Abbott's death. Most of the collection is now at the Brooklyn Museum.

Whitman visited the museum frequently and conversed at length with Abbott during the time Leaves of Grass was being composed. He wrote an essay in 1855 for Life Illustrated recommending the museum. He had also read some of the books Abbott recommended, especially Sir John Gardner Wilkinson's, which Abbott lists first in his catalogue describing the collection.

In the Life essay, Whitman presents the artifacts as "tangible representations of the oldest history and civilization now known upon the earth" (Whitman 30). Egyptian ideas provided a pre-European model useful in the rejection of European traditions. He praises the ancient people for the nature and quality of their daily life and religion, comparing the people to Americans as energetic, spiritual, and freedom-loving. A large share of the artifacts were funerary and hence celebrated beliefs and values surrounding life and death. Egyptian tombs were filled with objects used in everyday life; the interiors contained pictures and images of deities and of people going about their daily occupations.

Abbott's collection contained dozens of figures of Osiris, the agricultural god who brought new life on earth and in the afterworld, where he presided as judge and god of life, truth, justice, light, peace, and grace. The Osiris figure (along with Christ in a similar role) may have suggested the expansive encloser of all—the poet/priest/man—in Whitman's poetry. Tapscott suggests that Whitman may have borrowed images, concepts, and the syntactic structure of cataloguing from Egyptian materials. Egyptian references appear throughout the poetry: the leaf of grass is a hieroglyphic; natural objects are indications of reality to the soul; and the poet is the "arbiter of the diverse," the "key" fitting everything in place ("By Blue Ontario's Shore," section 10). Egyptian versions of the belief in the transmigration of souls enter into such poems as "I Sing the Body Electric." Egyptian elements may also have figured in the death elegy for Lincoln.

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.

Gates, Rosemary L. "Egyptian Myth and Whitman's 'Lilacs.'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 5.1 (1987): 21–31.

Irwin, John T. American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Myth and Literature in the American Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.

Tapscott, Stephen J. "Leaves of Myself: Whitman's Egypt in 'Song of Myself.'" American Literature 50 (1978): 49–73.

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.

Wilkinson, Sir John Gardner. The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians. London: Murray, 1841.

____. A Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians. New York: Harper, 1854.

Williams, Carolyn Ransom. Catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities. New York: New York Historical Society, 1924.


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