In celebration of the 200th birthday of one of America’s most influential poets, Walt Whitman, Stony Brook University hosted a half-day symposium on May 3: “‘Starting from Paumanok’: Whitman, Long Island, the World.”
The first part of the event featured lectures by experts like Dr. Karen Karbiener of NYU, a widely-published Whitman scholar, and Joshua Ruff, Chief Curator at the Long Island Museum. Topics included “Whitman and Long Island,” “Whitman and the Visual Arts,” “Whitman and the Civil War” and “Whitman and Homoeroticism.”
In the evening, Stony Brook welcomed Matt Aucoin, American composer and a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. In a lecture titled, “Walt Whitman and the Ethics of Optimism,” Aucoin discussed the creation of his opera, Crossing, which is based on Whitman’s Civil War experiences. Then, in the Staller Center Recital Hall, guests enjoyed selections from the opera performed by the world-acclaimed Baritone Rod Gilfry and Stony Brook’s own Daveed Buzaglo.
Other highlights of the event included a display of rare Whitman books from the University Libraries’ Special Collections. The event was open to the public and was well attended by students, faculty, and community members – all united by their curiosity about this local poet, who is considered one of the most influential writers in American literature and was born just 40 minutes away from Stony Brook, in West Hills, Huntington.
Known as the father of free-verse poetry, Walt Whitman published his ground-breaking work, Leaves of Grass, in 1855. He is also famous for such widely-read poems as “I Hear America Singing” and “O, Captain, My Captain.”
A professor in the English Department, Susan Scheckel, who helped organize the symposium, believes the event showed that Whitman is still relevant even 200 years after his birth.
“Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass during a period very much like our own, when the nation was deeply divided,” she said. “He tried to create poetry that would cut through the ideological and political differences that separate us and instead emphasize what we have in common–our bodies, our experience of nature, the capacity to love.”
She believes Whitman offers hope for America today.
“His vision of a nation united despite its differences and stronger because of its diversity might help us to see our way through the current divisive period,” she said.
In the spirit of celebration, and in an effort to further educate the public on Whitman’s connection to our local area, graduate students in the English Department have put together a historical walking tour: “A Sense of Place: Evoking Whitman’s Long Island.” Starting from the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, the tour covers historic sites throughout the area. Tour dates are May 26 and July 11. To RSVP or arrange another date, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The symposium was organized by Associate Librarian and Director of Special Collections, Kristen J. Nyitray; PhD Candidate in English, Andrew Rimby; and Associate Professor of English, Susan Scheckel. It was sponsored and supported by a FAHSS grant award, the Run Run Shaw Fund, the Graduate Student Organization, the University Libraries, Humanities Institute, the Department of English, the Department of Music, and the Office of the Provost.
— Emma Cesario