If it seems like we give exceedingly good press to Walt Whitman around the Donald W. Reynolds Center—home of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum—it is because we do. Why are we so quick to invoke the words and the world of Whitman? What is our attachment to this guy? Why not Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, or Emily Dickinson? Do we have a Walt hang-up?
To answer the last question first, yes, we do.
Walt Whitman is to the Old Patent Office Building (now called the Reynolds Center, thanks to a very generous gift from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation) what the presidents are to the White House and what Elvis is to Graceland. This is simply because Whitman spent a significant amount of time in the building.
First, he served as a volunteer in the Patent Office Building—it was not old then—when the P.O.B. was also functioning as a hospital during the Civil War. Later, Whitman was an employee of the Department of the Interior until he was fired by his boss, Secretary James Harlan, for having a salacious work of poetry on his desk. What was the work? Secretary Harlan had uncovered a copy of Whitman’s own Leaves of Grass, and, for the salty and prurient words between those covers, Whitman lost his job as a clerk.
However, it was the events of late 1862 that propelled Whitman toward Washington, DC from his hometown of Brooklyn, New York. Whitman’s brother, George Washington Whitman, served with the New York Fifty-first volunteers at the battle for Fredericksburg in December, 1862. Upon hearing his brother was wounded, Walt left New York to search for his brother at the field hospitals on the north side of the Rappahannock River in Virginia, just north of Fredericksburg.
And while George Washington Whitman recovered and rose high into the ranks as a Union officer, Whitman stayed on in Washington. His purpose in Washington during the war was a bit more vague than simply working with the soldiers as a nurse, or as a volunteer. Over and over again, he records working with the recovering wounded, and the dying. However, he also talks about sighting President Lincoln on the streets, and the voice he uses in describing the president is a mix of fascination and celebrity worship:
I see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town. He never sleeps at the White House during the season, but has quarters at a healthy location some three miles north of the city… Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easy-going gray horse, is dressed in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, etc., as the commonest man… I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln’s dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones. [August 12, 1863]
Of the many, many Americans who have walked the floors of the Old Patent Office Building, it is likely that Walt Whitman left the greatest legacy. His presence in the building is mentioned every day by docents and guides, by curators and patrons. Whitman is truly one of the inspired voices in the history of the grand old building.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Walt Whitman / Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins / Platinum print, 1891 (printed 1979) / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution