By Heidi Sutton
The U.S. Postal Service celebrated the 32nd honoree in the Literary Arts stamp series, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), with a first day of issue stamp dedication and unveiling ceremony on Sept. 12.
The event was held at a most fitting venue, The Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site’s Interpretive Center in Huntington Station, which boasts the second largest Whitman collection in the world, only superceded by the Library of Congress. The farmhouse where Whitman was born sits on the property.
Thursday’s unveiling honored the 200th anniversary of the Long Island native’s birth.
Influenced by the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman wrote over 400 poems including “Song of Myself,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” and his 1855 masterpiece “Leaves of Grass.”
In addition to avid stamp collectors, the event was attended by many elected officials including Assemblyman Andrew Raia, Sen. James Gaughran, Legislator Susan Berland, Supervisor Chad Lupinacci, Legislator Tom Donnelly, Councilman Mark Cuthbertson along with Executive Director of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum Lance Reinheimer, Huntington historian Robert C. Hughes, Executive Director of Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park Vincent A. Simeone, Deputy Regional Director of NYS Parks Brian X. Foley, Regional Director of NYS Parks George “Chip” Gorman and many employees of the U.S. Postal Service.
Michael Gargiulo, WNBC co-anchor of “Today in New York” served as master of ceremonies. “I’m a huge history fan, I’m a huge stamp fan and I’m thrilled to be here,” he said before introducing Cynthia L. Shor, executive director of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association; Jeffrey S. Gould, who sits on the board of trustees of the association; and Erik Kulleseid, commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for welcoming remarks.
The official stamp dedication was led by Cara M. Greene, vice president and controller of the U.S. Postal Service, and Walt Whitman personator Darrel Blaine Ford treated the audience to a soul-stirring reading of “Song of the Open Road.”
“Walt Whitman’s message of equality, tolerance, and the idea that we are all of the natural world, not separate from it, drew international acclaim in the 19th century and rings just as true today,” said Kulleseid, who thanked Shor and the board of directors “for all you’ve done since the 1950s to preserve this site and to educate visitors about Whitman’s vision of what it truly means to be an American.”
“[Whitman] is considered by many as the father of modern American poetry. The key word here is modern because of the topics and themes he explored — freedom, human dignity and democracy — and his stylistic innovations that at times mimicked ordinary speech and the long cadences of biblical poetry. His work continues to resonate with us today,” said Greene before unveiling the 85-cent commemorative stamp, which is intended for domestic First-Class Mail weighing up to 3 ounces.
Designed by Greg Breeding, the stamp features a portrait of Whitman painted by Brooklyn artist Sam Weber based on a photograph of the poet taken by Frank Pearsall in 1869. It depicts Whitman in his 50s, with long white hair and a beard gazing out with his chin resting in his left hand. The light purple background with a hermit thrush siting on the branch of a lilac tree recalls “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” an elegy for President Abraham Lincoln written by Whitman soon after Lincoln‘s assassination on April 14, 1865. It appeared in the second edition of “Drum Taps,” a collection of poems mostly written during the Civil War.
“Why do we honor Walt Whitman? He has had a tremendous influence on poetry, he relaxed the poetic line, dispensing with rhyme and meter and opening the way to what we call ‘free verse.’ He was really the great poet of American democracy — his poems embraced people of all religions and races and social classes,” at a time of great nativism, said David S. Reynolds, author of “Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography.”
Although he witnessed much suffering during the Civil War and endured several strokes, Reynolds said Whitman “never surrendered his optimism … His poetry radiates this joyful spirit. It brims with his love of the beauty and miracles of everyday life … and lifts our spirits.”