Marathon Reading of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”

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Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman.

By Michelle Trauring

First, there was “Moby-Dick.” Then, there was “Leaves of Grass.”

Last year, the marathon reading of the Herman Melville epic made its triumphant turn for the first time in more than a decade, originally made popular by Canio Pavone in 1983 at his Sag Harbor bookstore.

This weekend, the tradition lives on. But it’s Walt Whitman’s turn.

“‘Leaves of Grass’ is accessible, it’s musical, it’s powerful,” explained Maryanne Calendrille, co-owner of Canio’s Books, where the marathon reading will be held. “It celebrates the every-man and the every-woman. He’s such a man of the people. I just feel that’s his connection lasting through time. He celebrates everyone, from a butcher’s apprentice to a Civil War soldier to everyone in between. He is all encompassing and all embracing in the work, so that many people from many different experiences find themselves in his work. So, it goes on.”

The festivities will kick off on Friday night with a pre-marathon talk by William Walter, president of the Walt Whitman birthplace in Huntington, followed by a daylong reading of “Leaves of Grass” by 50 Whitman enthusiasts in 10-minute bursts on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Walt Whitman will even make an appearance for photos—sort of.

Meet Darryl Blaine Ford—“sometimes known as Walt Whitman,” his Babylon-based answering machine explains. He is what some would call a Whitman devotee, though he is truly a Whitman scholar and educator.

He has visited every place Whitman lived and nearly every place he stepped foot. He has read every piece of his writing countless times. He has studied Whitman to the point of practically knowing the man, who died 38 years before Mr. Ford was born.

He even has Whitman’s big white beard.

“Whitman got the talent, I got the looks,” the sharp 85-year-old said with a chuckle during a recent telephone interview. “People say I look more like Whitman than Whitman did.

“I sort of evolved into the role and yeah, obviously, my beard looks something like his,” he continued. “We live in a literal-minded age, a visual age, so what I try to do is to introduce Whitman as a living, breathing human being. I’m a living, breathing human being, and so was he.”

The second of nine children, Walter “Walt” Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in Huntington—where his ancestors had lived for more than 125 years, and where Mr. Ford was first introduced to the Whitman legacy.

He had just turned 9 years old and, as the proud owner of a new Rollfast bicycle, he decided to pedal as far as his legs would take him from his childhood home in Amityville. He was headed for the Great South Bay—a journey that was, unbeknownst to him, 40 miles round trip.

The young boy got as far as West Hills before he threw himself off his bike and onto the ground, exhausted, in front of a modest farmhouse.

“When I started to feel a little better, I looked over and saw a plaque, that this was the birthplace of poet Walt Whitman,” Mr. Ford recalled. “I got up and knocked on the door, and a very kind, sweet-faced lady invited me in and took me on a tour of the house. It was nothing like it had been when Whitman’s family was there—Victorian, with plush carpets, paintings, dark maroon drapes. She showed me the room she said Walt was born in, telling the truth as far as she understood it.

“Then, she gave me a peanut butter sandwich, a glass of milk and I’ve been a Walt maniac ever since,” he said.

He also walked away with a ratty copy of “Leaves of Grass,” he said. It didn’t even have a cover.

“When I got back from the Korean War, I asked my mom where my Walt Whitman was and she said, ‘Oh, it was so old, I threw it out,’” he said. “I was very close to matricide.”

Mr. Ford had read it at age 9— “I didn’t understand much of it, because Walt didn’t write for 9 year olds”—and still, he said he saw “gems in the gravel, little glittering flecks of gold, a feeling of surprise.”

More than 75 years later, he still experiences that sensation, as did Ralph Waldo Emerson, who received one of the first 795 copies of “Leaves of Grass,” published in 1855. He responded with a five-page letter in which he famously wrote, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”

The collection of poetry introduced prose that fought for the underclass and ideas that challenged the status quo. It was completely foreign and rejected by most because it was so revolutionary, Mr. Ford said.

“It was unlike anything that had appeared before. Only someone as discerning as Emerson could see that,” Mr. Ford said. “There’s an acceptance of our humanity, of both our bodily and mental humanity, and the important things in life. Among those are sex, which was the problem for the Victorian elites. He came into his own sometime in the ’20s, when critics began to really reveal the riches of ‘Leaves of Grass.’”

Only toward the end of his life did Whitman receive any real acclaim, Mr. Ford said, though he was accepted early on by a small group of admirers, “most of them you would probably call intellectuals.”

“There are eight, nine or 10 editions of ‘Leaves of Grass,’ depending on what you call an edition. He did not improve on them, in my opinion,” Mr. Ford said. “The first edition is completely miraculous. It’s 12 poems, self published, he even set the type of some of the pages. And it got incredible reviews. He wrote them himself as an anonymous third party and had his friends in the newspaper business set them into the newspapers. They were all glowing in tribute. He had developed public relations long before anyone else.”

Whitman was a newsman at heart who loved politics. But he often leaned too far left for his publishers’ taste, and found himself out on the curb after writing editorials railing against slavery.

He lost faith in the political system, though he never stopped voraciously reading newspapers. One day, he came across an article that said his brother, George Washington Whitman, had been wounded at the first battle of Fredericksburg during the Civil War. He hurried home, hopped on a Washington, D.C.-bound train and eventually found George on the battlefield.

The injury wasn’t severe, but it kept Walt Whitman in the nation’s capital until after the war, visiting with sick and wounded soldiers to build their morale. He brought them ice cream, liquor and tobacco, and even sat with the men who were dying and wrote letters home to their families, describing their last days and final words.

Outside of this trip, as well as brief spurts in Canada and New Orleans, Whitman stuck to what he knew: Long Island. He traversed practically every inch of it, either by horseback or by foot, and often tapped the East End for inspiration.

On March 1, 1888, the New York Herald ran his poem, “From Montauk Point.” It was later reprinted in the “Sands at Seventy” annex to “Leaves of Grass.”

It reads:

“I stand as on some mighty eagle’s beak,

Eastward the sea absorbing, viewing, (nothing

but sea and sky)

The tossing waves, the foam, the ships in the

distance,

The wild unrest, the snowy, curling caps—that

inbound urge and urge of waves,

Seeking the shores forever.”

A marathon reading of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and other select works will be held on Saturday, May 21, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor. A pre-marathon talk with William Walter will be held on Friday, May 20, at 6 p.m. at the bookstore. Admission to all events is free. For more information, call (631) 725-4926, or visit caniosbooks.com.

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Gavin Menu is the sports editor, advertising director and co-publisher of The Sag Harbor Express and Express Magazine. Reach him at gmenu@sagharborexpress.com.

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