Walt Whitman’s Eyeglasses

Walt Whitman. Steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison. Used in 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Another memory. I am at the National Archives in Washington, DC and nothing makes sense anymore: armed guards are everywhere, and the new security procedures put in after 9/11 make me feel as if I am going through airport security every time I have to go to the restroom, much less enter or leave the building.

Also, it is August and sweltering hot and everybody is cranky in DC. If that isn’t bad enough, much of the building is being gutted and they are doing some sort of major refurbishing project—getting rid of asbestos or something. All I know is it is a mess.

I am also using the manuscript collections at the Library of Congress, on the other end of the National Mall. It is crazy over there too—Congress is in session, tourists are everywhere. And we are at war in Iraq and partisan bickering is rampant and everybody seems, well, it is hardly America at its best.

Main Reading Room, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, DC. Photo credit: Library of Congress

One afternoon, I take a break and wander, blurry-eyed, out of the James Madison Building, where the manuscripts reading room is. On a whim I walk across Independence Avenue and into the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building.

It is one of the most beautiful buildings in the U.S. The Main Reading Room always takes my breath away.

On this day I explore the side galleries, not the reading room, and in one of them I find a new exhibit dedicated to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and take refuge there.

The library holds vast collections of Whitman’s poems, correspondence and even some of his personal belongings. The exhibit features a small part of those holdings.

Notes for “Ashes of Heroes.” Library of Congress.

In the exhibit I discover the handwritten notes that Whitman made for “Ashes of Heroes,” his great Civil War poem.

Ashes of heroes, blended

With ashes of roses & lilacs…

Ashes of North and South—ashes

of East & West

I find the hospital notebooks he wrote when he was volunteering in Washington, DC during the war.

I find the handwritten edits for his two heart-breaking laments for Lincoln, “Oh Captain, my Captain” and “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloomed.”

                                                   When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,

                                                    And the great star early droop’d in the western sky

                                                    in the night,

                                                    I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning


The two elegies remind me of favorite passages from Leaves of Grass. They celebrate America’s diversity and take utter joy in a communion with all people, whether sailors, slaves or laundrywomen, native born or immigrant.

And Leaves of Grass has many such passages—

The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for
I tuck’d my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a
good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.

The exhibit is full of treasures. There is a lock of Whitman’s hair, his cane, a pair of his eyeglasses.

The exhibit brings tears to my eyes: I had not realized how much I needed a reminder just then of America’s better self.

A pair of Whitman’s eyeglasses. Library of Congress.


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