Fluid Crossings: A Transatlantic Celebration of Walt Whitman's Radical Cultural Legacy

Leaves of Grass title page.
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Leaves of Grass 1855–2022

This is an online only event hosted on the British Library platform. Bookers will be sent a viewing link shortly before the event and will be able to watch at any time for 48 hours after the start time. 

This event will be live captioned.

‘Through me forbidden voices,

Voices of sexes and lusts…. Voices veiled, and I remove the veil,

Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.’

– From Song of Myself, Leaves of Grass (1855)

In the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), published nearly two decades before the word ‘homosexual’ was first used, and more than a century before the Stonewall riots ignited the modern LGBT+ movement, Walt Whitman declared himself its first spokesperson.

English readers were prominently among his few early supporters. Many of them belonged to the radical subculture of Victorian Britain and they saw Whitman as the embodiment of all that was progressive, particularly in his enlightened attitude toward sex and sexuality. 

Vegetarian activist William Horsell, who served as Whitman’s first British literary agent; Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood co-founder William Michael Rossetti, who edited the first British edition of Leaves of Grass; socialist writer Edward Carpenter, who included Whitman in the first survey of gay literature from ancient to modern times, Iolaus: An Anthology of Friendship: such transatlantic connections gave the poet hope and his book life, through years of intense criticism on both sides of the Atlantic.

‘Those blessed gales from the British Isles probably (certainly) saved me,’ Whitman reminisced in his final year. ‘Perhaps the tenderest and gratefulest breath of my heart has gone, and ever goes, over the sea-gales across the big pond.’

This talk by Karen Karbiener breathes life into Leaves of Grass and initiates the British Library’s celebration of this enduring, extraordinary transatlantic cultural exchange during LGBTQ+ History Month. She is joined by acclaimed illustrator Brian Selznick, who in 2019 illustrated a new edition of Walt Whitman's Live Oak, with Moss, a sequence of 12 poems which tells the story of Whitman's unhappy love affair with a man.

Both Karen and Brian will take part in a live conversation and audience Q+A at the end of the event,

Karen Karbiener is an American scholar, writer, curator, and cultural activist and has been teaching at New York University since 2003. Winner of the Kluge Fellowship at the Library of Congress and a Fulbright recipient, she has published widely on Whitman, including an edition of Leaves of Grass, two audiobooks on the poet’s life and influence, a book introducing Whitman’s poetry to children, and a collaboration with Caldecott-winning illustrator Brian Selznick on a new edition of Live Oak, with Moss, Whitman’s secret same-sex love poems. She was the co-curator with Susan Tane of Poet of the Body: New York’s Walt Whitman (Grolier Club, NY; 2019) and is the author of a book based on the exhibition (University of Chicago Press, 2022). Karbiener is the president and founding member of the Walt Whitman Initiative, a non profit organisation serving as an organising centre for cultural activism and poetry-related events (including New York’s annual Song of Myself marathon, in its 19th year in 2022).

Brian Selznick is the author and illustrator of many books for children, including The Invention of Hugo Cabret, winner of the Caldecott medal and the basis for the Oscar-winning movie Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese. Kaleidoscope, a novel in short stories, was called a “lockdown masterpiece” by the New York Times, and his newest book Big Tree, inspired by an idea from Steven Spielberg, will be published April 4th.

Presented in partnership with The American Trust for the British Library, and in association with the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

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Name: Fluid Crossings: A Transatlantic Celebration of Walt Whitman's Radical Cultural Legacy
Where: Online
When: -
Price: From £2.50 – £5
Enquiries: +44 (0)1937 546546
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