GW Libraries: Exhibits


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Introduction Page 3

Another 19th century author whose works have been influential for artists since their inception is Walt Whitman, who originally came to Washington, DC to look for his brother, George, a soldier in the Union army.  However, he ended up staying until 1873.  During the war he sat with soldiers in the numerous hospitals that dotted the city.  He described these encounters in journals and in letters he sent.  He recounted stories without filter, describing the screams of patients and their final conversations before dying, snippets of life around DC, a city taken over by war, and his impressions of President Abraham Lincoln, whom could be seen riding to and from the Capitol.  The GW Collection holds a number of photographs of the city from the 19th century, depicting the Capitol Building, train stations for the B&O and Potomac Railways, and bridges both extant and long gone.  It is a city still undeveloped; the Smithsonian Castle sits among an open field with dandelions, horse-drawn carts inhabit the roads, and the Metro is a century away from being built.[4]  We have paired these images with excerpts from Whitman’s journals to give you an idea of what he experienced.  They describe Whitman’s “portrait” of a war.  These vistas are Whitman’s Washington. 

The phrase, “create a portrait of war,” was presented to a group of high school students by poet Holly Bass on May 11, 2013.  Standing in the SAAM exhibition, these students from Anacostia High School, SEED Public Charter School, and School Without Walls, were being prompted for their own contemporary reactions to a very old war.  Before entering the exhibit, they read a poem by Herman Melville to situate them in the period.  Then, Bass had them read “On Patrol,” by Maurice Decaul, a poem written after Decaul’s 2003 service as a Marine in Iraq.  Quickly, connections were made between Melville and Decaul’s works – lists of states, real life vs. dreams, and allusions to death.  The exercise followed by the prompt within the exhibition seamlessly drew the connection between the Civil War and conflicts that followed, all the way up to the present.  The students then sat within the exhibition, forming these ideas into poems of their own.  Sharing their initial products at the end of the session, one of the students described war from the soldier’s point of view, while another brought it to present day.  Others reinterpreted war as a war within a family or even one against oneself.  The students quickly translated an exhibition full of black-and-white photographs and soldiers dressed in Union blue and Confederate gray into something relevant to their own experiences.  It is a reminder of one legacy of the Civil War that still holds true, that upheaval penetrates your consciousness and can always be found in the visual and written word of an era.  

-- Olivia Kohler-Maga, Assistant Director

[4] Five lines from the final stanza of Whitman’s poem “The Wound Dresser” are carved into the north entrance of the Dupont Circle Metro station.

Introduction Page 3