"There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now."
--One of my favorite passages from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" from Leaves of Grass,
Technically speaking, "breathtaking" is a term which denotes a combined physical and emotional reaction that can sometimes result from a significant stimulus to one or more of the senses.
Unfortunately, "breathtaking," (often written as "BREATHTAKING!!!"), has become an over-utilized adjective that is regularly tossed out when describing teeth whiteners, automobiles, photos from Mars, movies in which one or more people die, vacation rentals, revealing swim attire, and various other goods and services being offered for sale.
Therefore, I hesitate to use the term "breathtaking," even though it most accurately describes my initial reaction to a series of Brian Selznick's illustrations in the upcoming WALT WHITMAN: WORDS FOR AMERICA, Selznick's second illustrated biography with author Barbara Kerley.
This is a very different book for me than their previous collaboration, THE DINOSAURS OF WATERHOUSE HAWKINS, which received a 2002 Caldecott Honor. I had never even heard of Waterhouse Hawkins, and thus my fondest memories of that book naturally tend toward aspects of the man's unusual story, such as the extraordinary New Year's Eve feast Hawkins hosted inside a life-size iguanodon model, and the horror of Boss Tweed's having ordered the destruction and burial of the models Hawkins had spent years painstakingly laboring to build for an ill-fated Central Park museum.
In the case of Walt Whitman, I grew up on Long Island near Walt Whitman Road, Walt Whitman Mall, and various Walt Whitman historic markers. I became basically familiar with the work of Walt Whitman in high school English classes, and already knew the general highlights of his life. What I was hoping for, when I learned that Brian and Barbara were working on this book, was a new look at the man that would cause myself and young readers to feel like we had really gotten to know this great American poet.
As with Waterhouse Hawkins, they have succeeded in this regard with Walt Whitman.
In WALT WHITMAN: WORDS FOR AMERICA, Barbara Kerley begins with a wonderful portrayal of the poet's younger years that will provoke questions about the lives of kids in that era.
"At age 12, he began work as a printer's apprentice, learning to typeset newspaper articles. He saw the boxes of letters as a great mystery, waiting to unfold. Awkwardly, he held the compositor's stick, eager to see the words form--letter by letter--beneath his inky fingers."
"Within two years he was setting articles that he himself had written. After the newspaper was printed, his heart thumped 'double beat' as he smoothed it open and admired his work. Even when he wasn't working, Walt surrounded himself with words. He listened to famous speakers and joined a debating society. He attended plays, appreciating a fine performance 'in every...cell' of his head and heart."
So how does Selznick begin his visual accompaniment to Kerley's words? Opposite the title page he illustrates a wooden-framed typeset of that facing title page--the perfect mirror image as far as the type itself is concerned. The surrounding pieces of wood are shaded with the hints of rose and purples that anyone intimately familar with wood-grains will be able to immediately feel on their fingertips and savor just by looking at them.
In fact, throughout the book, one of the aspects to repeatedly strike me about Selznick's illustrations is his incredible success in creating that feel of the various woodgrains and the lamplight which illuminates the wood, whether it is raw wood or honeyed from varnish, wax, or wear. There was no such thing as plastic in Whitman's lifetime, and I was constantly drawn to the fact that Brian's paintings so meticulously and (yes) breathtakingly portray in every detail the texture and materials of the 19th century world in which the poet lived.
And then there are Selznick's various paintings of Whitman himself, from boy to man, to elderly poet. There is one such large portrait thoroughly etched into my brain, where Whitman, apparently reacting to the assassination of Lincoln, stares pensively out at us while a few whisps of his white hair fall across his brow.
Another unforgettable (and heartbreaking) vision is that of a family at home during the Civil War, reacting to having just received a letter from Whitman letting them know that their son, whom Whitman had been caring for in a hospital, was no longer.
Beyond the actual story, both Kerley and Selznick provide thoroughly fascinating notes at the conclusion of the book. For instance, Brian notes that:
"Ms. [Barbara] Henry told me that the capital letters were placed on the upper shelf and the others on the lower shelf which is why we now have the terms 'uppercase' and 'lowercase.' "
The book also concludes with the poems from which the excerpts in the story are taken.
I knew a bunch about Walt Whitman, but for the first time the storied namesake of paved roads and shopping emporiums has become a real person for me, both in words and in pictures.