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Performer brings Walt Whitman's hidden view to life

Mark King


"Leaves of Grass Illuminated" will be presented at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7, at Cloquet Public Library. In addition to today's performance, the Cloquet Library Reading Club will discuss the Whitman-themed play "I and You" by Lauren Gunderson at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept.12. Gunderson is currently the most produced living playwright in America.


Twin Cities performer Patrick Scully assumes the role of Walt Whitman in "Leaves of Grass Illuminated," an adult-themed look into the work and controversial life of America's greatest poet, whose best-known collection of poetry gained the admiration of philosophers and presidents — and got the poet banned in Boston. First published in 1855 and continuously expanded by Whitman up until his death in 1892, "Leaves of Grass" revolutionized modern poetry with its free verse, sensuality, and expansive canvas of humanity. Whitman become an iconic figure in his own lifetime and remains one of the most influential writers in American literature.

Whitman's work gained notice early on with a letter of praise from America's pre-eminent philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. Abraham Lincoln also expressed his admiration; the admiration was returned by Whitman, who wrote several works commemorating Lincoln's life, the most famous being "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."

Despite the lyricism, depth, and originality of its verse, "Leaves of Grass" was derided by most reviewers in 1855. John Greenleaf Whittier said he threw his copy into the fire, and "The Criterion" labeled it "a mass of stupid filth." The frankness of sexuality in the work, with both men and women described in sensual language, appalled many. Even Emerson suggested that Whitman tone things down.

That Whitman succumbed to censorship to some degree is a key point in Scully's show, which reveals the extent to which Whitman coded intimate details in his most personal work. Many of his relationships have remained obscured, though Scully sheds much new light on both the man and his writing. "Scully is the perfect caretaker for Whitman's legacy," wrote a critic for the Minneapolis-St. Paul StarTribune; another reviewer opined that "Patrick Scully was born to play Walt Whitman."

"Leaves of Grass Illuminated" is the product of 10 years of research and development by Scully. He began with a Twin Cities workshop, which was followed by a large-cast production in 2014 and an artist-in-residency at Florida State University in 2015. For the present program, Scully is a one-man production touring libraries throughout the Arrowhead Library System. Funding for the tour was provided by Minnesota's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.