WALT WHITMAN’S WESTERN JOURNEY
Produced by F.R.Line and Helen E. Line.
Consultant: Dr. Gay Wilson Allen
TO BE READ BEFORE VIEWING FILM
Walt Whitman, in 1879, at the age of 60, fulfilled a long-held dream of visiting the American West. He had experienced this part of America in imagination he had described it in his poems, as a young man he had written of it: “soon I travel toward you”. Now, in reality, he was to explore “these States”, These “vast trackless spaces” which had so long nourished his dreams. Responding to an invitation to be honored guest and visiting poet at a Quarter Centennial Celebration at Lawrence, Kansas, he traveled across the plains states, visited Lawrence and Topeka, then, continued on over the far-stretching prairies to Denver.
Whitman not only saw the prairies, he felt them, absorbed them, “lived” them, as only one can whose whole being opens up and rees out to the life about him.
The prairie locomotive scenes were ,taken by thc Lines 20 years ago, of railroad which even then reflected an earlier era – scenes which could not now be recaptured without artificial staging.*
Climax of Whitman’s western journey came after he left the prairies and journeyed to the Rocky Mountains. Making the trip from Denver to Leadville by narrow guage train the year after the pioneer railway was completed, he wrote concerning the scenes of “joyous elemental abandon” which surrounded him: “Here I have -found the law of my own poems.”
Story of the western journey is related in Whitman’s own words. Portions are excerpts from notes he made on the trip- now contained in his prose ‘work “Specimen Days”. Others of his writings- some of them little-known -have been researched in order to complete the account.
The prose descriptions concern the actual journey made in 1879. Portions of five poems are also included. “A Prairie Sunset” describes his prairie observations. “Spirit that Formic’ this Scene”, with excerpts from which the film closes, was written in Platte Canyon, on his Denver-Leadville trip. The other three poems (Others May Praise What They Like, To a Locomotive, and Song at Sunset”) were written previous to his western trip. In part, they reflect observations made elsewhere. But much of Whitman’s poetry described scenes and events which he had never visually observed, and the inclusion of the excerpts from these three poems helps to reveal the powers of his imaginative concepts.
Rather than reproduce museum photographs of some of the areas Whitman visited, as these places may have appeared in 1879, the film producers have chosen to use live color motion pictures which they have taken during the last 20 years, but which reflect much of the early-day atmosphere. Whitman loved real life; he once wrote: “I think heroic deeds were all conceived in the open air and all free poems also”. The film is designed to reflect this feeling.
The film producers have been making documentary motion pictures of the American scene for 25 years and have presented them personally in lecture halls and universities throughout the United States and Canada. They have filmed and written for National Geographic Magazine. To produce “Western Journey” they followed almost identically the route taken by Whitman.
Dr. Gay Wilson Allen, the film consultant, is Professor of English at New York University and author of the definitive Whitman biography “The Solitary Singer”.
*”Baldwin” is the trade name of the steam locomotives made by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia.
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