The 31st of May 2019 marks the 200th birthday of one of the most important literary figures of the nineteenth century, the American poet Walt Whitman. This bicentenary is honoured in the current Reed Gallery exhibition, The Good Gray Poet, whose title is drawn from an 1866 book about Whitman by his friend, the journalist William O’Connor.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is best known for his collection of poems Leaves of Grass, first published as a slim volume of twelve unnamed and unrhymed poems in 1855. Over a period of nearly four decades, Whitman revised and expanded this work, publishing several vastly altered editions. The final manifestation, containing almost 400 poems, was the so-called ‘Deathbed Edition’ of 1891-92.

Whitman is also remembered as the pre-eminent poet of the American Civil War period (1861-1865). The first three editions of Leaves of Grass were published before the Civil War. Thereafter, Whitman’s experiences as a witness to the War, and as a volunteer nurse at Union hospitals in Washington, left a lasting impression on him and hugely influenced his subsequent output as a poet.

The Reed and Special Collections at Dunedin City Library include a nationally unique and internationally significant collection of the works of Walt Whitman, including rare early editions. The Whitman Collection was gathered by the librarian, public servant and Whitman scholar William Heywood Trimble, assisted by his wife Annie Eliza Trimble, and donated  to the Library by William’s daughter Dorothy Heywood Stewart in 1927.

From his St Leonards home, ‘Concord’, William Trimble corresponded with major Whitman collectors in the United States and Canada, and established one of the most significant Whitman collections outside the Americas. In Dunedin, he wrote bibliographical and biographical works on Whitman, and undertook (with Annie’s assistance) his immense Concordance to Leaves of Grass.

In 1910, he became the first librarian of the Hocken Library, where he prepared a catalogue of the Library’s collection, while simultaneously preparing his own Whitman catalogue at home, based on his burgeoning personal collection.

Trimble died in 1927 at his St Leonards home, but the growth of his collection did not end there. After donating her father’s collection of Whitman books, pamphlets, periodical articles, scrapbooks and photographs to the Library in 1927, Dorothy Stewart continued to add to the Collection until her death in 1974.

The Whitman Collection today numbers more than 700 volumes, including numerous editions of his classic work Leaves of grass, from the 1856 second edition to modern publications. It also includes one of only two copies of William and Annie Trimble’s Concordance, the couple’s unpublished labour of love.