This poem was written for the fortieth National Industrial Exposition of the American Institute and recited in New York by Whitman on 7 September 1871. The poem was first printed alone in a pamphlet by Roberts Brothers with the title After All, Not to Create Only in 1871 and appeared under the same title at the end of the 1872 Leaves of Grass. In 1876 it appeared in TwoRivulets under the current title and was prefaced for the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia although Whitman was not asked to read there. It was retained in the 1881 Leaves of Grass, with the addition of the opening parenthetical expression and the deletion of nineteen satirical lines and numerous dashes, capitalizations, and other alterations.
Whitman was solicited by the American Institute Board of Managers a month prior to the event. The Institute offered him $100 payment and traveling expenses and guaranteed publication in the "metropolitan press" (With Walt Whitman 1:326-329). Whitman accepted the invitation four days later. The poem was reprinted in twelve newspapers, and several editorials appeared on the day of or soon after the reading. As was his tendency, Whitman probably authored several of them. The New York Tribune published excerpts, and soon after, a parody by Bayard Taylor.
Critical attention has given this poem a secondary place. It is true that it does not bear multiple readings. The fault does not lie in construction or in vocabulary, but perhaps in its origin. The poem was written in a month's time, and was intended to be spoken and deserves to be treated so. As an oration it carries cadences in the transition of language that are missed in the silent reading. From the opening section's grand style to the third section's arrogant sales pitch, to the seventh section's passionate sincerity, Whitman takes full advantage of his subject, industrial civilization, and his object of elevating the common man based on this societal advance.
In The Solitary Singer, Allen calls it a "pathetic episode" which was "unfortunate in every respect" (435). In the Comprehensive Reader's Edition, Blodgett and Bradley note, "it remains one of WW's comparative failures because it does not surmount its own rhetoric" (196n). Whitman himself, in 1889, dubs the occasion "memorandum" and of the Board of Managers' tender of thanks says, "'magnificent original poem' is putting it on pretty thick" (With Walt Whitman 4:484).
The poem's purpose is much like that of Democratic Vistas or "A Song for Occupations," though in Democratic Vistas Whitman acknowledges the people's "crude defective streaks" (Prose Works 2:379). In comparison, the laborer in "Song of the Exposition" is likened unto God and as a worker becomes the theme the Muse should inspire. A few years later Whitman would write "Song of the Universal," which expresses much the same idea, compacted, and speaks directly to the Muse.
The Muse in "Song of the Exposition" approaches the scene at the beck of Whitman. His treatment of her, as it is with most of the "sacred" things of the Old World, is irreverent, though not derogatory. He conveys her image of arrival to the audience with the famous, "She's here, install'd amid the kitchen ware!" (section 3). Contrast this to the reverence he displays when describing the people and works of America, "the People themselves . . . elate, secure in peace" (section 6).
Whitman employs his catalogues in this poem to demonstrate the diversity of the present, in honor of and exampled by the exhibition, and also to demarcate the Old World from the New. In the switching from old to new is also the shift in tone, so that the sacred mountains of Greece are to be leased and the muse may take up residence in the "great cathedral sacred industry" (section 5). After this shift, in the fifth section, the poem becomes more and more intent and loses much of its potential in overstatement.
Section seven is one of the better sections, in which Whitman's years spent nursing wounded Civil War soldiers infuses his remarks with a true passion—"Away with themes of war! away with war itself!" This directive is accompanied by one to be rid of old romance, so that the Muse will inspire songs of society and progress and the laboring life.
The concluding stanza, like the opening, is a poetic contrast to the dogma of the body of the poem, and alone is purpose enough to justify the final inclusion of the poem in the canon: material production and profit are but the manifestation of the spiritual growth of the nation.
Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.
Blodgett, Harold W., and Sculley Bradley, eds. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. By Walt Whitman. New York: New York UP, 1965.
Kennedy, William Sloane. The Fight of a Book for the World. West Yarmouth, Mass.: Stonecroft, 1926.
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 4. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953.
Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1961.
____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1980.
____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963-1964.