Next Saturday, area audiences are invited to the Robert H. Jackson Center to hear famed local author and storyteller Paul Leone make a most remarkable dramatic reading from the poetry of 19th Century American writer, Walt Whitman.
I'd like to give you the basic facts about the coming presentation, then say a word about Leone, and finally give you some background about Whitman - just in case your English teacher was too busy being forced to teach you to deal with multiple choice tests, to be able to teach you about the poet.
The reading will take place at the Robert H. Jackson Center next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The Carl Cappa Theater, which is part of the Jackson Center, is at the rear of the complex of buildings. The theater is located at the intersection of Prendergast Ave. and Fifth St. in downtown Jamestown. The center has two areas of free parking and parking on nearby streets is free at that time of the evening.
Violinist Lydia Byard will perform with her parents and author and storyteller Paul Leone, next Saturday at the Robert H. Jackson Center, in Jamestown.
Accompanying Leone will be the family of musicians The Byards, from Sherman. Flutist and keyboardist Kerry Byard will be performing with his wife on cello, and his daughter, Lydia, on violin.
Tickets for the event cost $6 if you purchase them in advance. Tickets at the door will cost $8. Advance purchases may be made at the Jackson Center during its hours of operation, at the gift shop of the Fenton History Center on Washington St. in Jamestown, or at the box office of the Reg Lenna Civic Center, on W. Third St. in Jamestown.
Paul Leone is a well-known figure in our area, especially in his roles as a skilled storyteller and as an educational associate at the Fenton History Center making presentations on area history and on history in general. He was a literature major at the University of Notre Dame and was a co-founder of the Chautauqua Region Press.
Leone has published a variety of books, most of which have local ties. The most recent of these is a novel based in the Town of Busti titled ''The Gospel Truth: A Late History of the Town of Busti, Chautauqua County, New York.''
Other books from his pen include ''If Nothing Happens,'' which is a dual biography using the actual letters of a local couple in the previous century who were courting and preparing to be married. The subjects were real residents of Chautauqua County: Norman Wilson Ingerson, and Stella May Murdock.
''Chautauqua Ghosts'' is a collection of traditional ghost stories from our area and ''The Horse Fiddle'' is a collection of short stories in the oral tradition.
Last Saturday, Leone shared an afternoon presentation with Buffalo-based storyteller Karima Amin at the James Prendergast Library. Sponsored by the American Association of University Women, their presentations were on the subject of strong women.
Leone moved to Jamestown from his previous home in San Francisco accompanied by his wife, Ann and his son, Alexander.
He previously presented a reading of Whitman's poetry at the Jackson Center, reporting that he is especially moved by the poem ''When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed'' which recounts the effects of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on our country, which was just emerging from our terrible Civil War. He expressed a hope that these readings with music accompaniment can become an annual event in our community.
Walt Whitman was an American poet, essayist and journalist, who was born on Long Island, in New York State, May 31, 1819. He is commonly called by the nickname ''Walt'' because his name was identical to that of his father and the family used the shortened name to distinguish between father and son.
Walt was the second of nine children. His father named four of his sons for men he considered great Americans: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and himself.
Although he is today considered one of the greatest writers in our nation's history, the poet never made a great deal of money from his poetry and had to take any number of part-time jobs, including ones as a teacher, a journalist and typesetter, a government clerk, an army paymaster and the like.
Before the American Civil War he was an outspoken opponent of slavery. During the war he volunteered to work as a nurse attached to the Union Army, although he found the huge number of sick and wounded men difficult to endure. He would later write several essays about the experience, including ''The Great Army of the Sick'' in which he described the symphony of moans and screams which surrounded the field hospital and the horrific sight of large stacks of amputated limbs cut off years before the discovery of anesthetics.
Around 1850, more than a decade before the outbreak of the war, Whitman began writing his longest and best-known work, a collection of poetry which he titled ''Leaves of Grass.'' He would spend the second half of his life re-writing and revising the giant work. Although different literary experts use different definitions of what constitutes a revision, there are nine different revisions of the work which are recognized by nearly all.
The book's title is a pun by the poet himself. ''Grass'' was jargon of the day for writings which were trivial or of little importance. ''Leaves'' of course is another term for pages. The title seems to suggest ''Pages of Trivia.'' The first edition of the work lasted only 95 pages, while the final edition, often called the ''Deathbed Edition'' covers more than 800 pages.
The first edition of the work gave no titles for the short poems collected within it. Later editions put titles in place, including the well-known ''Song of Myself,'' and ''I Sing the Body Electric,'' which was lionized by the popular film ''Fame.''
Poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Whitman a letter in which he described the book as ''the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom an American has yet contributed.'' When Whitman published the letter as an advertisement for his creations however, Emerson was angry and began to speak and write negatively of the work.
From the beginning, Whitman's poetry has been controversial. Interestingly, the earliest negative interest which he experienced came because he witnessed the alcoholism of one of his brothers and wrote fervidly in support of the prohibition of alcohol. Churches at the time claimed that because Jesus was portrayed in the Bible as having changed water into wine and the Bible makes numerous references to the consumption of alcohol, therefore Whitman's temperance was indicative of blasphemy.
Later in life the poet liberalized his views of alcohol and he was known to enjoy small amounts of wine and champagne.
Whitman was deeply influenced by Deism, a philosophy which has been attributed to many of our nation's Founding Fathers. Deism is the belief that God created the universe and that it runs according to His divine plan. Therefore, it is wrong to believe that God bends the rules of nature and physics to interfere in the day-to-day lives of humans, according to the philosophy. Believers in the philosophy often reject the value of organized religions. Whitman often wrote and spoke of his belief that all religions have elements of truth and none is superior to others.
This was a major element of opposition to both him and his writings.
Probably the greatest source of opposition has come from the free and sensual way in which Whitman's poems describe the physical human body and sexuality, including prostitution.
Whitman's own sexuality is uncertain and there are good arguments both that he was heterosexual and that he was homosexual.
Whitman, in his final years, often told stories of mistresses and former lovers. He wrote to a friend, for example, that he had sired six children, of which two had died in infancy although no other historical reference can be found to any children of the poet.
In his last years, when he was living in Camden, N.J., Whitman lived with a woman whom he described as his housekeeper. Although there was much scandal at the time, there is no dependable proof whether she was more to him than that, or not.
Throughout his life there were suspicions and accusations that Whitman was homosexual. Famed English poet and playwright Oscar Wilde would claim to have spent a period kissing with Whitman. Several young men later displayed jewelry and other valuables which they claimed were gifts from him, inspired by a sexual relationship.
The poet's own writings often describes men's bodies and things about men which some writers have insisted would not be noticed or cared about, except by a homosexual.
After his death Whitman would be praised extensively by the successful and famous.
Andrew Carnegie called him America's greatest poet. Harold Bloom would claim that the writings of neither Emerson, nor Twain, nor Melville are as central to the understanding of the American nature as those of Whitman.
Only two American writers have had their words set to music more frequently than Whitman: Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Whitman's poetry has been set by Kurt Weill, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Paul Hindemith, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, Ned Rorem, George Crumb, and John Adams, among others.
One of the greatest influences on Whitman's poetry was the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by actor John Wilkes Booth. Book XXII of ''Leaves of Grass'' is entirely made up of poems dealing with the event. In addition to ''When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloomed,'' which has been already mentioned and which refers to the fact that Lincoln was shot in the month of April, when lilacs are commonly in bloom in Washington, D.C., there are others including these: ''O Captain! My Captain!'' ''Hushed Be the Camps Today,'' and ''This Dust Was Once a Man.''
There are many allusions to Whitman by other writers, most noteworthy, T.S. Eliot, in ''The Wasteland.''
Come and share music and the words of Walt Whitman with the Byard family and Paul Leone. I suspect it will be very moving.
Last week, we shared with you the news that the 1891 Fredonia Opera House will begin presenting performances from New York City's magnificent Metropolitan Opera House, in high definition sound and vision. Most of the performances are presented simultaneously with the live performance inside Lincoln Center.
Later, on March 23, we wrote up an announcement for the regular pages of the newspaper naming the first live simulcast, which will be May 14 at noon, when ''Die Walkure'' the third of the four operas in Richard Wagner's famed Ring Cycle will be presented.
That piece also named and gave dates and times for the six presentations of previously-presented operas which will be shown during June and July of this year. The simulcasts cost $20 for any seat in the house, the repeat showings cost $15 for any seat.
Finally, we have the space to give you the dates and times for the 11 live presentations which are scheduled for the new opera season, which begins in October of 2011:
There are reductions in cost for students and members of the opera house, and a season ticket for all 11 new broadcasts of the 2011-12 season is on sale now for $193.
Contact the opera house at 679-1891 or go online at www.fredopera.org.