Features: Walt Whitman and the Arts in Brooklyn

Interest in Ancient Egypt

Thomas Hicks: Henry Abbott, M.D.

Along with many nineteenth-century New Yorkers, Walt Whitman was enthralled with the civilization of ancient Egypt, as evidenced by several references in his writings. In Leaves of Grass, for example, he mentions Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the dead. Whitman wrote about Dr. Abbott's Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in New York in 1853. The exhibition, held at the Stuyvesant Institute, located on Broadway near Bleecker Street, drew Whitman back for repeated visits. He became friendly with Dr. Henry Abbott (1812–1859), an English physician who had assembled an antiquities collection while living in Cairo and had brought it to New York to sell. The collection was purchased and deposited at the New–York Historical Society and eventually transferred to the Brooklyn Museum in 1937. In an article entitled "One of the Lessons Bordering Broadway: The Egyptian Museum," written for Life Illustrated in 1855, Whitman described some of the objects he saw:

Poster from 1853 advertising the Egyptian Museum

The great 'Egyptian Collection' was well up in Broadway, and I got quite acquainted with Dr. Abbott, the proprietor—paid many visits there, and had long talks with him, in connection with my readings of many books and reports on Egypt—its antiquities, history, and how things and the scenes really look, and what the old relics stand for, as near we can now get. . . . As said, I went to the Egyptian Museum many, many times; sometimes had it all to myself—delved at the formidable catalogue—and on several occasions had the invaluable personal talk, correction, illustration and guidance of Dr. A. himself. He was very kind and helpful to me in those studies and examinations; once, by appointment, he appear'd in full and exact Turkish [Cairo] costume, which long usage there had made habitual to him. . . . [14]
Cat Mummy

. . . Around the walls of the rooms are slabs of limestone, some of them very large, each containing its spread of chiseled hieroglyphics. . . . Then there are great mummy cases. . . . There are also mummied cats, lizards, ibises, and crocodiles. . . . [15]
Figure of a god, from New York Dissected

. . .This is a figure in bronze of an Egyptian deity of subordinate character. The theology of Egypt was vast and profound. It respected the principle of life in all things—even in animals.
Statue of a Kneeling Falcon—One of the Bau of Buto

It respected truth and justice above all other attributes of men. It recognized immortality. This figure is supposed to be Horus, the son of Osiris. . . . [16]
Head of an Early Eighteenth Dynasty King

. . . There is a colossal head in limestone, the face painted red; the eyes are almond-shaped, and have a calm expression—the whole face evidently of some great ruling person. . . . [17]
Title page from the Description de l'Egypte

In the same article, Whitman reveals his captivation by the publication entitled Description de l'Egypte, a multivolume set documenting what Napoleon and his troops saw in Egypt:

When Napoleon took his army into Egypt, he took a battalion of savans [savants] also. Paleography (deciphering ancient inscriptions or signs) became the rage. . . . They sent home specimens—they made literal copies of long strings of hieroglyphics, and had them engraved, and printed, and circulated, and offered prizes for translations and keys. [18]
Plate 23 from Monumenti Dell'Egitto e Della Nubia

Other texts also made an impression on Whitman, including a multivolume publication entitled Monumenti Dell'Egitto e Della Nubia by Ippolito Rosellini (1800–1843), who is sometimes called the father of Italian Egyptology. Several images in Rosellini's volumes—such as the depiction of Osiris with stalks of grain growing out of his body—paralleled ideas of rebirth that Whitman put forward in Leaves of Grass. He referred to Rosellini directly:

Rosellini, of Tuscany, has issued a complete civil, military, religious, and monumental account of the Egyptians, with magnificent plates. This work is of such cost that only wealthy libraries can possess it. There is a copy in the Astor Library in New York. [19]