Learning on the Lawn: Why We Love the Humanities

Annual Walt Whitman Marathon a favorite among students, faculty, community

Beginning at sunrise Friday, October 6th, students, faculty members and community members—on blankets and beach chairs, books in hand—will gather for the 16th year in a row to read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass aloud all day next to the pond in Central Michigan University’s Fabiano Botanical Garden.

“In my first year of teaching, two students of mine approached me about reading Whitman all day long out on the lawn, and it sounded fun, so we did it,” said Robert Fanning, Professor of English. “After they graduated, I decided to keep it going, and many students, alumnae and community members have told me it is their favorite day of the year.”

Dr. Richard Rothaus, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, is a regular at the event. “For me, there are two critical days in my academic year, Commencement, of course, and the Annual Walt Whitman marathon,” said Rothaus. “I’ve attended at least part of all the marathons since I moved here five years ago. I sweep everything off my desk for the entire day and go outside. We don’t debate, we don’t discuss. As the sun rises, we start to read and something magical happens as our minds and bodies immerse themselves in the long experience. That’s why we love the humanities. That’s why we are here.”

Though the book was published in several editions throughout the late 19th century, participants at the Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass Marathon read from the final “Deathbed Edition” published in 1892. Fanning brings several of his own copies of the book to share.

“This American classic is a philosophical, historical, sensual, democratic body of poems that celebrates both the power of the individual and the collective, as well as the natural world, and the simple joys of being alive,” said Fanning. “It also provides powerful witness to life during the Civil War, in which Whitman served as a nurse.”

Over the years, this annual event has drawn readers from the local community and beyond, as well as those from across campus in diverse areas of study because Whitman’s work speaks to multiple disciplines. In addition, Fanning often livestreams some of the event, which sees attendees from across the country, many of whom are alumnae.

2014 alumna Regan Schaeffer called the Whitman Marathon a “most anticipated event,” which she has attended for several years, even after she graduated. “Some mornings were cold, some afternoons sweltering, and we would read and read on until late afternoon, when the stanzas would begin to flow together in a daze. Walt became an old and trusted friend, a good and reliable man, observant, thoughtful, and caring for the world and all people. His words evoke not only big ideas, but big emotions, and large expectations of ourselves. Each year’s participation brought me new friends, as we downshifted the new academic year into a more powerful, higher gear. I have missed it.”

All are welcome to drop by the 16th Annual Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass Marathon Reading for as long as they wish throughout the day, to take turns reading poems and passages, or simply to lie on the grass, listen and enjoy the poetry.

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