A team of astronomers from Texas State University-San Marcos have applied its unique brand of forensic astronomy to reveal the secret behind famed poet Walt Whitman’s description of a “strange huge meteor procession” in his landmark collection Leaves of Grass.
While scholars have debated the possible inspiration for decades, it is now that researchers have rediscovered one of the most famous celestial events of Whitman’s day — one that inspired both Whitman and famed landscape painter Frederic Church — yet became inexplicably forgotten by modern times.
"This is the 150th anniversary of the event that inspired both Whitman and Church. It was an earth-grazing meteor procession,” said Donald Olson, who conducted the study with Russell Doescher, English professor Marilynn S. Olson and Honours Program student Ava G. Pope.
Whitman, known as a keen observer of the sky, included significant references to contemporary as well as cosmic events in his poem ‘Year of Meteors. (1859-60.)’ published in Leaves of Grass.
A “great comet” in the poem that appeared unexpectedly in the northern sky is readily identified as the Great Comet of 1860, which follows the path Whitman described and was seen by most of the world.
From Whitman’s description, the Texas State research team immediately suspected the other celestial event he wrote about was the rare phenomenon known as an earth-grazing meteor procession.
"Meteor processions are so rare most people have never heard of them. There was one in 1783 and a Canadian fireball procession in 1913. Those were all the meteor processions we knew of,” said Olson.
An earth-grazing meteor is one where the trajectory takes the meteor through the earth’s atmosphere and back out into interplanetary space without ever striking the ground. A meteor procession occurs when a meteor breaks up upon entering the atmosphere, creating multiple meteors travelling in nearly identical paths.
The rarity of meteor processions, however, has proven problematic to scholars. Whitman’s description has alternately been ascribed to the 1833 Leonid meteor storm, the 1858 Leonids and a widely-observed fireball in 1859.
Although Whitman is documented as having observed the 1833 Leonids, the Texas State researchers were able to discount that meteor storm because the timeframe conflicts with the poem’s, and Whitman’s descriptions of the two events are very different.
The 1858 Leonids were also discounted after the research team discovered a dating error misattributing some of Whitman’s observations of the 1833 Leonids to the latter year.
On the other hand, the 1859 fireball was well documented and happened during the timeframe of the poem. However, the fireball was a single meteor, not a procession. Compounding the problem, the 1859 fireball was a daylight meteor, whereas Whitman describes the procession as happening at night.
A chance clue from the 19th century artist Frederic Church proved key to unravelling the mystery. A decade ago, Olson saw a painting on the back cover of an exhibition catalogue, which showed the scene Whitman had described. Church’s painting, titled “The Meteor of 1860,” clearly depicted a meteor procession.
Other than that, the catalogue also gave the date of Church’s observance: July 20, 1860, well within the timeframe of Whitman’s poem.
"We went to Church’s house, and the people who know him and his art well, who’ve studied him, say, ‘Oh, he wouldn’t have painted it like that based on somebody’s say-so. He must have seen it. The artist and his wife, who were honeymooning that summer, kept the painting in their bedroom for many years,’” said Olson.
"We went to a small research library and found old diaries of Theodore Cole, a friend of Church’s, from July of 1860. They tell us Church was, in fact, in Catskill, New York, so he wasn’t off in some far distant land,” said Pope.
Armed with this intriguing new date, the Texas State researchers found that a large earth-grazing meteor broke apart on the evening of July 20, 1860, creating a spectacular procession of multiple fireballs visible from the Great Lakes to New York State as it burned through the atmosphere and continued out over the Atlantic Ocean.
"Any town that had a newspaper within all those states is going have a story on this. We have hundreds of eyewitness accounts, but there are probably hundreds more we don’t even have,” said Olson.
"From all the observations in towns up and down the Hudson River Valley, we’re able to determine the meteor’s appearance down to the hour and minute. Church observed it at 9:49 p.m. when the meteor passed overhead, and Walt Whitman would’ve seen it at the same time, give or take one minute,” said Olson. The study will be published in an upcoming edition of Sky & Telescope magazine.
Keywords: Texas State University