Walt Whitman is the world’s first New Yorker. Declaring himself as both a “Brooklyn Boy” and a “Manhattanese” at the same time Emerson described the Big Apple as a “sucked orange,” Poe denounced its noise and too-rapid development, and Thoreau felt “sick ever since I came here,” Whitman celebrated the urban roots of Leaves of Grass in many of his greatest poems. “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son” named the city his spiritual forefather in “Song of Myself,” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is just about everyone’s pick for the greatest New York poem ever written. “Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!” he sings in “City of Ships.” “I chant and celebrate all that is yours.”
But 165 years before this blog post on summer city getaways was scribed for Gotham readers, Walt published his own versions of such pieces in the New York Evening Post and the New York Sunday Dispatch. “Swarming and multitudinous as the population of the city still is, there are many thousands of its usual inhabitants now absent in the country,” he wrote in 1851. “Having neither the funds nor disposition to pass my little term of ruralizing at the fashionable baths, or watering places, I am staying awhile down here at Greenport, the eastern point of the Long Island Railroad.”
15 ACRES OF LAND WANTED-- Any person in any of the eastern towns of Long Island, having 12 or 15 acres of Land (with a little woodland, if possible, though that is not absolutely requisite) may hear of a purchaser, by addressing a note through the Post Office, to the undersigned. If near the water it will be considered a great advantage. No buildings wanted on the land, and price to be not more than $16 an acre.
W. Whitman, Jr.
71 Prince st., Brooklyn
And so this blog entry is being written from the very house in which Walt himself probably wrote his serial articles about his Greenport getaways.
But that depends upon your definition of New York. Walt’s stretched out to the North Fork, where he spent several happy summers during the time of his life still most obscure to Whitman scholars. His base was his favorite sister’s house, though it’s questionable that he would have always slept here. Mary and Ansel had four children and five bedrooms and it is possible that Walt might have shared a bed with their only son, George. The second oldest of eight Whitman children, Walt had never had a room of his own, and for many years slept alongside his youngest brother Eddy. Ironically enough, the fiercely independent-minded poet didn’t have a sense of personal space.
But Walt does write about “boarding round” on the East End and even gives advice to the area’s proprietors. “We folks from the region of pavements are too much used to pianos, fashionable carpets, mahogany chairs, to be seriously impressed by them when we go in the country,” he writes in the Post on June 27, 1851. “Only let us have plenty of cleanliness, water by wholesale, and abundance of the rich fresh fare of your country dairy, and country gardens.” And in the Stirling Historical Society in the heart of Greenport -- a must-see for history buffs, thoughtfully curated by long-time Greenport resident Gail Horton -- signage announces Whitman as one of the many illustrious guests of the Clark House.
Even if he didn’t actually sleep here, Walt probably came to South Street cape to relax, regroup, and write. It was certainly a better place to do all three than the Clark House, the “hub of all social activity” where “the captains and the officers of the whaling ships met and had their banquets and their dances” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 18, 1909). Walt’s limited budget ensured that he would be sharing his room (and probably his bed) with at least a few other patrons of the Clark House. His writing may well have been inspired by the old inn, where strangers shared stories in the busy tavern and slept side by side upstairs; but Walt may have had trouble finding a physical as well as a mental space for his literary labors here.
Not true of 218 South Street. Even in 2016, the construction, placement, and temperament of this house make it a great writer’s lair. These very lines, in fact, roll smoothly out from the spacious first floor bedroom. It’s about midnight and both front windows are open. A cool summer breeze wafts the white curtains. The porch just outside is covered, and further protected by leafy boughs and a trellice. The lone street light illuminates an empty sidewalk. It’s hushed but not quiet, and a chorus of crickets rises over the hum of the marina not too far away. A couple strolls in the middle of the street, voices softened by the night air, one of them swinging her sandals.
I don’t see Walt in either of these rooms. But I do see him in the generous, wainscoted kitchen in the back -— perhaps even at the broken-in farm table extending in front of the windows. I can see him in the no-fuss back yard, observing the summer grass under the trees, poking around in the tool shed.
And I hear him walking across the wide boards of the second floor hallway. “If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles,” Walt writes near the end of “Song of Myself”; and it’s here that I find the feature of the house that best represents my idea of the man and poet. Such broad planking, rarely seen nowadays, makes use of big, old-growth trees. Perhaps he paced these floorboards (as was his wont) while writing those pieces for the Dispatch -- or working out the aforementioned line from his greatest poem.
So if it was so perfect, why didn’t he stay? Considering that he had no family or home of his own and no regular employment after he was fired from the Eagle in January 1848, why did he decide to return to Brooklyn and pull the ad from the Corrector? The same “blogs” he might have written in this space indicate why. “I know from the frequent bent of my own feelings, that yearning for the freshness and quiet of the country -- that love of freedom from the ligatures and ceremonies of a life in town,” he considers in one of the “Letters From a Travelling Bachelor” (New York Sunday Dispatch, October 28, 1849). “But to be born and "brought up" in an out of the way country place, and so continue there through all the stages of middle life -- and eat and drink there only, and "dress up" of a Sunday and go to church there -- and at last die and be buried there -- is that an enviable lot in life? No, it is not.” Whitman realizes that he is writing against the “popular view” that the solitude of country living develops “virtuous conduct, and intellectual and scientific improvement” -- and yet, he insists he is sharing “the truth.”
But there are signs that the dandified, penny daily hack Walter Whitman Jr. was in the process of becoming Walt Whitman, all-embracing poet of democracy. A long composition published in the New York Evening Post on June 28, 1851 highlights a connection he made despite great differences of age and point of origin. At first remarking incredulously on an old resident’s bedraggled appearance (“That hat! It was a hat which I am sorry now I did not buy up and present to one of the Broadway ‘merchants’ in that line, or to the eating house near the Fulton ferry, whose window has such amusing curiosities”), the fashion forward New Yorker walks a mile with him and listens to his tragic tale: the man’s two sons were lost at sea many years ago, and the family savings with them. The men share more personal stories and a meal before Whitman returns to his quarters. In the end, Whitman has clearly and willingly taken on a role as surrogate son, and come that much more down to earth -- and his beloved leaves of grass.
Why do city folk need a country summer escape, but country folk don’t need the city? Whitman suggests that we’re “sent away by hot weather”, "the prevailing custom," -- and perhaps most significantly, by the “desire for change” (New York Evening Post, June 27, 1851). City folk aren’t necessarily city folk because they are drawn to cities. Perhaps what really defines city folk is that we need to see change, to experience variety. Whitman may have gotten key inspiration for the Leaves from his experiences here in Greenport and perhaps even imagined himself living out here, but he ultimately traded the picturesque prose of a country retreat for the poetry of an urban existence.
Keep your words, O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods;
Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-fields and orchards;
Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields, where the Ninth-month bees hum;
Give me faces and streets! Give me these phantoms incessant and endless
along the trottoirs!
Give me interminable eyes! Give me women! Give me comrades and lovers by
Let me see new ones every day! Let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows! Give me the streets of Manhattan!...
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.
(from “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun”)
Karen Karbiener teaches at New York University and is a public scholar of Walt Whitman. She organizes Whitman-centric events in New York City, including the annual "Song of Myself" Marathon. For more information, write firstname.lastname@example.org.