Poetry Foundation February 2007, January 2007
On Ryerson Street in Clinton Hill, about a hundred yards from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, is a boxy three-and-a-half-story home with cream vinyl siding and six doorbells. Walt Whitman lived here in 1855, the year he published Leaves of Grass. A clump of wire hangs from the roof, and the entrance is painted several shades of white. Few people know it exists. I asked an old man, sitting on his porch across the street, if he knew of the Whitman house, and he said the name sounded familiar: “Is he the guy renting out apartments?” I said he was a dead poet, and he quickly shook his head.
Whitman lived in Brooklyn for 28 years, but this is the only home of his still standing. It was here that he received a letter from the “most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” he wrote, “which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere.” That foreground was in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Whitman hung out on the Bowery, went to operas downtown, drank in the Village, and wrote newspaper articles about getting rid of the barn animals that wandered through Broadway. He lived in several buildings in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, but longed for a more permanent home: “My good daddy used to say: ‘Oh! what a comfort it is to lie down on your own floor, a floor laid with your own hands, in a house which represents your own handiwork—cellar and walls and roof!’”
For more than 10 years, scholars and fans have known about the Whitman home at 99 Ryerson Street (The New Yorker published an article about the discovery in 1995), but the block gives no indication of its history. On the corner is a Mexican-Chinese restaurant full of fake palm trees. “You would never guess that is the place where America’s greatest poet wrote his greatest work,” says Greg Trupiano, director of the Walt Whitman Project, a local community arts organization. He’s working with the Brooklyn Historical Society to try to get the exterior of the home restored to its original appearance (without displacing the tenants). “The borough is hot now,” he says, “like it was when Whitman and his family were building houses in the 1850s. We’re getting further and further from the Brooklyn he knew.”
Whitman was intuitive and charismatic—a doctor friend once put him on a list of the most “cosmically conscious” people in history, along with Christ and Mohammed—and he still inspires a community of followers willing to go to great lengths to take in his aura. The smallest suggestion of a poet’s life can spark new feelings for his work; Whitman fans in particular share a reverence for everyday objects. In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a pseudonymous columnist, who once ran his hand through a couple of preserved strands of Whitman’s beard, describes the importance of getting physically close to a subject: “My scholarly work gains momentum when I give myself over to the spiritual and emotional impulses that my rational self wants to dismiss,” he writes. He is one of a long line of writers to make pilgrimages to the house in Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman died; it still holds his waterbed and size 11 galoshes, and has a death notice nailed to the door.
The house on Ryerson Street makes imaginative leaps more difficult. “It should be a source of local and national pride,” says Trupiano, who greeted me with a backpack full of Whitman reference books snapped around his stomach. Wearing shorts and sneakers and walking briskly, he led me around downtown Brooklyn, pointing out sites that Whitman frequented. “I’m amazed how little the borough has done for him. There’s no major statue. No street named after him. We do have a terrible little park near the bridge. It’s been destroyed because of a parking lot. The description of the park is plagued with mistakes. It says that Whitman influenced Emerson—that’s not true. Emerson totally influenced him! And yet, here we can pinpoint Whitman’s residence, in the heart of Brooklyn no less.”
The five-year period before Whitman published Leaves of Grass is a shadowy time for his biographers. Whitman had shown little indication of great genius and seemed an unlikely candidate for the “origin of all poems.” In Walt Whitman’s America, David Reynolds writes that Whitman was an uninspired student whose teacher described him as a “big, good-natured lad, clumsy and slovenly.” Upon learning that he’d become famous, the teacher added, “We need never be discouraged over anyone.”
At age 21, Whitman fantasized about writing a book as if it were an easy, passing amusement: “I would compose a wonderful and ponderous book. . . . yes: I would write a book! And who shall say that it might not be a very pretty book?” The novel Whitman finally produced, Franklin Evans; Or, The Inebriate (later republished as Fortunes of a Country-Boy; Incidents in Town—and His Adventures at the South), was a morality tale about an orphan whose life was ruined by alcohol. The book was marketed with the catchphrase “Friends of Temperance, Ahoy!”
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