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A look at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Museum as it welcomes back visitors


Walt Whitman, a portrait. Image via waltwhitman.org

Plastered on facades across the Town of Huntington – malls, schools, and roads – lies the name of Walt Whitman, longtime Huntington resident and America’s national poet.

Walter Whitman Jr. was born on May 31, 1819 to a family of little means in West Hills, Huntington. Whitman’s ancestors had lived in West Hills for over 125 years, well before the Constitutional Convention made their land a nation. Walter Whitman Sr. (the poet’s father) constructed the home in 1816, deciding to settle down upon his marriage to Louisa Van Velsor. Whitman lived in that small farmhouse from birth until the age of four, when he and his family of eleven moved to Brooklyn.

As was typical for poor families then, the Whitman children (Walt included) dropped out of grammar school before they reached their teenage years, opting to work and support the growing family. Walt Jr., ever the reader, took his first job at age twelve, as a printer’s devil – a laborious journalistic apprenticeship where one would mix tubs of ink and fetch type and the like – at The Long Island Patriot, a Democratic newspaper.

When the devastating 1836 recession hit, however, the newspaper business all but shriveled, leading Walt and his family back to Long Island, where they stayed until 1841. Self-educated, Whitman took up his next career as a schoolteacher, a profession he very much disliked. Pieced together from short recollections by his former students, Whitman’s pedagogical style was thought to be very progressive for his time – he encouraged students to think aloud rather than recite and gave them much freedom in the pursuit of knowledge.

Whitman disdained physical punishment, refusing to paddle any of his disobedient schoolboys. When he became disillusioned and quite depressed by the prospects of a continued teaching career, the soon-to-be-bard quickly returned to his favored occupation, journalism.

In 1838, Whitman founded the Town of Huntington’s weekly newspaper, The Long-Islander, which continues to be produced to this day, bearing a silhouette of the poet’s face on all modern publications. Whitman would sell the business a year later. The poet then held editorial positions on seven varying newspapers, four of which were located on Long Island (The Long Island Star, The Brooklyn Weekly Eagle, The Brooklyn Freeman, and the Brooklyn Daily Times). As most scholars agree, Whitman, even without his poetry, would have been cemented into posterity simply with the production of his astute journalism.

In the spring of 1855, Whitman would go on to self-publish the first edition of Leaves of Grass, a thin volume of twelve then-untitled poems, employing his own highly original American cadence and candor. Though a majority of the public and the press (including his own newspaper, The Long-Islander) wrote rather unfavorably of the collection, such progressively minded intellectuals as Ralph Waldo Emerson revered Whitman’s poetry. Whitman admired Emerson very much, as he himself was inspired to become “America’s Bard” after reading Emerson’s vision of the true American poet in his essay, The Poet.

In a letter addressed to Whitman, Emerson deemed Leaves of Grass “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Whitman demanded Emerson’s celebratory letter be included in all future copies of Leaves of Grass. He continuously added and deleted poems from the collection, spanning six successive editions over 37 years.

As the Battle of Fort Sumter pushed America over the cliff and into the Civil War, Whitman was distraught upon hearing of his brother’s wounds in battle. While he searched for his brother, Whitman became irate at the plight of his fellow Americans at war, vowing himself to stay in Washington D.C. and care for these young men. He would go on to make over 600 visits to military capitals around D.C. as a volunteer nurse. As the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association writes, because of this experience, Whitman “was no longer just a poet from New York or Long Island; he now belonged to and spoke for the nation.”

As a stroke forced the aging poet to settle down, Walt would spend the remaining years of his fertile life in Camden, New Jersey. As time continued, Whitman did achieve a great semblance of literary fame; he went on to correspond with such names as Abraham Lincoln, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde. (Interestingly, his meeting with Wilde has been much discussed in literary circles, pertaining most speculatively to their shared homosexuality.)

The first internationally recognized American poet of the 19th century, Whitman was laid to rest after the final publication of Leaves of Grass, his so-called “deathbed” edition in 1892.

Since 1957, and up until the pandemic, Town of Huntington residents have been immensely privileged to learn about the poet’s life and times, read his poetry, and tour the location of his birthplace – all located on what is now 246 Old Walt Whitman Road.

The history of the poet’s birthplace is as dense as his own biography. When the Whitmans moved to Brooklyn in 1823, a man by the name of Carlton Jarvis purchased the house, retaining it throughout the nineteenth century. After a 1910 fire destroyed the structure’s original kitchen, much attention was paid to protecting the home. Attracted by its rich history, John and Georgia Watson purchased the house and lived there for upwards of 30 years. In 1951, the newly created Walt Whitman Birthplace Association (WWBA) acquired the house; six years later, Governor W. Averell Harriman signed a bill making the home New York’s 22nd historical site.

Much sweat went into the restoration and refurnishing of the home and grounds: shingles were replaced, shutters were reconstructed, lilac bushes were replanted, all in the name of historical accuracy. Touring the structure, one can find any number of artifacts a typical 1820s home of modest means may have contained: playing cards for the children, a spinning wheel for Ms. Louisa Van Velsor and her elderly mother, Walter Sr.’s carpentry tools, various foodstuffs from the fields, and the like.

The museum’s Interpretive Center allows visitors to explore the life of Walt Whitman through original letters, manuscripts, and photographs. Image via waltwhitman.org

With the relatively recent addition of the museum’s Interpretive Center, visitors can explore the life of Whitman through original letters, manuscripts, and photographs. (Whitman is one of the most photographed 19th-century poets of all time, as seen in the museum’s collection of over 130 portraits.) The museum holds an inordinate amount of Whitmanian artifacts: an Albion printing press used by The Long-Islander in the 1830s, a plaster cast of Whitman created by American sculptor Alexander Sterling Calder in 1935, and a wooden desk Whitman used himself as a schoolteacher, among many others.

Another interesting section of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association comes in the form of a yearly “Poet-in-Residence.” According to the WWBA, “the program features revered and distinguished contemporary poets who continue to embody Walt Whitman’s spirit of democracy, diversity and creativity.”

Scanning through the WWBA’s various poets-in-residence, some rather remarkable names come through the surface: in 1991, Allen Ginsberg (founding member of the Beat Generation); in 1997, Galway Kinnel (Poet Laureate to the state of Vermont and 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner); in 2001, Billy Collins (United States Poet Laureate from 2001-2003); and in 2016, Robert Pinksy (United States Poet Laureate from 1997-2000).

Forrest Gander is the current 2021 poet-in-residence of the WWBA; he won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2019 for his collection Be With. Poets-in-residence will typically hold poetry readings within the walls of the museum. This, however, had to be amended due to Covid-19, as walls quickly turned to Zoom readings, and the museum itself closed – until now. While all educational events are still being conducted online, the museum itself is open again for visitors, with visits and tours available seven days a week, from 11am-4pm on weekdays, and weekends from 11am-5pm. No reservation is needed for in-person visits.

Whitman, to the preface of his 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, wrote, “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” The Whitman Birthplace Museum is that small reminder to Americans and Town of Huntington residents alike that, while not present on the cloudiest day, the enigmatic spirit of Walt Whitman continues to penetrate American language and thought ad infinitum.