Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Birthplace, Whitman's
Author:
Krieg, Joann P.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman was born in West Hills, Long Island, New York, in a two-story frame house built by his father. It is believed that Walter Whitman, Sr., intended the house as an example of various styles of construction he was able to provide, since it contains some features innovative for the time. Among these are the corbeled chimney and the storage closets set in the fireplace walls. The staircase, too, is unusual in that it is topped with a short riser, a feature also found in another house in the area believed to have been built by Walter Whitman, Sr. Large twelve-over-eight pane windows bring ample light and air into the farmhouse. The dining wing appears to be older than the main part of the house and may have been on the property before the larger main section was built.

The Whitman family moved from West Hills to Brooklyn in 1823, but Whitman is known to have returned to the house on at least two occasions. One visit was with his father in 1855, shortly before the latter's death, and the other was in 1881, when Whitman was accompanied by Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke.

Only three owners held title to the property between 1823 and 1949, at which time the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, formed for the express purpose of purchasing the house, acquired it. Within those years the house was a private residence, a boardinghouse for farm laborers, and a tea room. In 1957 the association turned the property over to New York State and it became a State Historic Site open to the public.

Difficulties surrounded the purchase by the association, some of which arose from the claim that Whitman's poetry was being used effectively as propaganda by communist nations and their sympathizers. A concerted effort by many Long Island communities, and especially by school children who made coin contributions, enabled the purchase to go forward. Similar objections raised during the McCarthy era almost prevented state acquisition, but Governor Averell Harriman signed a bill making the Whitman Birthplace Long Island's first State Historic Site. The bill marked a shift downward from the manor and mansion sites selected in previous years to a recognition of sites connected to the middle and lower classes.

The Birthplace Association maintains a small library available to scholars and the general public. An annual celebration of Whitman's birth is held at the birthplace, continuing a tradition of celebration begun by Whitman's friends in his lifetime.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Dyson, Verne. "This House of Memories." Walt Whitman Birthplace Bulletin 2 (1959): 17–19.

Krieg, Joann P. "Walt Whitman in the Public Domain: A Tale of Two Houses." The Long Island Historical Journal 6.1 (1993): 83–95.


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