Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Brooklyn, New York
Author:
Gill, Jonathan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman lived for almost three decades in Brooklyn, New York, longer than his association with any other city, and although the word itself appears relatively few times in Leaves of Grass—only nine times, compared to forty-six mentions of Manhattan—Brooklyn held a crucial place in the poet's memory and imagination. If Manhattan signified culture to Whitman, and Long Island meant the beauties of nature, Brooklyn was his home.

Whitman spent his earliest years on Long Island and moved to Brooklyn only in 1823, but throughout his life he remained proud of an older family connection to Brooklyn. In letters and essays, as well as in "The Sleepers" and "The Centenarian's Story," Whitman recalled George Washington's battle of Brooklyn, during which a great-uncle supposedly died. Specimen Days nostalgically records the day in 1823 when the Whitmans moved from Long Island to a house on Front Street, a waterfront area where, as the poet put it in Good-Bye My Fancy, the young Whitman "tramp'd freely about the neighborhood and town" (Complete 1282). In the years after their arrival the family lived in various homes.

The Brooklyn that Whitman knew as a child was largely rural. Incorporated in 1816, it changed its status from village to city only in 1834, and did not become one of the boroughs of New York City until 1898. In the 1820s Brooklyn's population numbered only seven thousand, and there were no streetlights or sidewalks, no fire or police department, no water, garbage, or sewage services. Although Whitman later remembered the Brooklyn of his childhood as "one huge farm and garden" (Whitman's New York 147), the area where the Whitmans lived, near the port and ferry terminals, was chaotic and dirty, densely populated with white and African-American sailors, carpenters, butchers, clerks, street vendors, artisans, waiters, and bartenders.

Starting in 1825 Whitman attended Brooklyn's first public school, District School 1, at the corner of Adams and Concord streets, and it was in that year that during dedication ceremonies for the Apprentices' Library at the corner of Henry and Cranberry streets he was embraced by General Lafayette. It was also in Brooklyn that the youthful Whitman saw two more figures who would later play an important role in his writings: the preacher Elias Hicks and President Andrew Jackson. In the 1820s Whitman also attended Sunday school, though not regular services, at St. Ann's, a new Episcopalian church at the corner of Sands and Washington streets. Whitman left school around 1830 to work as an office boy for local businesses, including two lawyers and a doctor. The next year Whitman became an apprentice at the Fulton Street print shop of the Long Island Patriot. During this time Whitman lived with his family or as a boarder at various residences on Henry, Liberty, and Fulton streets.

In the early 1830s Whitman began spending more of his free time across the East River, in Manhattan. Even though Brooklyn's population had by this time doubled, Manhattan was indisputably the center of the region's culture and nightlife. In Manhattan, accessible by a quick, inexpensive, exciting ferry ride, Whitman introduced himself to the worlds of music, theater, and art. In 1836 Whitman followed his family back to Long Island, and it was not until August of 1845 that they returned to Brooklyn, to a house on Prince Street. The next month he began working at the Long Island Star. This job initiated what would be Whitman's second of a long series of involvements with Brooklyn newspapers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, on Fulton Street, and the Brooklyn Freeman, on Orange Street and later at the corner of Middagh and Fulton streets. During this time Whitman lived alone or with his family in a variety of houses—including one on Myrtle Street, where Whitman in addition to his newspaper activities ran a bookstore and print shop.

The Brooklyn in which Whitman lived and about which he wrote in the years before the Civil War was in the midst of an enormous growth spurt—one that he and his family tried to capitalize on in an endless series of real estate deals, which accounts for their nomadic existence. The city's population grew from 40,000 in 1845 to 100,000 in 1850 and to 250,000 in 1855. Then the third-largest city in the United States, Brooklyn had absorbed the villages of Bushwick, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg and supported 27 public schools, 13 ferries to Manhattan, and 130 churches. In his newspaper articles and editorials from the 1840s and 1850s Whitman celebrated Brooklyn's growth, especially as opposed to what he called the "Gomorra" across the river; he detailed minute changes in street life, parks, schools, shops, churches, and politics, all of which he noticed and discussed during his daily strolls. In these writings Whitman also lamented the relentless urbanization that meant the loss of trees and increased urban squalor.

It was while Whitman was working as an editor and later during the early 1850s as a house builder in Brooklyn that he assembled the notebook fragments that became the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. The building in which he helped the Rome brothers set type for this first edition was still standing on the corner of Cranberry and Fulton streets as of the early 1960s. During the mid-1850s Whitman was living with his family on Ryerson Street, in a house that still exists, but because the Whitmans bought and sold properties so often in an effort to capitalize on the city's surging real estate market, it is not clear where Emerson's famed December 1855 visit to Whitman took place. Although history records visits by Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau later in the decade as adventurous trips into the working class hinterlands of New York, in the 1850s Whitman counted among his Brooklyn friends such renowned artists as Henry Kirke Browne, Frederick A. Chapman, Gabriel Harrison, Charles L. Heyde, Walter Libbey, Jesse Talbot, and John Quincy Adams Ward.

From 1857 until 1862 Whitman worked as the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times, on Grand Street and later on South Seventh Street, and then at the Brooklyn Daily Standard, where he published his most extended writing on Brooklyn. "Brooklyniana" appeared in twenty-five installments from 8 June 1861 through 1 November 1862 and consisted of what he called "authentic reminiscences," or "gossiping chronicles" (Whitman's New York 3, 87). The series, which was reprinted as a volume called Walt Whitman's New York in 1963, informally tells the social history of Brooklyn, with sections including Manhattan and Long Island, and consistently presents Brooklyn as a place central to the story of the United States.

In 1862 Whitman left Brooklyn for Washington, D.C., never to settle in his beloved hometown again. He made annual visits—he was at his mother's home in Brooklyn when he heard the news of President Lincoln's assassination—until the early 1870s, when his poor health made travel difficult. Nonetheless, he returned to the area in 1878, 1879, and 1881, and lectured in New York in 1887.

The place of Brooklyn in Whitman's poetic imagination remains largely implicit. More than half of Brooklyn's appearances in Leaves of Grass pertain to its liminal status, either as one terminal of the ferry to Manhattan in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" or as the namesake of the Brooklyn Bridge in "Song of the Exposition." "The Sleepers" briefly remembers the battle of Brooklyn, as does "The Centenarian's Story," in which an elderly veteran watching Civil War recruits training below a hill in Washington Park recalls the earlier Revolutionary War battle. Here Whitman presents Brooklyn as a living part of American history, a part perhaps not appreciated enough in the 1860s ("Centenarian's Story").

Bibliography

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

Berman, Paul. "Walt Whitman's Ghost." The New Yorker 12 June 1995: 98–104.

Brasher, Thomas L. Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1970.

Brouwer, Norman. "'Cross from Shore to Shore': Whitman's Brooklyn Ferry." Seaport 26 (1992): 64–67.

Keller, James. "Brooklyniana." Seaport 26 (1992): 70–71.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Rubin, Joseph Jay. The Historic Whitman. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1973.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

____. Walt Whitman's New York: From Manhattan to Montauk. Ed. Henry M. Christman. New York: Macmillan, 1963.


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