Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Long Island, New York
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.

In Specimen Days (1882) Whitman says of the region where he was born, "the successive growth-stages of my infancy, childhood, youth and manhood were all pass'd on Long Island, which I sometimes feel as if I had incorporated" (10). Such a statement, from a poet whose work is so concentrated on the corporeal self, can hardly be ignored or its import slighted. In fact, examination of his life and work reveals the extent to which the feeling is substantiated.

Both the Whitman and Van Velsor families had roots in Long Island, his father's side having been there for some five generations. While the Whitmans were spread throughout the West Hills region, it may well have been his mother's birthplace, the Van Velsor farm in nearby Cold Spring, that is the remembered childhood site of "There Was a Child Went Forth." Something of the everyday life of the two families, and of the influence on them of their island habitat, can be gleaned from the poem and from the remembrances Whitman set down in Specimen Days.

Whitman always referred to Long Island by its aboriginal name, "Paumanok," and was familiar with its geographical contours as they existed prior to the 1898 consolidation, when the westernmost portion of the island became part of the city of New York. In Whitman's time Long Island stretched eastward from Brooklyn to Montauk Point. Though his family left West Hills for Brooklyn when he was four years old, Whitman spent much of his boyhood in the eastern regions of the island, sailing, fishing (ice fishing in winter), clamming, and bathing. Scenes from these and other island activities are scattered throughout his poetry and always suggest a great sense of happiness.

In young manhood, both before and after his employment on newspapers in Queens and Brooklyn, Whitman was for a time less happily engaged in schoolteaching in various Long Island communities. In letters written from Woodbury in 1841, the twenty-one-year-old described his days as a schoolteacher boarding in the homes of his pupils as a kind of damnation, though in old age he remembered them as among his best experiences. In 1839 he had started his own newspaper in Huntington, The Long Islander, which he sold a year later. Manhattan claimed him, but Whitman returned to Long Island regularly to visit friends and relatives (his sister Mary lived in Greenport) and to enjoy its natural setting.

It is this setting that permeates Leaves of Grass, especially the presence of the sea, which inspired in Whitman a great sense of the ebb and flow of all of life and stirred him to visions of himself as setting forth on a great voyage of poetic discovery with his soul his only companion. The solitary nature of the voyage is made clear on Paumanok's shore in "Out of the Cradle," where the rhythm of the sea informs a myth about the making of a poet. In "Starting from Paumanok" the voyage to the "New World" of poetic expression begins on Long Island's shores. The voyage itself appears again and again, in the narrative style of "Old Salt Kossabone" and "O Captain! My Captain!," in the declamations of "Passage to India," and in the reveries of "Prayer of Columbus" and many of the "Songs of Parting."

The experience of having been born and of having lived so many of his formative years on an island seems to have been the shaping power of Whitman's life and work. The fascination he felt for the sea and its repetitive approach to the land is revealed in "Sea-Shore Fancies" in Specimen Days, where he tells of a boyhood fancy of writing about the seashore as a meeting place of sea and land, where the two met and fused. Rather than having produced it as a single piece, however, he claims to have allowed this fancy to remain "an invisible influence" in his composition, where the vision of fused natural powers is "indirectly" revealed in the rhythms and themes of the works (Specimen Days 139). Though it is not precisely a seashore vision, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" clearly expresses this fusion, extending it to a greater dimension so that the "invisible influence" overflows the bounds of time and space.

Other aspects of nature as found on Long Island appear in the poems—sea gulls, lilac bushes, mockingbirds—as do aspects of the life of the people there. The island itself appears in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," where it is the father land, the place on which he has been tossed by the great ocean of life out of the fierce mother, the sea. Again, the island seems to be a microcosm of earth, the "vast Rondure, swimming in space" in section 5 of "Passage to India."

Whitman brought his ailing father back to West Hills two years before the father's death and returned again in 1881. On the latter visit he contemplated the burial places of both sides of his family, commenting in Specimen Days on the many "ancient graveyards" on Long Island and how his whole family history, three centuries, was told there (6).

In 1890 Dr. John Johnston, one of Whitman's admirers from Bolton, England, visited Whitman in Camden and then made a pilgrimage to Long Island, viewing the places associated with the poet's family and his early life. He also visited Herbert Gilchrist, the artist son of Whitman's close friend, Mrs. Anne Gilchrist. The young Englishman (perhaps as a result of the poet's glowing remembrances of Long Island) had settled in Centerport. The following year J.W. Wallace, another of the Bolton admirers, also made the Long Island pilgrimage to see the place where Whitman was born.

Though Whitman chose to be buried outside Camden, New Jersey, his memory is honored on Long Island, where a high school, shopping mall, movie theater, and various small businesses bear his name. His birthplace in West Hills is a New York State Historic Site, and the newspaper he started, The Long Islander, is still published in Huntington. Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York, has its Whitman Hall, and from time to time some fragment of the poet's presence on Long Island comes to light, such as the holograph version of "Thou Vast Rondure Swimming in Space," which surfaced in the 1980s among the contents of an old Long Island house about to be demolished. All are reminders of the poet's life and work, the going forth, "Starting from Paumanok."

Bibliography

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

Berbrich, Joan D. "Walt Whitman." Three Voices from Paumanok: The Influence of Long Island on James Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, and Walt Whitman. Empire State Historical Publications Series, No. 81. Port Washington, New York: Ira J. Friedman, 1969. 109–196.

Funnell, Bertha H. Walt Whitman on Long Island. Empire State Historical Publications Series, No. 91. Port Washington, New York: Kennikat, Ira J. Friedman Division, 1971.

Johnston, J., and J.W. Wallace. Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891. 1917. New York: Haskell House, 1970.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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