Walking with Whitman
Walt Whitman’s poetry was a soothing dirge during the destructive American Civil War. As the world watched brother versus brother, Lincoln versus Davis, North versus South, Whitman emerged as the voice of the American conscience, vividly depicting the social-political landscape in poems like “Beat! Beat! Drums!” He even recorded a firsthand prose account of the war titled “The Great Army of the Sick,” which he wrote while serving as a Union Army ambulance truck driver. By this point, Whitman had already published Leaves of Grass, an epic poetry collection that had established him as a towering presence in American literature.
So why am I writing about Whitman? Having recently come to live in New York City from Colorado, I found myself in Huntington, New York, a small town set along Long Island’s north shore. Aside from having a history that dates back to 1653 (just three decades after the Mayflower’s arrival) and a main street that mirrors any number of Norman Rockwell paintings, Huntington is also the birthplace to one—you guessed it—Walt Whitman. And if your experience with Whitman has been reduced to stagnant memories from some college English class; or that one time you watched Dead Poets Society because the girl you were dating told you Mr. Keating’s “O Captain! My Captain!” exit makes her cry every time; or the moment in Breaking Bad when Gale gave Walter White a copy of Leaves of Grass and you had no clue what the hell that was, don’t worry—Huntington has made sure you will never forget their most famous and prodigious resident.
Whether you’re driving down Walt Whitman Road on the way to Walt Whitman Mall; or are a student at Walt Whitman High School and are buying your first car at Walt Whitman Motors; or have a gym membership at the Whitman Atrium; or bought your fiancee’s engagement ring at Whitman Jewelers, in Huntington you’re consciously walking in the shadow of a giant. The biggest attraction in the midst of the “Whitman” deluge, however, is the bard’s proper birthplace. Located at 246 Old Walt Whitman Road, two enormous “Walt Whitman Birthplace” signs confirm its location in a residential neighborhood, just next to a Sam Ash Music Store and behind some taco stand dumpsters.
I had an opportunity to take a tour of the fenced-off residential campus one Tuesday evening. In the welcome center, amazing artifacts once attached to Whitman are displayed: a desk from when he was a young school teacher; Whitman’s house itself, sitting large and majestic through a glass-paneled wall like a whale emerging into sight through an aquarium looking glass; and even a signed 1876 copy of Leaves of Grass on loan from the Huntington Library.
An antique printing press and a typeset from his days as a typesetter’s apprentice draw quite a crowd, too.
I took a tour through the house, covered in brown wooden-shingles and bathed in a sort of Colonial stoicism. We walked through the courtyard, past the old wishing well, and back inside the house, which had been restored to its Whitman-family-ownership days, complete with period furniture, pottery, and wall art. Yet as I stood in his childhood bedroom and paced the floors of the kitchen where he ate morning breakfast with his mother, Louisa, and his father, Walter, I expected to feel something extraordinary, like an electrical pulse from the house’s past memories shooting through me at the realization that I, for that moment, shared the same space as the author of Leaves of Grass once occupied. But it never happened. Not even a single goosebump. The problem is, Huntington has already staked a rightful claim to all things “Whitman” and, in doing so, has oversaturated the Walt Whitman experience to the point of suffocation. From the moment I arrived in Huntington, I had already found myself clumsily and unintentionally tripping over Whitman’s name like Jerry Lewis trying to enter a door.
Huntington, for its part, has engaged in a large campaign of using the Whitman name for promoting itself to tourists. It’s already a sleepy Long Island town along the bay, appealing to visitors, so why would they submit themselves to such shameless self-promotion? That’s so . . . so . . . Whitman-esque! See, if the people of Huntington have learned anything from their association with a literary hero, it’s that shameless self-promotion pays; and the O.G. of this tactic is Whitman himself.
If you’ve read Leaves of Grass and “Song of Myself” and it seemed that Whitman was calling himself, I don’t know, the greatest poet of all time, it’s because he most likely was. In this VICE article, James Franco (yes, THAT James Franco) explains how Whitman himself had more to do with his own popularity than did his poetry at the time. One tactic he used was to print a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the preeminent essayist and poet of his day, as the prologue to subsequent copies of the epic poem. Emerson had praised Leaves of Grass, calling it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Nevertheless, he was not amused by Whitman’s self-promotion.
In all fairness, it’s difficult to fault Huntington for utilizing Whitman’s name as a communal resource for the sake of business. I’d venture to guess that if the town wasn’t older than Whitman himself—and even older than the American Revolutionary War—Huntington would happily call itself Whitmantown, or Whitmanville, or some other derivation. I doubt Walt would have minded.
Miguel Bustamante is a writer from Chicago, Illinois. He received a B.S. in Psychology in 2007 and a B.A. in English in 2012 from North Eastern Illinois University. He is a co-founder of NEIU’s Seeds literary arts journal, and he has written for the Colorado Springs Independent and the Manitou Marquee. He now lives in New York where he writes for the Times of Huntington-Northport.