Whole passages could make you tremble as you read. There was another reason.
I sing the book old-fashioned: Printing Whitman’s masterpiece by hand | PBS NewsHour
He wrote about himself as if he had already died, and he wanted you to know that, even so, a hundred years later or hundreds of years later, he would always be standing by, a benign incubus, ready to clasp you by the hand or take you into his arms. Homer pictured grass as the hair of the departed reaching upward from their graves. Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop some where waiting for you.
But where, exactly, on what street and corner, would that ghostly somewhere be? Where does the shade of our amorous national poet hover today—if not in Brooklyn, in the places where he lived and worked when he wrote those amazing lines? And so, more than three decades after the printshop was destroyed, Wilentz, the old bookseller—retired now, not as spry as he used to be—set out, in the company of his son, Sean who is sufficiently a chip off the old block to have made his name as a scholarly historian of nineteenth-century New York , and me, to see if that second building was anywhere to be found.
We headed up Myrtle Avenue from downtown Brooklyn, past the one-story modern storefronts, the Chinese-takeout place, the bleak nineteenth-century tenements, and the even bleaker twentieth-century ones.
Loaf at your ease, luxuriating in the poet’s unhurried, insinuated cadences.
We passed the projects known as the Walt Whitman Houses and Fort Greene Park, which the poet himself, during his career as a newspaper editor, had campaigned to save from the developers. And we came to the corner of Ryerson Street. The vista there was less than inspiring. Ryerson Street begins at an empty lot on Myrtle Avenue and runs into the elevated trestles of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway one block to the north. On either side of the street stand row houses of two and a half or three and a half stories the half story means that the bottom floor is a half-buried basement , some of them clapboard buildings, some of them brick, all with high stoops of concrete or brick.
They are the kind of houses that were built en masse during the vast Brooklyn housing boom early in the nineteenth century: squat, blocky structures, three windows across, and sparsely ornamented—houses for working people. According to the list of properties in the Allen biography, a building that once belonged to the Whitman family had stood on that street, on a lot three hundred and eighty feet from the northeast corner of Myrtle. Wilentz the Younger and I went pacing heel to toe in search of the three-hundred-and-eightieth foot, with Wilentz the Elder leaning on a cane in the middle of the block, awaiting the results.
But the results were shaky. Ryerson st. It is the tawny wooden house in the middle of the block. The one with a top story that was surely added later on. The house with a modern red concrete stoop and a bright-white door. Three events are known to have taken place in that most distinguished of houses.
The Whitmans moved there in May, The poet showed the new book to his mother and to one of his brothers, George Washington Whitman.
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Meanwhile, he had sent out complimentary copies of his book to, among other people, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sage himself, in distant Concord, Massachusetts. Emerson had never heard of Walt Whitman, yet evidently sat down at once to examine the curious new book with its leafy green cover, and replied by mailing to Whitman the single most celebrated appreciation in the history of American literature. On July 21st, Emerson wrote:. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty.
I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks and visiting New York to pay you my respects. That was the third event known to have taken place in the Ryerson Street house. I found by the directory that one Walter Whitman lived fearfully far out of Brooklyn, nearly , on Ryerton [sic] Street a short way from Myrtle Avenue. It is one of a row of small wooden houses with porches, which all seem occupied by mechanics.
As for the smallness of the house, that was overcome later on by adding the extra floor, and as for the porches, at some point they must have been taken down everywhere along the block in favor of the concrete stoops you can see today. Kaplan, however, may be in error. But of those houses only the one on Ryerson Street, the house where Whitman was living when he completed his masterpiece, appears to have survived. The main reason to go visit the house of a writer from long ago—piety and the search for ghosts aside—is the hope of stumbling across some lingering trace of the world that created the author.
But the lingering traces never seem to be lingering. But beneath the level of appearances, hardly anything in Concord is the way it used to be. Similar look, different essence. But visually the street is dominated by highway pillars, aluminum window casings, blocky stoops, towering street lights, modern asphalt, and ten thousand other fixtures from the twentieth century.
Similar essence, different look. Reynolds conjectures that someone like Whitman, whose formal schooling came to an end well before high school, would have lived in an atmosphere both of high culture and of popular culture, but popular culture especially. And, with that idea firmly in mind, Reynolds sets out to paint a panorama of the popular cultural and intellectual life of New York in the eighteen-forties and fifties.
It makes a flashy spectacle. Here is the old New York theatre district, on the Bowery, where rough-and-ready crowds came to watch Shakespeare performed by actors like Junius Brutus Booth, who pushed emotional intensity almost to the point of insanity and whose son would outdo him only by murdering Lincoln in a theatre. We read about the semiscientific i. Here are the Harmonialists and the table-thumping spiritualists. And the impression you get, finally, is of urban hub-bub, quite as if it were you, not Moncure Conway, riding the Fulton and Myrtle Avenue horsecar in September, , assailed by snatches of overheard conversations and the loose-flying sheets of an inky penny paper.
The parade of fads and humbugs can make you worry that Whitman, too, was a humbug—or, anyway, not afraid of seeming one. Even so, once you have followed Reynolds around the nineteenth-century streets you do see Whitman with a sudden new clarity. Yet all the while Whitman is giving voice if we would only listen to a typical mid-nineteenth-century theory about the unity of body and soul, except in a version all his own, with body and soul making love on the lawn—a wild idea, if you think about it.
I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning; You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me, And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart, And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet. Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth; And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own, And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own, And that all the men ever born are also my brothers.
Reynolds has a merry time telling us about mesmerists and phrenologists, but in those lines about the June morning and the hand of God the tone that you hear, the two-note chord of outdoorsy detail-mongering and Biblical grandiosity, is something that came straight from Emerson.
The house on Ryerson can show us one more aspect of Whitman and his America, if we take Reynolds as our guide. On a crisp February afternoon in , five years after the publication of Leaves of Grass , the two men took a two-hour walk along Boston Common. And yet, rather than coming undone by self-doubt, he was able to stay rooted in his own values and vision. During those two hours he was the talker and I the listener. Whereupon we went and had a good dinner at the American House.
Revisiting the Streets that Spawned Walt Whitman's Masterpiece
In many ways was Whitman, quite unconsciously to himself, the man Emerson invoked and prayed for,— the absolutely self-reliant man; the man who should find his own day and land sufficient; who had no desire to be Greek, or Italian, or French, or English, but only himself; who should not whine, or apologize, or go abroad; who should not duck, or deprecate, or borrow; and who could see through the many disguises and debasements of our times the lineaments of the same gods that so ravished the bards of old. To be sure, Whitman did not dismiss criticism wholesale — rather, he separated the wheat from the chaff through the sieve of confidence and surefooted creative vision.
But criticism, he believed, could be far more valuable than praise. Such critics are apt to pronounce any work of true originality bad, and then to embody W. Burroughs noted this in his praiseful biography of Whitman, composed at a time when the poet was still more rejected than celebrated by his era:. There are no more precious and tonic pages in history than the records of men who have faced unpopularity, odium, hatred, ridicule, detraction, in obedience to an inward voice, and never lost courage or good-nature.
Every man is a partaker in the triumph of him who is always true to himself and makes no compromises with customs, schools, or opinions.
I have fancied some disembodied human soul giving its verdict. Leaves of Grass endures as one of the most beloved poetic works of all time, having influenced generations of writers and buoyed ordinary livers of life through the worst existential upheavals — such is the power of poetic truth channeled with unwavering stability of confidence and vision.