Happy 194th birthday, Walt Whitman!

Whitman, 1888. (Thomas Eakins, from Wikimedia Commons)

Whitman, 1888. (Thomas Eakins, from Wikimedia Commons)

“You know I have a fancy for anything out of the ordinary.”

– Walt Whitman

Poet Walt Whitman, one of Kings County’s most famous literary residents, was born on May 31, 1819. His family came to the City of Brooklyn from Long Island when he was four; he stayed until 1862, when he moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as a Union nurse.

Whitman’s best-known work is Leaves of Grass, which he first published himself in 1855. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who served as a muse of sorts for Whitman, responded to Whitman’s complimentary copy in a letter calling it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.”

The collection contains one of my favorite poems, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry“, an ode to the predecessor to the Brooklyn Bridge.

I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it;
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.

Today I read again a piece in the June 12, 1995 The New Yorker called Walt Whitman’s Ghost. (It starts on page 98.) In a neat bit of detective work, writer Paul Berman and a couple of friends identified Whitman’s home for much of his Leaves of Grass period: 99 Ryerson Street, just north of Myrtle Avenue, in the former Wallabout section of Clinton Hill.


From my trip to the Navy Yard and Wallabout last April. 99 Ryerson is the tallest building.

He lived there less than a year – his family moved frequently – but in that time, he put the finishing touches on his masterpiece. (His father also died, in July.) It’s the only Whitman residence in the borough still in existence.

Whitman expired in Camden, New Jersey, in 1892. That house is now a National Historic Landmark and a museum. Why has there been no movement to do the same with this historic building?

For further reading on 99 Ryerson Street, check out this piece from Poetry Foundation.

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5 Responses to Happy 194th birthday, Walt Whitman!

  1. Yay for Walt Whitman! I knew of his connection to 99 Ryerson and I actually pass it several times a week on my walk to work. I always give a little nod to Walt as I pass.

    I celebrated his birthday on Friday night. I participated in a walking tour/traveling poetry reading conducted by the Walt Whitman Project and St. Francis College. We visited many of haunts in Downtown Brooklyn. The finale was a reading of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry at sunset at Ferry Landing. It was a nice way to commemorate his birth.

    FYI The annual “Song of Myself” reading marathon is today, Sunday, June 2nd at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Also, on June 16th and July 21st there will be free Walt Whitman/Fort Greene Tours.

  2. Pingback: A Leisure for Less Post: Walt Whitman in Brooklyn | atreegrowsinbklyn

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