1.The Grandfather of Literary Brooklyn
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.
—“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” WALT WHITMAN
When Walt Whitman was in his early thirties, he had already lived out the first act of his life. The son of a failing carpenter, he had been a grammar school dropout; an office boy for a law firm; an apprentice to various printers; and, disastrously, a schoolteacher. Eventually he found a calling in journalism, moving upstairs from the printing room to the editorial office. And at the age of twenty-six, in 1846, he was named the editor of booming Brooklyn’s leading newspaper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where his office window looked out on the foot of Fulton Street, by the glinting, well-traveled East River and the Fulton Ferry. He became a prominent and eccentric man about town. To entertain people he would shout out lines from Shakespeare and Homer from a stagecoach or at the seashore, and he would hum arias as he walked down the street. He was talked about. He was known.
Then, in 1848, he was fired from the Eagle after clashing with his boss over politics. His next newspaper jobs were short-lived, and he began to slip out of view. He took on the look of a social dropout, with shaggy hair, a gray beard, and overalls. In the ensuing half decade he was a sometime freelance journalist, a sometime bookseller at a store he operated out of his house on a lot he’d bought for a hundred dollars, and a sometime carpenter. And sometimes he was plain unemployed. “There was a great boom in Brooklyn in the early fifties, and he had his chance then,” his brother George later said, “but you know he made nothing of that chance.” Strange and a bit rough around the edges, Whitman didn’t make it easy for others to reach out to him. Things were not looking good.
But something powerful was taking hold of him from within: “I found myself remaining possess’d, at the age of thirty-one to thirty-two, with a special desire and conviction … that had been flitting through my previous life, or hovering on the flanks, [that] finally dominated everything else.” He began composing a series of very long, unstructured poems, of a kind not yet seen by the world. Each day, he took them into the Rome Brothers print shop at the corner of Cranberry Street and Fulton Street, where he and the owners set them into type during off-hours. He would sleep late, write more, return to the print shop. It was the nineteenth-century equivalent of self-publishing out of a Kinko’s. And the result was Leaves of Grass. “No other book in the history of American letters,” Malcolm Cowley has written, “was so completely an individual or do-it-yourself project.”
Where Leaves of Grass came from no one will know. But as Whitman said, his masterpiece drew breath from the people of Brooklyn, his literal and spiritual home. Walt Whitman, as much as he was “one of a crowd,” was America’s first great bard and the keystone of Brooklyn’s literary tradition.
It requires a considerable feat of imagination today to picture Brooklyn as it was when Whitman first arrived as a child of three, in 1823. It was a place so different from the huge urban mass of today, with its population of 2.5 million, that it is scarcely possible to hold it in the mind’s eye. Then a separate entity from the city of New York, which was restricted to the island of Manhattan, Brooklyn was a placid little town of low-slung houses topped with billowing chimney smoke, tucked in close to the shore of the East River; the surrounding area later incorporated into Brooklyn consisted of large farms of rolling hills and a handful of even smaller hamlets. What is now the borough of Brooklyn boasted about as many residents as today’s Wasilla, Alaska.
Across the water, Manhattan was beginning to become a central place in American commerce and in the American imagination, but its tallest building was only four stories high. You could stand in Brooklyn Heights and see clear across Manhattan and the Hudson and well into New Jersey. From that spot you could watch a great crowd of high-masted ships carrying goods up and down the East River and especially the Hudson.
In Brooklyn in 1823 there was no regular police force, no public transportation, and flickering gas lamps were just being introduced to help light the eerily quiet, unpopulated nighttime streets. Families had to gather round the fireplace to cook or stay warm. Some had horses and a carriage, but they contended with rutted, narrow dirt roads, and there was no organized stagecoach service. Residents kept pigs and chickens that roamed in the streets in daytime, rooting through the garbage alongside open sewers. Water was drawn from street wells and carried home. Taverns and stables stood among houses and shanties. The odors were rank. To the east of the village—on land now densely packed with multistory apartment buildings—were sprawling green fields still owned mostly by the Dutch. They kept a firm hold on their properties, assured of a market for their produce and livestock in the village of Brooklyn and in Manhattan.
Many slaves worked the land and tended to houses. In 1800, before slaveholding was abolished in New York State, in 1827, about 60 percent of the white households within Brooklyn’s current borders owned at least one slave, the highest proportion in the North. The nationwide battle over slavery would shadow Whitman’s life as it grew to be the foremost threat to the country.
But America was a young nation in Whitman’s childhood, and the Civil War was still far off. Whitman’s father, also named Walter, was born the same year as the federal government, in 1789. Whitman’s great-uncle fought and died in the Revolutionary War’s first major battle, the Battle of Brooklyn, in 1776. That rout by the English cost twelve hundred American lives in a matter of hours, with at least another fifteen hundred wounded, captured, or missing. With defeat clearly at hand, George Washington, standing where Court Street now crosses Atlantic Avenue, is said to have cried, “Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!” But acts of valor on the American side would live on—particularly in the story of the Maryland forces who sacrificed themselves almost to a one in challenging and delaying the much larger British contingent at the Old Stone House, near today’s Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street in Brooklyn. That stand allowed Washington and his men to make an overnight escape across the East River to Manhattan, whispering to one another in the fog to avoid alerting the British. If it weren’t for this getaway, the war could easily have ended in a brutally swift British victory. According to the historian Kenneth Jackson, one observer later said, “The Declaration of Independence that was signed in ink in Philadelphia was signed in blood in Brooklyn.” Both the heroism and the tragedy of the Battle of Brooklyn and its aftermath would become a touchstone of Whitman’s work.
Between 1790 and 1810, Brooklyn’s population nearly tripled, as Irish, Yankee, and Manhattanite new arrivals crowded out the Dutch. The Brooklyn Navy Yard gave rise to other shipyards and maritime trades, providing work for carpenters and craftsmen. Wooden market stalls stood by the water, and small manufacture spread out from the river. Whitman’s father moved to Brooklyn to be a carpenter and builder, in the hopes of capitalizing on the town’s population boom. Although the boom continued, he didn’t succeed, perhaps because he favored old ways of building and because he lacked the gift for self-promotion, though his son would soon possess it in spades. The Whitmans moved at least ten times in the space of a decade.* Walt attended Brooklyn’s single elementary school, District School No. 1, which had been established in 1816 on Concord and Adams Streets, for about five years. That would remain the only formal education for the man about whom the venerated critic Harold Bloom has written, “No comparable figure in the arts has emerged from the last four centuries in the Americas.” Before Whitman, American literature was largely for Harvard men, like Emerson, Thoreau, and Henry James. It called to mind men of leisure, with crisp white collars and hired help. Then Whitman barged in.
Walt’s family’s finances forced him to leave school at age eleven and go to work, and for the decades to follow he would have the kind of extraordinarily varied and checkered work history shared by many writers since. In his childhood and adolescence, Brooklyn offered very little in the way of literary and cultural life. Few residents wanted to give money for a proposed Apprentices’ Library in 1824, so library representatives took a wheelbarrow door to door to collect cast-off pamphlets and books. The literacy rate was low and the media hadn’t extended a very meaningful reach into Brooklyn, or indeed much of the nation. The stodgy and relatively expensive political newspapers had not yet met with the competition of the mass-oriented “penny press,” whose pioneers were the New York Sun (founded in 1833) and the New York Herald (1835).
Soon Whitman would enter the burgeoning journalism trade, beginning his apprenticeship in the laborious work of typesetting and printing at the Brooklyn-based Long Island Patriot. He bounced from publications of one political stripe or another in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Long Island, picking up writing and editing skills along with the craft of printing. In the 1830s, as New York slid toward a depression, the newspaper business ran into trouble, and Whitman fled to Long Island and became (at about seventeen) a schoolteacher. An itinerant and miserably unhappy five years followed. “O, damnation, damnation!” he wrote, “thy other name is school-teaching.” He also attempted, with little success, to publish his own Long Island paper, but he moved to Manhattan in 1841 and joined its revived journalism industry. Tired of living in one Manhattan boardinghouse after another for short stints—a pattern that many writers in their early twenties would follow—he moved back to Brooklyn in 1845.
That was Whitman’s last time living in Manhattan. He always took to Brooklyn more heartily. A great deal of his learning and cultural exposure came from Manhattan, but he saw it as an overcrowded place and the center of the kind of commerce he considered vulgar. In “Brooklynania,” a series of articles he published in his forties, his lasting pride in his hometown is evident. Brooklyn’s “situation for grandeur, beauty and salubrity is unsurpassed probably on the whole surface of the globe,” he wrote, “and its destiny is to be among the most famed and choice of the half dozen of the leading cities of the world.” He would remain in Brooklyn for the next seventeen years, his longest stay in one place and the period when he came into his own.
He drew energy from Brooklyn, absorbing, as he said later, the immense and moving power of everyday lives. Striking a chord that echoes down through the last century and a half of Brooklyn literature, he relished Brooklyn’s position at an arm’s length from the mass of humanity and the incessant rattle of business in Manhattan. Near the end of those seventeen years, he wrote of Brooklyn with evident pride, “It may not generally be known that our city is getting to have quite a worldwide reputation.” He added: “With much greater attractions than our neighboring island of New York, Brooklyn is steadily drawing hither the best portion of the business population of the great adjacent metropolis, who find here a superior place for dwelling.” Indeed, since before Whitman’s birth wealthy businessmen and merchants had begun building fine homes in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, which overlooked the East River and offered a short commute on the ferry to their jobs in lower Manhattan. Whitman put his finger, then, on a trend that would drive Brooklyn’s history: many people reliant in their professional lives on Manhattan would find Brooklyn a more pleasing place to live.
But it wasn’t the home-owning class that most interested Whitman. He identified more, as writers tend to do, with those who had something of the countercultural in them—those who were, in a favorite word of his, “agitators.” In his mind he was always allied with the common and even lowly man, the one who was spurned by others. He would sometimes be coy about the extent of his reading because he didn’t want to be associated with the snobbery he saw among the learned. Such views can be traced back to his father, who “believed in resisting much, obeying little,” in the words of Whitman biographer Justin Kaplan. He trained his sons “as radical Democrats, on the side of the farmer, the laborer, the small tradesman, and the ‘people.’” The poet and aesthete James Russell Lowell once warned a foreigner against paying a visit to Whitman after he had become famous. Lowell pegged him as “a rowdy, a New York tough, a loafer, a frequenter of low places, a friend of cab drivers!” Whitman would have liked the description.
* * *
The changes that have occurred in Brooklyn in the last forty years are truly momentous, but they cannot compare to those of Whitman’s first decades, the era that preceded and influenced the early editions of Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn evolved from a quiet village of about five thousand at Whitman’s arrival to the third-largest city in the nation by the time of the Civil War, when Whitman was in his mid-forties. In his twenties alone the population tripled. Part of what spurred the growth was Brooklyn’s investment in an industrial waterfront that competed with Manhattan’s. In the 1830s, Williamsburgh, then a separate town from Brooklyn (and spelled with an h), built large wharves along the East River and, much to New York’s dismay, a new ferry line to Manhattan, which transported commuters both ways. By the 1850s the waterside factory district stretched from Greenpoint and Williamsburgh in the north, down past the Navy Yard, and on to the southern edge of South Brooklyn, where the Atlantic Basin, a new forty-acre shipping terminal in today’s Red Hook, drew much Erie Canal traffic away from Manhattan. Along this corridor, iron foundries flourished, as did breweries, distilleries, sugar refineries, and drug companies (Pfizer started up in Williamsburgh in 1849).
These developments did little to glamorize Brooklyn or increase its prestige. The tourists were still over the river, promenading on Broadway. Brooklyn was becoming a boiler room belowdecks of the region’s economic ship. And who was stoking the boiler? Immigrants, in large part. Williamsburgh was turning into a version of Manhattan’s Kleindeutschland: by 1847 it was two-thirds German. Irish and British were also arriving in massive numbers, bringing the foreign-born proportion of the population to roughly half in 1855. Joining the immigrant working class, though, were members of the middle class—young professionals, clerks, and shop owners—who migrated from Manhattan while holding on to their jobs there. The place of choice for the most affluent remained Brooklyn Heights. Others spread southward into the more affordable area that incorporated today’s Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, and Carroll Gardens. The frontier neighborhoods to the east, land of bargains, were Fort Greene and East New York.
As Brooklyn rapidly urbanized and became more commercially active, it also gained something of a cultural foothold—developments that don’t necessarily go hand in hand in the growth of cities. Whitman had no true local literary equals, but around him there emerged an intellectual ferment, and in particular a multiplicity of voices that swam against the current of mainstream society. He befriended activists in the women’s rights movement, wrote in the papers in defiance of economic injustice to women, and embraced women as equals in poetry. Striking a note that was characteristically both inclusive and controversial, he wrote, “I am the poet of woman the same as man, / And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man.” Although he was not a Quaker—he attended many churches, but never a single one for very long—Whitman venerated the iconoclastic Quaker leader Elias Hicks, whose radically democratic version of the faith, denying any special sanctity of Christ, had gained ascendancy quickly in Whitman’s childhood. Whitman lived in an age when orators achieved widespread popularity and whipped up a great stir—nowhere more so than in Brooklyn, where a more accessible pulpit style took root. At one point he wrote regular columns reviewing local sermons and speeches. Whitman didn’t align himself with any religion or political perspective but gave due attention and credit to the art of speaking out—the American religion, you might say, in his eyes.
The most famous local orator was Henry Ward Beecher, who packed the house beginning in 1847 at the Plymouth Church, still active today, on the corner of Hicks and Orange Streets in Brooklyn Heights. So many Manhattanites came to see him that on Sundays the Fulton Ferry came to be called “Beecher’s Ferry.” With his informal manner, his rousing voice, and his defiance of the norms of religion, Beecher offered a combination, it was said, of Saint Paul and P. T. Barnum. Not surprisingly, he became Whitman’s favorite Brooklyn minister. Beecher’s sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin energized the abolitionist movement. After early objections to freeing existing slaves, Henry Ward Beecher, for his part, turned Plymouth Church into a center of antislavery activity and held “auctions” where church members bought the freedom of particular slaves. Brooklyn became a vibrant center of abolitionism, and Beecher grew to be a national and even international figure. Fierce division over this most fundamental issue of the day marked the whole period of Whitman’s intellectual coming-of-age, a tumultuous era in national politics.
The newspaper business held a place in the thick of it all. Where Whitman himself stood on slavery would be made clearest when he served as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, his most prominent journalistic position. Although he was still in his twenties when he was hired as the editor, he had become a man of considerable experience in journalism and seemed a natural for the position. He had been trained and, more to the point, had trained himself for the role. In Walt Whitman: Song of Himself, Jerome Loving writes, “If a whaling ship was Melville’s Harvard and Yale, Brooklyn and newspaper work were this poet’s university.” The Eagle was the leading paper of Brooklyn, and Whitman possessed not only a deep familiarity with the life of the city and its surroundings but a formidable grasp of the national scene. In Brooklyn, the political forces shaping the nation were intensified and writ large, and he appeared more than happy to play a central role. The paper was steeped in a sense of Brooklyn pride that pitted itself against Manhattan, a pride that exists to this day, and it was a fitting place for Whitman to give unbridled voice to his populist views.
Although he adopted neither extreme in the debate over emancipation, he was anything but indifferent. An undeniable strain of racism ran through his thinking, yet he objected to slavery. He famously wrote, in the preface to Leaves of Grass, “The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots.” But his main preoccupation was not the slaves themselves but the danger of the nationwide crisis over their fate. In the Eagle he came out firmly in support of the Wilmot Proviso, which proposed a ban on slavery’s expansion into the new territories of the West, in a dispute then on everyone’s lips. He wrote, “We must plant ourselves firmly on the side of freedom, and openly espouse it.” The owner of the Eagle, Isaac Van Anden, fell into line when Democratic leaders dropped their support for the proviso. Whitman, never one to back down and always a proud heretic, wrote an editorial in defiance of his boss’s views, and weeks later he was out of a job.
When he turned to writing verse, Whitman found himself stirred by the same fondness for the common people that had motivated his journalism. Whitman had shown little promise in his formulaic earlier poetry, but he let loose in 1855 with a shot across the transom of American literature and America itself—a shot that almost no one initially heard—in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, a series of verses that he would rework and add to for the rest of his life. Nothing in his past would lead a reader to expect the ingenuity and majesty of this work. Leaves was immensely idiosyncratic and original but, as is the case with many drastic artistic departures, it went largely unnoticed—until it began to be widely disparaged. Loving writes that while Whitman was alive, “his poetry was generally reviled, condemned by reviewers as obscene in content, deficient in diction, irregular in rhythm, and absent of rhyme.” The New York Times’s final review of Leaves of Grass, published just after his death, argued that Whitman could not be called “a great poet unless we deny poetry to be an art.”
Whitman, confident though he was, knew he was out on a limb in Leaves of Grass, courting rejection. No imprimatur, no publishing company, no mentor or mainstream advocate lent support to the book. It was “a call in the midst of the crowd,” in Whitman’s own words, written by a journeyman journalist whose career had run aground. It was a profoundly eccentric piece of work, and it was incredibly egotistical. Describing “the greatest poet” in the almost ecstatic preface, Whitman writes, “If he breathes into anything that was before thought small it dilates with the grandeur of life and of the universe.” Whitman’s writings leave no doubt as to who “the greatest poet” was meant to be. The first lines of “Song of Myself,” which opens Leaves of Grass: “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume, you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” It is crucial to see in Leaves of Grass that the tone is both grandiose and inclusive. It invites us into its grandeur, elevating all: “I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself; / They do not know how immortal, but I know.”
Leaves of Grass also represented an alliance forged with the downtrodden and an affront to mainstream mores and art, inaugurating a new, less lofty strain in American poetry. Whitman’s decision to go it alone, his eschewing of rhyme and meter, and his bawdy, indecent material were all of a piece with this resolutely democratic and radical project. The preface advised the reader with disarming directness: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and the sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men.” Whitman’s explicit treatment of sexuality and prostitution and other vulgarities invited and received a steady drumbeat of controversy. One early reviewer called Leaves of Grass a “mass of filth,” and the Boston district attorney suspended publication of the 1881 edition on the grounds that it was illegally obscene. But most brave of all was Whitman’s embrace and exaltation of those explicitly cast off by the world around him.
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the thread that connect the stars—and of wombs, and of the fatherstuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised,
Of fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of dung.
Literature was supposed to be a high and dignified cultural product and thus far in America poetry had restricted itself largely to verses rife with pretty lyricism, sentiment, and pastoral scenes. Major writers nearly all had good educations and came from moneyed backgrounds, and they generally stayed away from “low” subject matter. But here, in Leaves of Grass, was an unstructured, bizarre, vast poem that gloried in baseness: “The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer.” The frontispiece of the book featured a now famous lithograph of Walt Whitman dressed in disheveled workingman’s clothes, his hat tilted, his hand jauntily placed on one hip—Brooklyn’s first literary hipster. Long after Whitman’s death, his friend William Sloane Kennedy would wrinkle his nose at the picture: “It is to be hoped, nevertheless, that this repulsive, loaferish portrait, with its sensual mouth, can be dropped from future editions.” Whitman’s name appeared only twice in the book—once, as Walter Whitman, on the copyright page, and again as the more informal Walt, on page 29, in a delayed introduction to the “I” who has been narrating the poem.
Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual.… eating drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist.… no stander above men and women or apart from them.… no more modest than immodest.
“One of the roughs”—Whitman and Henry David Thoreau regarded each other warily, but Thoreau privately told a close friend that Whitman was “the greatest democrat the world has seen. Kings and aristocracy go by the board at once.”
In the second edition of Leaves, Whitman first published “Sun-Down Poem,” later to be called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” At the time it was written, with no East River bridges yet built, the ferry connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan was at the center of thousands of dull commutes, and the poem recounts the mundane trip. But “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is a work of celebration—not only of the vista of the cityscape above and the sparkling water below, but more crucially of the city’s men and women, of all men and women. The poem is addressed at first to the commuters aboard the ferry, and the voice is eager and full of wonder: “Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me! / On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose.”
And quickly the poem moves to embrace not only those people around Whitman but those who populate the future, whose lives will take place on this same spot on earth, the trace of their movements like overlays on a map: “And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.” Harold Bloom has written, “How could [this poem] change so radically the immemorial covenant of intimate separations between reader and poet?… Whitman’s urgent power is immediacy.” The idea and sentiment of oneness is repeated like an incantation, and magnified. Aboard a ferry that connects Manhattan to Brooklyn, Whitman connects present to future, and above all people to other people. The words of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” are today cut into sheets of steel that surround the Fulton Ferry Landing, at the end of Brooklyn’s Old Fulton Street, where the ferry once departed and arrived.
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Whitman wrote that Leaves of Grass amounted to his observations of New York and Brooklyn and the ordinary people who made up the bulk of their populations. Even more so than it is today, Brooklyn, with its increasing confluence of people of all stripes, was then a microcosm of the nation—a jumble of ethnicities struggling and thriving through the era of industrialization. This confluence would only grow more lively but also more fractious and unforgiving. The character of the place was churning through change in the years following the first editions of Leaves, and Whitman grew concerned. He had generally failed so far to earn the respect of the world of arts and letters through poetry, so he returned to journalism in 1857, at about thirty-eight, assuming the editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Times. He was soon speaking out in editorials against the direction the nation seemed to be taking, and more particularly against the changes afoot in Brooklyn and New York. Manhattan he had referred to ten years earlier as “the vast Gomorrah across the water,” but now Brooklyn, too, came under more criticism. Its main thoroughfares had grown to be home to nearly constant cacophony, at least during the daytime. Crime had become a problem, as had rowdiness and public drunkenness, all of which Whitman decried.
In his Eagle editorials in the 1840s, Whitman had presciently campaigned nearly daily for the creation of a park in Brooklyn—a “lung” to allow it to breathe as it stretched eastward, spreading away from Manhattan across the old farmland, and a place for people of all walks of life to enjoy together. Within a couple of years, what is now Fort Greene Park—Brooklyn’s first, and a predecessor to the great Prospect Park—was established. But crowding continued, and construction struggled to keep pace with the population. Whitman, who retained some of his father’s attachment to the old-fashioned and artisanal, spoke out against the unchecked growth. Brooklyn life had been greatly altered and modernized in 1844 by the arrival of the Long Island Rail Road, which then connected Queens and Brooklyn to Boston and which still runs from Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue out to the tip of Long Island. Whitman lamented, typically, the railroad’s rapid replacement of the wooden farm wagon. Sentimental about the past, he cast a skeptical eye on redevelopment and bemoaned the real estate developers’ “pull-down-and-build-over-again spirit,” the spirit that proclaimed, “Let us level to the earth all the houses that were not built in the last ten years; let us raise the devil and break things!” In the early 1860s he wrote, “Our city grows so fast that there is some danger of the events and incidents of more than ten years gone being totally forgotten.”
He wanted history, and particularly local history, to be recognized and honored. Whitman contended that August 27, 1776, the day his great-uncle and so many other Americans were killed in the Battle of Brooklyn, should be as venerated a day as July 4. He was obsessed with the “Wallabout Martyrs,” the title of one of his late poems and his term for the estimated twelve thousand American prisoners who subsequently died as captives aboard British ships moored off of the Wallabout section of Brooklyn—in Kenneth Jackson’s words “the greatest American tragedy of the eighteenth century.” Whitman wrote:
Greater than memory of Achilles or Ulysses,
More, more by far to thee than tomb of Alexander,
Those cart loads of old charnel ashes, scales and splints of mouldy bones,
Once living men—once resolute courage, aspiration, strength,
The stepping stones to thee to-day and here, America.
During his tenure as editor of the Eagle, Whitman had argued for a memorial to the lost, and his efforts eventually led, after his death, to the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, the world’s tallest Doric column, which stands today in Fort Greene Park.
Around him Whitman increasingly saw corruption and “a general laxity of morals” that “pervades all classes.” His empathy for the masses was being stretched to the limit by the increasingly chaotic nature of urban life. The political battles in the metropolitan area were fierce enough to explode into physical violence, as they did in Manhattan in 1857 when the Dead Rabbits, a gang allied with the Democratic Party, clashed with the nativist Bowery Boys, leaving eight dead and thirty wounded. Later that year, Whitman would write, “Mobs and murderers appear to rule the hour.” Whitman sought, in Leaves of Grass, to channel all voices, to encompass all things—“I am large, I contain multitudes”—and thus, as biographer David Reynolds has suggested, to apply a kind of unity and a healing balm to the republic. If Whitman could say, “I am all people,” implicit was that we were all one people. It was a belief and hope that would be put to the most severe test within a decade of the first Leaves of Grass.
The social ills of the city echoed a looming national crisis. In the late 1850s, Whitman, in a gloomy period, wrote the elegiac poems “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” both of which he added to the 1860 edition of Leaves. In that year, Whitman, ever a self-appointed “seer” and often a very good one, also wrote this line in a poem called “Year of Meteors (1859–60)”: “O year all mottled with evil and good—year of forebodings!” New York was divided over slavery and over Abraham Lincoln, but when the Civil War finally broke out, many Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and northerners generally, including Whitman, welcomed what they saw as a coming cleansing of the nation. At the outset, Whitman watched exultant, blue-clad troops marching through Brooklyn, near where he and his family now lived, on Portland Avenue. The men had ropes tied to their muskets, in his words, “with which to bring back each man a prisoner from the audacious South, to be led in a noose, on our men’s early and triumphant return!” Walt’s brother George went off to war at once. In 1863, writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, his old paper, Walt wrote an article about George’s regiment called “Our Brooklyn Boys in the War.” Full of local pride, it said that in fourteen months the regiment had been in seven pitched battles, “some of them as important as any in American history.” Vague word of George’s injury at Fredericksburg in 1863 drew Walt to the front to find him. The wound was minor, but the sight of the war dead left a strong impression. Soon after, Whitman moved to Washington and, while serving in government jobs, tended to the wounded as a hospital volunteer. Although he envisioned a short stay, he would remain in Washington for ten years.
Over the course of the war, Whitman, who had been opposed to Lincoln’s candidacy in the Illinois Senate race of 1858, emerged as a devout convert. Lincoln became his political hero and probably his utmost hero of all. Whitman felt that Lincoln supplanted George Washington as the true democratic father of the country. Whitman rejoiced at the rise of a man who embodied, he felt, “the commonest average of life—a rail splitter and a flat-boatsman!” Whitman devoted four poems to the president and called him “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” in American life. Whitman’s two most famous Lincoln poems are the celebratory “O Captain! My Captain!” and the grave “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” both published after the president’s death, and added to late editions of Leaves of Grass. Each is bold and emotionally raw, perhaps too much so, moving away from the incantatory hymns of his earlier verses into a tone of exaltation and almost rapturous grief—“But O heart! heart! heart! / O the bleeding drops of red.”
David Reynolds has suggested that Whitman saw not only something of himself in Lincoln but something of the healing “I” that Whitman created in Leaves of Grass, a man who absorbed all and brought union. What Whitman also found captivating was that Lincoln was “essentially non-conventional,” that he embodied the American spirit by taking unpopular positions. He didn’t care if he was the underdog. Often he liked it. And so, too, did Whitman.
After his time in Washington, during which he visited Brooklyn only for short periods, Whitman moved to Camden, New Jersey, where his brother George had settled, taking a room in his house. Now distant both physically and temporally from his farmhouse roots and his father’s working-class struggles in Brooklyn, Whitman became in a certain sense more conservative, as some do in old age. At times he granted that the raffish youth pictured in the lithograph from Leaves of Grass—a thirtysomething firebrand who wrote, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”—was no longer the same man. As his work slowly gained some acceptance and acclaim, he enjoyed the fruits of his work, giving speeches, granting audiences, and generally curating his legacy.
Back home in Brooklyn, the workings of the American republic, though often crooked and halting, were bringing more and more newcomers and an ever-greater frenzy of activity. A bridge was being built, not only a grand bridge across the East River but a bridge to modernity. The Brooklyn Whitman knew as a child was long gone, and the Brooklyn of his pre–Civil War adulthood was fading from memory, too. Yet the democratic spirit Whitman had given voice to and the urge to capture the whole of America would echo down through the decades, continuing to breathe life into the place and its literary tradition.
Copyright © 2011 by Evan Hughes