Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in the farming community of West Hills, Long Island, in western Suffolk County. At the age of three, Whitman was moved to Brooklyn with his family, and it was there that he spent his childhood. While still in his teens, Whitman left the family home in Brooklyn, and spent some five years at several occupations at various locations on Long Island. He served as a schoolteacher, and as writer, editor, and printer for newspapers. During this period he lived and worked in what are now the urban and suburban counties of Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk. At that time, however, this area was rural, with only small scattered villages.
While in his early twenties, Whitman returned to the city, living and working in both Manhattan and Brooklyn as writer, editor, and printer for various newspapers. This was to be his life for the next twenty years until the Civil War brought about his move to Washington, D.C. Probably his most famous post during this period-was his tenure as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle.
By the summer of 1855, Whitman had published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. A second edition appeared the following year, and, in 1860, a third edition. Whitman was forty-two years old and something of a local personage when, on June 8, 1861, the Brooklyn Standard published the first of an unsigned series of his articles to which the newspaper gave the title of Brooklyniana.” …
It is of interest, and useful, to review very briefly some of the major changes in geographical and governmental entities that have taken place since Whitman wrote this work. New York City then included only what are today the Borough of Manhattan and part of the Borough of the Bronx; and, in practice, when these articles were written, “New York City” or “Manhattan” meant lower Manhattan. Manhattan north of Forty-second Street was largely rural. When Whitman wrote these articles, Brooklyn was an independent city, consisting of what are today the Brooklyn Heights, downtown Brooklyn, South Brooklyn, and Williamsburg areas. Kings County—which today comprises New York City’s Borough of Brooklyn—was mostly rural, and, in addition to Brooklyn, contained other, independent communities such as Flatbush and Gravesend. What is today New York City’s Borough of Queens was also rural, with independent communities such as Jamaica and Flushing; and what is today suburban Nassau County did not even exist at that time; it was part of rural Queens County. Nassau County was formed later by splitting the original Queens County into two new counties.
Whitman, though a native of the New York area, loved it and wrote of it with the zeal and zest usually found only in those from elsewhere who have made New York their chosen home [italics added]. One of Whitman’s favorite pastimes was to stroll through the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, observing people, and making new friends. He became an enthusiastic devotee of the opera. And he also enjoyed the natural beauty to be found in the meadows and on the beaches of rural Long Island. In these very articles, Whitman writes with deep affection of both the urban Manhattan-Brooklyn area and of rural Long Island, which he preferred to call by its original Indian name of “Paumanok.”
Yet Whitman did not merely use the New York area for his own pleasure; he was active in civic life. Through his association with newspapers, he encouraged and participated in crusades for social and civic improvement. He fought municipal corruption, working to expose the graft that seemed to flourish continually in every municipal department and every municipal enterprise. He was in the forefront of those defending what has become New York City’s collection of beautiful parks, helping to fight off the real-estate speculators of the day. And hospitals were a special interest of Whitman’s; he made particular efforts to publicize the services and needs of worthy hospitals.
All these activities are, of course, generally of the conventional “good government” variety—but some of Whitman’s other civic views were less conventional. He was a strong critic of the law-enforcement, judicial, and penal systems as they were applied against the outcasts of society such as the prostitutes. It appalled Whitman to see the prostitutes of the city abused by brutal police and sanctimonious politicians who themselves were notoriously corrupt. Whitman also was a sharp critic of the hypocrisy he found among the clergy of the city.
Political activity of his day centered upon three parties—the Democrats, the Republicans, and the “Know-Nothings,” more formally referred to as the Native American Party. The Democratic Party was split into two factions. The “Old Hunkers” were conservative Democrats, strongly pro-business, and pro-slavery. They were opposed within the party by progressive Democrats who were anti-slavery and who advocated greater social and economic democracy. Whitman was an active member of this latter faction, even serving as an official delegate to various Democratic Party conventions and gatherings.
Indeed, Whitman was a very active citizen, serving his city in a variety of ways. And it should be kept in mind that when Whitman wrote this work—articles dealing with Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island—he had spent his entire life in this region, excepting only a brief stay in New Orleans. Interestingly, his best journalism on the subject of New York regional history came just at the time that the approach of the Civil War already had begun to disrupt and transform the region and the entire nation. In regard to Whitman personally, it is perhaps ironic that, so soon after he sang the praises of the New York area in this work, he was destined to leave this region of his birth and youth.
Whitman went to the Washington, D.C., area in December of 1862 in search of a brother in the Union Army who had been reported as wounded in action. He found his brother, only slightly wounded, safe in one of the Union camps. Thereafter, Whitman turned to visiting the Washington hospitals, seeking out wounded soldiers from the New York area. Whitman was so affected by his experiences in Washington hospitals that he undertook volunteer, unpaid nursing service there. Remaining in Washington, Whitman accepted a clerkship in the Federal government, giving all his spare time to the hospitals and to his writing. He was to spend the next ten years in Washington, and his final twenty years in Camden, New Jersey, where he died on March 26, 1892, at the age of seventy-two.
Whitman’s New York years not only constituted his formative period but also comprised the greater part of his life. The first forty-two of Whitman’s seventy-two years were spent in the New York area. It was in this region that he formed his philosophy of life and art—in short, the ideas and the style that distinguish his writings. This work is tangible evidence of the deep affection with which Whitman regarded the New York area, and the significance he attached to its history and traditions.
— Walt Whitman’s New York: From Manhattan to Montauk, edited by Henry M. Christman
— posted by Roger W. Smith
Your post enriched my knowledge of Walt Whitman, especially the New York of his day, the vibrant energy of New York that drove Whitman.