Walt Whitman And His New York Love Affair

Walt Whitman

Photo: Mathew Brady (Public Domain) see below

For over a century and a half, literary critics and historians have speculated and debated the topic of Walt Whitman’s romantic life. Whatever his preferences were, his love affair with America, most particularly New York, eclipsed all. His passion for New York City brilliantly reflected in his poems is shared by many.

Walter Whitman was born in West Hills, Huntington Long Island on May 31, 1819. He was the second child in a family of nine to his parents Walter Whitman and his mother Louisa Whitman.  His family in prior generations owned vast tracts of farmland. However, by the time Walter and Louise started their large family, the family farmland was sold. Long Island offered few employment prospects, so the family moved to Brooklyn. Walter Whitman’s father was an idealist much like his poet son and spent years trying to rebuild the family’s wealth through real estate speculation, carpentry and a host of other jobs. As plan after plan to recoup the family fortune failed, the father became cynical and world-weary, turning to alcohol for comfort.  Walt, his son, adopted his mother’s sunny outlook on life and refused to let anything like a lack of educational opportunity, harsh living conditions or family responsibilities defeat him.

Being the second oldest, Walt was taken out of school at age eleven to work as an office messenger. Walt loved to read and write and found his way literally into the back door of publishing as a printer’s apprentice. At fourteen years old he became a journeyman printer, which would come in handy for his later foray into self-publishing.

Like many aspiring writers, Walt Whitman did a stint as a schoolteacher in various schools on Long Island. However, Whitman was little more than a substitute, shuffling from school to school. He began his teaching career at seventeen and quit five years later to devote his time to a career in journalism. His first thought was to start his own paper “The Long Islander” which folded quickly due to lack of financial backing.  Never a quitter, Walt Whitman returned to Brooklyn and became the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. His stint as a newspaper man lasted only two years due to editorial differences.  Whitman refused to do things the “proper way” or check his eccentric behavior for the sake of a paycheck.  Number 28 Old Fulton Street, the site of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, is now The Eagle Warehouse and Storage Company. The area has gone through many incarnations and renovations and is now a condo complex. The building bears a plaque dedicated to Walt Whitman. New York paranormal buffs claim his ghost still roams the building, although considering that other New York haunts factor more prominently in his story, this is debatable.

Walt Whitman’s masterpiece “Leaves of Grass.” went through many editions with revisions and expansions along the way.  Anyone who has picked up a current copy of “Leaves of Grass.” will find it a formidable, yet fascinating read. The first printing in 1855 was a slim pamphlet. In 1856, Whitman brought out a new edition with the addition of “Sun Down Poem,” which we know now as the popular “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”  This poem says so much about New York during that era. You could not simply stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan; you had to take a ferry ride.

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is a poem for New Yorkers past and present.  The poet speaks of the travelers now and hundreds of years in the future. He talks of the surge of humanity, all of us continuing to work and thrive. The ferry becomes, in Whitman’s verse, a metaphor for life’s journey.

During the mid-19th century, the world was changing. Transcendentalist thought the idea that humans should seek to communicate with nature, to expand our horizons, to conquer our fears was in full effect.  Railway travel opened new vistas for those with wanderlust. For those living in New York, the ever-changing skyline and endless entertainment was an adventure of its own. Walt Whitman loved to attend the opera, comedy performances and dramatic plays when he had the price of a ticket in his pocket.

Walt Whitman subverted the image of the writer sitting alone in a loft, pencil in hand. He was jotting down ideas and observations as he moved among the throngs of New Yorkers. Walt Whitman saw poetry in the women hanging wash, men in suits traveling to work, the old and the new immigrants. He did not move in the company of socialites, nor did he aspire to a great position.  After being fired from the Eagle, Whitman in 1858 was a self-published writer struggling to get reviews. To while away the time and make connections, he often frequented Pfaff’s Café, at 653 Broadway.

The years 1858 to 1860 were lean years for Walt Whitman.  Despite being known as a colorful character, he was quite broke and was living back in Brooklyn with his mother. Pfaff’s Café, and most notably the “long table.” located in the anteroom of the saloon was his escape. It was six miles to his home in Brooklyn to Pfaff’s and Whitman wore out lots of shoe leather and spent time adding up to untold hours riding back and forth on the Ferry. Those two years, which could have led to despondency for another writer, became Whitman’s most prolific period.  He would jot notes as he traveled, weaving the sights and sounds of the hurly-burly metropolis into gorgeous verse.

The “barfly years.” for Walt Whitman, unemployed and down on his luck, led to connections he would not have made editing news stories. At Pfaff’s Cafe. he hobnobbed with other unique New Yorkers such as comedians, poets, rebels, singers, and novelists.  It was a refuge where he could be his authentic self, read his poetry aloud, and bask in the warmth of fellowship over foaming mugs of beer. Heading up the group was a man known as Henry Clapp Jr. the self-styled “King of Bohemia” who also published “The Saturday Press,” which was a weekly local paper which was gaining a solid readership. Henry Clapp Jr. was also a former leader of the temperance movement, who evidently decided that having a drink with like-minded fellows was more fun than trying to dry out New York City.

Although Walt Whitman was not publishing during those years, he was composing new poems and editing his existing manuscripts. By 1860, Whitman added over 150 poems to “Leaves of Grass.” During that time, he heard from the Boston publishing firm of William Wilde Thayer and Charles W. Eldridge, asking if he were ready to release the third edition of his poems.  With no job and plenty of completed work on hand, Walt Whitman agreed.

Walt Whitman also had a helping hand from his bar buddy, Henry Clapp, who promoted his pal’s work through “The Saturday Press.” Word of mouth soon spread about the newly released third edition of “Leaves of Grass,” not all of its praise. New York, although cosmopolitan compared to the rest of America, was not at all ready for the sensuous imagery and homoerotic overtones, particularly found in one of his most quoted poems “Song of Myself.”  The poet was revered by many, dismissed as a hack by more than a few and literally hated by religious zealots.

Walt Whitman never completely got journalism out of his system as he covered Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Address and the article was published in several local newspapers.

The Civil War hit close to home for Walt Whitman as nearly every American family at the time. New Yorkers, new immigrant and longtime resident alike were enlisting and being drafted to fight the Northern Cause.  George Whitman, Walt’s brother, enlisted in the 51st New York Volunteer Infantry. He was injured so brother Walt traveled to Washington to check on him in person. There he did a stint to help the war effort as a nurse, traveling to battlefields to care for the wounded.  He also used his literary skills to help wounded soldiers write letters home to loved ones.

Whitman’s Civil War poems, particularly “Drum Taps” which captured the fears, hope and horror of the Civil War. Walt idolized Abraham Lincoln and wrote “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!” in his honor.

In addition to memorial sites in Brooklyn, Walt Whitman is an icon in his birthplace of West Hills, Long Island where everything from high schools to shopping malls bears his name.  Although Whitman moved to New Jersey for his final years, New York was his stomping ground. New York is where the flow of city life ordinary people and images of that time, gave birth to extraordinary poetry that catches fire in our imagination and moves our hearts today. In 2011 Pfaff’s reopened at 643 Broadway and Bleeker St. as a vintage style pub but closed again shortly after. Still, anywhere in New York where poets, actors, and other dreamers gather reconstitutes the spirit of the Long Table where Whitman and his friends, read verse, sang songs, and contemplated life.


Photo Credit:  National Archives Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, 1921 – 1940 Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985. (Public Domain)

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