I'm having one of my periodic rediscoveries of Walt Whitman, American's world class poet. Reading about Whitman's time (his dates are 1819-92) has given me a new perspective on the 19th century, and a local one. For somebody who grew up on Long Island, it tickles some unexpected need to see in imagination at least what Long Island and the surrounds -- Brooklyn, then its own municipality, and Manhattan, then beginning to swarm with industry and people -- looked like.
The book these word pictures come from is revealingly titled "Walt Whitman's American: A Cultural Biography" by David S. Reynolds.
The book is a biography of the poet, but also of the times. Literary history, it turns out, is everybody's history. Is anything more interesting, to some part of our mind at least -- then looking back at where we came from? So many Americans find an interest in genealogy, tracing their ancestors. America's cultural history is all our genealogy. It's how we became who we are.
Whitman, who actually did most of his growing up in Brooklyn, was born on a family farm near the geographic center of Long Island, an area then called West Hills (near the border today of Huntington and Smithtown), which served as a traveler's hub in the early 19th century. The Whitman family roots on Long Island went back to 1640. His father moved the family back and forth from Brooklyn to farms in what we now call 'Long Island' -- Nassau and Suffolk counties. Walt developed a strong affection for both places.
Whitman was born, as Reynolds puts it, "at the very heart of Long Island," halfway down the 125-mile length from Manhattan to Montauk Point. The island is fish-shaped -- the two east-end forks resembling the fish's tail fin.
In his poetry, and his mindset, Reynolds tells us, Long Island stands for nature: "...rambling in lanes and country fields, Paumanok's fields," Whitman writes, using an Indian name for Long Island. His birthplace was close to Jayne's Hill, the highest spot on the island, from which you could see the Atlantic on a clear day.
While Long Island stood for nature, farm life, and family history for the poet, Manhattan represented business, money, and the cultural opportunities of urban life. Whitman loved the city too. For years his daily routine included walking up and down Broadway -- America's first cosmopolitan avenue -- when the city's development stopped at 34th Street (mere "lower Manhattan" today). Farther north were fields, farms, and estates.
In between, Brooklyn represented something more like village life. Brooklyn was known as the city of churches; nothing taller broke the skyline than church spires. The city's dramatic 19th century development is a forgotten American epic. In 1810, Reynolds' book tells us, the population numbered 4,000. By 1855 when Whitman was writing his great poems there, Brooklyn was the country's fourth largest city with a population over 200,000. But life there was brutally "primitive" in the early decades of the 19th century. No municipal water or sewage, no central heating. Water was drawn from street pumps, the way Moses got it in Egypt. Refuse was thrown into the gutter.
At age four, when Whitman's father brought his family to Brooklyn to go into business as a house builder, you could stand on Brooklyn Heights and see across Manhattan to the Jersey Shore. Pigs and chickens owned the roads, rooting for garbage thrown into unpaved streets that turned to mud in the winter. The first gas lighting came in 1828. Until then you could step outside your door and look at the stars, but if you had to go anywhere after dark you needed a lantern. The population suffered cholera epidemics. With no water supply system, fires burned out of control. Big trees shaded streets that turned into country lanes. Some of the farmers spoke Dutch.
Reynolds quotes Whitman on the differences between these three cultural zones essential to his upbringing: Long Island was "fertile, beautiful, well-watered" and boasted plenty of timber. Manhattan was "rocks, bare, bleak without anything to recommend it except situation for commercial purposes without rival in the world." Brooklyn, in between, had both beauty and location close to the action of commerce.
In those days you got to Manhattan, where Whitman spent much of his young manhood working as a printer, then a writer and editor of newspapers, by a 15-minute ferry. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," his iconic poem of 19th American urban life, takes off from the original commute (the most universal of urban experiences)
The poem has seen revived attention since it gave the title to the new, recently produced opera about Whitman's life, "Crossing," by Matthew Aucoin. The opera is set during Whitman's life as a devoted hospital visitor in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, but relies on the poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" for its evocation of the world Whitman came from.
We all come from somewhere. These three places essential to Walt Whitman's 19th century America, Long Island, Manhattan and Brooklyn, had changed beyond recognition by the time many of us were born and grew up in this region in the middle of the twentieth century. And they have gone on changing since then.
But a region's genealogy tells us something -- about ourselves and about the world. These places, fertile Long Island, Brooklyn with its many neighborhoods, Manhattan the commercial engine of an endlessly reinvented metropolis, remain vibrant settings for the American drama. Which is also -- Whitman's genius recognized this essential point -- the universal drama of life on earth. In lines from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" that are incorporated into the opera "Crossing," he writes:
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 you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.