Brooklyn Heights Casino celebrates Walt Whitman at age 198
Walt Whitman’s May 8 birthday party (his actual birthday falls on the 31st) was a reading officiated by Nate Chura. Nate is the moderator of The Heights Casino Speakers Program, in addition to his career as a professional tennis player and writer.
Chura began by describing Whitman as a “descendant of burly settlers on Long Island,” though Whitman’s family relocated to Brooklyn for much of his childhood. Upon leaving school there at age 12, Whitman began his career in print. He later became a teacher and founded The Long Islander newspaper before becoming editor of the Brooklyn Eagle in 1846, only to leave two years later over political differences.
Whitman originally dreamed up his epic American poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” to be small enough to carry in a pocket and read in the open air. The book appeared in a modestly self-published run of 800 in 1855, but Whitman would continue to revise and expand “Leaves” until near his death in 1892.
After one of Whitman’s brothers (he had nine siblings) emerged wounded from the Civil War, he was compelled to move to Washington, D.C. to volunteer at a hospital there. While there, Whitman secured a job at the Department of the Interior, one he eventually lost after “Leaves of Grass” shocked the Secretary of the Interior. After his dismissal, Whitman spent the rest of his days in Camden, N.J.
Chura was joined in reading selections from “Leaves of Grass” by an impressive showing from the local literary community including New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante; Edward Joyce, investor in the recently opened Books Are Magic; novelist Malcolm MacKay; Saint Ann’s teacher Howard Garrett; novelist Dirk Wittenborn; and actress Amy Ryan.
The night included some words of advice for President Donald Trump, conveniently written into Whitman’s prescient poetry. His short poem “To a President” begins “All you are doing and saying is to America dangled mirages.” Whitman also included these choice lines on immigration and equality for all in “I Sing the Body Electric”:
“Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off,
just as much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.
“Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float,
and the soil is on the surface, and water runs and vegetation sprouts,
For you only, and not for him and her?”
Asked whether Whitman holds particular poignancy for New Yorkers, Chura said, “I think he speaks the truth and common sense without sensor, without guilt, unapologetically, and that is a typical New York quality.”
The Speakers Program at the Heights Casino is designed to bring its audience in contact, salon style, with thinkers and writers. “I think readings like this are very important to our culture, now more than ever,” Chura told the Brooklyn Eagle, “because the experience is not transmitted through a screen, or even the divide of a proscenium.
“It’s simple, and as a result even more profound. Thinking man needs this as much as water, even if they don’t know it yet. Words read aloud from masters like Whitman breathe oxygen into the blood and nourish the body and mind in extraordinary ways.”
Actress Amy Ryan delivered what is perhaps Whitman’s best-known poem, “I Sing the Body Electric”. With fierce sincerity, Ryan recited invocations of one’s lovers and a love letter to all of us humans. “I Sing the Body Electric” only gains power when encountered in speech, emanating from the body of another.
At a posthumous 198 years old, Whitman remains radical in his humanist embrace of democracy and his conviction that the relationship between a poet and society is a vital one. To Whitman’s readers and to the poetry he left behind, in his own words, “Every year shall you bloom again.”
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