O Whitman! Our Whitman!
St. Francis Celebrates Walt Whitman’s 198th Birthday
Today, on the birthday of Walt Whitman, St. Francis College will sponsor a reception and walking tour to celebrate the poet’s 198th birthday.
Whitman, a poet, essayist, journalist and one-time editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York. Whitman may not have been born in Brooklyn, but he is inextricably forever linked to the borough through his essays and poetry, especially “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which was written years before the existence of the Brooklyn Bridge.
And in his later years, Whitman wrote about watching the bridge being built from his print shop in Brooklyn Heights. In his 1876 poem “Song of the Exposition,” he wrote, “These triumphs of our time, the Atlantic’s delicate cable, The Pacific railroad, the Suez canal, the Mont Cenis and Gothard and Hoosac tunnels, the Brooklyn Bridge, This earth all spann’d with iron rails…”
Whitman was the second of nine children born to Walter and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. The family moved to Brooklyn when Whitman was 4 years old. The house he lived in was at 99 Ryerson St. in Clinton Hill, not far from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
In fact, they were some of his most productive years, as he was living in the borough in 1855, the year his masterpiece “Leaves of Grass” was first published.
Whitman learned the printing trade before becoming a teacher in the one-room school houses in Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he decided to pursue a career in journalism. He started a weekly newspaper called the Long-Islander, before taking over as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, which he edited from 1846 to 1848.
When first published in 1855, “Leaves of Grass” was a small volume that consisted of 12 poems. Whitman continued to build and expand upon the work through the years. In 1856 it was revised and republished with 20 poems, and revised again in 1860, 1867 and so on.
After the first publication of “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman endured financial difficulties and was forced to work as a journalist again. In 1857, he joined Brooklyn’s Daily Times, where he served as an editor overseeing the paper’s contents, writing book reviews and editorials.
Whitman’s unique and varied career also included stints as a nurse during the Civil War years. After moving to Washington, D.C. in 1862 to care for a brother who was wounded in the war, Whitman decided to stay and help out in the hospitals where he would remain for the next 11 years.
He took a job as a clerk for the Department of Interior, but was ultimately fired when then Secretary of the Interior James Harlan found out that Whitman had written the controversial “Leaves of Grass.” He found the work offensive because of its brutal frankness and overt sexual themes.
Whitman suffered a stroke in 1873 and was forced to move from Washington to live with his brother in Camden, New Jersey. He stayed with his brother until he was able to buy his own home in 1884. He died on March 26, 1892 from bronchial pneumonia.
But Brooklyn has never forgotten Whitman’s incredible legacy. After all, in his iconic work “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman wrote “I too lived —Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine.” And we in Brooklyn are proud to say that one of the greatest poets who ever lived was ours.
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The Walt Whitman Project and St. Francis College will sponsor a reception and free Brooklyn Heights walking tour to celebrate the 198th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth on Wednesday, May 31 beginning at 6 p.m. at St. Francis College.
The tour, led by Greg Trupiano, artistic administrator of The Walt Whitman Project, follows in the steps of Brooklyn’s greatest poet and explores locations significant to Whitman’s life.
Performers will read and sing from Whitman and other sources to give a better understanding of the poet and mid-19th century Brooklyn.
The tour includes stops at the sites of:
The Rome Brothers Print Shop (where Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” was first printed in 1855)
The Brooklyn Eagle (where the author was editor in the mid-1840s)
Fulton Ferry (inspiration for Whitman’s great poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”), and more
The event begins with a reception of light refreshments at 6 p.m. in the St. Francis College Callahan Center. The tour runs from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. through Brooklyn Heights. The event is free but limited to 30 participants. In case of rain, a virtual tour will take place indoors at St. Francis.
For more information, go to waltwhitmanproject.org
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