For reasons independent of his poetry, Walt Whitman is enjoying a resurgence. During Breaking Bad’s final season, he improbably played a major plot point. Then, out of nowhere, a story surfaced that Oscar Wilde and Whitman had been intimate — on “thee and thou terms,” according to Whitman — during Wilde’s 1882 visit to America. Among 19th century poets, there’s little question Whitman owned the second half of 2013.
But Greater New York City has loved Whitman for a while. I live on the Queens-Long Island border, and both the City and the Island make various claims to the bard. Long Island is not bashful about reminding you that Whitman was born there. Near his birthplace, which announces itself as a “fine example of native Long Island craftsmanship,” you will find Walt Whitman High School and Walt Whitman Shops (formerly known, and still referred to, as Walt Whitman Mall).
Whitman eventually left Long Island for New York City, a move NYC cannot forget. Indeed, you would be forgiven for thinking Whitman ever lived anywhere else. Brooklyn offers Walt Whitman Library, Walt Whitman Park and Walt Whitman Houses, which look exactly like every other dispiriting redbrick city project (no fine native craftsmanship here).
But my favorite Whitman homage is farther south, at the Walt Whitman Service Area of the New Jersey Turnpike. Whitman died in New Jersey, and that was enough for Cherry Hill. People who feel compelled to comment on rest stops via social media are aware of Whitman’s legacy. Mike B. (Yelp) admiringly quotes, “Know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls,” and Matthew T. (Foursquare) suggests that “America’s great poet would be incredibly disheartened with the state of these restrooms.”
When I was in high school — not, sadly, Walt Whitman High School — I worked at a now-extinct independent bookstore from which I ordered an unabridged Leaves of Grass. Assured I would become a writer and viewing Whitman as a predecessor, I made it my duty to sit in spiky abandoned parks and read the book from beginning to end. Unabridged Leaves of Grass is long. My bookmark is still there. I made it to page 218. A sample line of verse: “I see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly as it pours in the great sea.”
The reason I chose Whitman is obscure to me today. I had both predictable (Kerouac) and unpredictable (Pynchon) adolescent tastes, but I don’t know where Whitman fits on the scale. Everybody reads “Song of Myself,” which makes sense because “Song of Myself” is pretty great. In college, I made a habit of defending internally inconsistent or plainly duplicitous comments with “I am large, I contain multitudes.” I was not alone. I remember a teaching assistant detailing his conversion from Modernism to Whitman with the excitement and incredulity of a teenager moving backward from Led Zeppelin to Robert Johnson. There’s something about Whitman.
Alan Singer, professor of teaching, literacy and leadership at Hofstra University, teaches Whitman from a historical perspective, using his poems to instruct students about what it was once like to live in New York.
“He’s probably the best historical commentator of the 19th century,” Singer told me in a recent phone conversation. Although most of Singer’s students come from Long Island, where Whitman’s name is ubiquitous, they know almost nothing about the man. “They know he was a poet, more from Dead Poet’s Society than anything else.”
Singer justly admires “I Hear America Singing,” in which Whitman hears the songs of mechanics, carpenters, masons, boatmen, shoemakers, hatters, woodcutters, ploughboys, mothers and daughters. Whitman’s verse is democratic in a way that poetry almost never is. There’s a good chance you’ve read or at least heard of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” or “I Sing the Body Electric” or “O Captain! My Captain!” or “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” or “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Not only did Whitman write a lot, but he also wrote about a lot of different people — laborers and soldiers and prostitutes — with a generous and knowing voice. Whitman’s inclusivity earned him controversy during his life, as he faced various charges of obscenity, particularly for his earnest depictions of sexuality. While such controversy contributed to his fame, it makes him an unlikely inspiration for a mall.
Walt Whitman Shops is nice. It has an Apple Store and Brooks Brothers and Pottery Barn — soon it will have Pottery Barn Kids. There is no bookstore. The people walking around Walt Whitman Shops look happily bored and moneyed and, often, unapologetically Long Island (e.g. animal prints, big hair).
Walt Whitman Shops also has a surprisingly large statue of Whitman — at least, I think the statue is of Whitman. During my visit, the statue was covered in a giant black tarp, making it look as though he were about to be kidnapped rather than unveiled. When I asked the clerk at Banana Republic (160 Walt Whitman Road) about this, she admitted she didn’t know whom the statue represented, though she agreed Whitman made sense. All she’d been able to see was a shoe. Because they were 30 percent off, I bought a pair of Emerson vintage straight chinos.
Emerson! Whitman didn’t have a bigger advocate. In a letter to Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson called Leaves of Grass the “most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” Emerson was a big deal; you probably don’t have pants named after you for nothing. Knowing a blurb when he saw it, Whitman incorporated Emerson’s praise into subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, which actually pissed Emerson off a little.
The iconic image of Whitman, which he had printed on the cover of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, remains cool. You might have seen it. He has one hand on his hip, and his shirt is a little open, and his head is a little tilted, and he’s wearing a black hat, which is also a little titled, and he generally looks like he thinks he’s hot shit. If ever a place celebrated attitude, it’s New York. If you’re wondering why there aren’t malls named after Louise Glück, this might have something to do with it.
Cynthia Shor, executive director of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association on Long Island, finds it curious that so many businesses want to use Whitman’s name, pointing out that Walt Whitman Fence Company worked on the poet’s birthplace. Nevertheless, she believes Whitman would enjoy the attention, calling him a self-promoter. “We feel he would be very pleased,” Shor said. “He enjoyed having his name out there.”
The principal of Walt Whitman High School didn’t get back to me, and it felt weird just stopping by a high school as a grown man, so I don’t know what she thinks of Whitman’s legacy. Their literary magazine is called Xanadu, which feels like a bit of a burn, though I could see how Whitman fatigue might set in. Go Wildcats.
People like liking Whitman. The best of his ideals are timeless, if sometimes fuzzy, and those eager to apply theory to his work will find something. He really did contain multitudes: His poems may resonate more widely today than they did in his own time. He is the least exclusionary writer I have read. This is “Among the Multitude”:
Philip Levine might come closest to Whitman’s attention to the everyman among contemporary poets, though Levine’s everyman is more consistent than Whitman’s. Levine speaks for people who don’t often appear in poems, and for that he deserves credit, but nobody speaks for as many people as Whitman. It’s possible that the incredible diversity of New York finds greater recognition in Whitman than in most places, let alone poems.
“I think Whitman had a celebratory nature,” Shor told me. “He celebrated Americans. He celebrated democracy. He thought we were a wonderful nation.”
I understand that poetry’s present role in the zeitgeist is slight. The naiveté of thinking that many New Yorkers read Whitman after the 12th grade does not escape me. Yet people keep naming things after him. The other day I saw his name on a convenience store and was reminded of Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” where Ginsberg imagines running into Whitman: “I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?”
Very occasionally an American poet means something to a place or culture beyond his or her poetry. This doesn’t diminish the poetry’s resonance, actual or potential. People associate Robert Frost with roads not taken and apples and John F. Kennedy. A Google search of “Robert Frost Mall” might not produce much, but that doesn’t mean Bennington won’t get there. Frost already has a middle school on Long Island.
Last November, the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association hosted a poetry festival featuring, among others, Kim Addonizio, Paul Muldoon and former poet laureate Robert Pinsky (via video address). Readings were held at Whitman’s house and mall. The capstone event was attended to capacity.