The most famous native of Suffolk County is Walt Whitman — much of whose work was closely tied to his birthplace.
“Starting from the fish-shape Paumanok, where I was born,” he wrote in “Leaves of Grass.” (He always referred to Long Island by its Native American name.) From here, he related, “I strike up a New World.”
In a poem titled “Paumanok,”Whitman sang: “Sea beauty! strech’d and basking! One side thy inland ocean laving, broad, with copious commerce, steamers, sails, And one of the Atlantic’s wind caressing, fierce or gentle—mighty hulls dark-gliding in the distance. Isle of sweet brooks of drinking-water—healthy air and soil! Isle of the salty shore and breeze and brine.”
This year has seen more attention to Walt Whitman in these parts — notably in connection with the anniversary of his birthday.
Canio’s Cultural Café of Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor held a “Walt Whitman Marathon” — an all-day reading of “Leaves of Grass.”
There have been special events at the house in which Walt Whitman was born in West Hills (now Huntington Station) on May 31, 1819.
Riverhead residents and Suffolk County Green Party activists Ian and Kimberly Wilder, lovers of poetry and nature, have proposed making his birthday a national holiday.
Kimberly Wilder, a teacher, wrote in an essay on the Wilders’ website, OntheWilderSide.com:
“Walt Whitman was born close to me in West Hills … For me Whitman has become a touchstone for something more than beautiful poetry. I first discovered Walt Whitman for myself when he was quoted in a sermon in an interfaith church in Virginia. Then a bookstore colleague of mine read with me from ‘Leaves of Grass,’ and I was awakened to this powerful voice of self, universe, and nature, combined. Since then, I have come to realize Whitman’s amazing gifts as a poet, as political figure, as reshaper of language, as loving brother, and as a complicated and beautiful a person who ever lived.”
“Whitman’s sense of self and poetry are effused with a love and connection to nature,” Kimberly went on. And, she emphasized: “Whitman credited this constant backdrop of Long Island’s pulsing waters for the subtle rhythm in the new poetic language he invented. And as a good transcendentalist, he had a genuine passion for the sea, the sun, and the earth over material goods.”
On a Walt Whitman national birthday celebration, she said, “every person and business (especially those on Long Island) should observe 15 minutes of silence. We could stop mowing our lawns, stop driving our cars, click off our cellphones, turn off all buzzes and drones of machinery, and just listen to the silence that enfolds us again in the embrace of nature.”
At Canio’s on May 20, the Friday eve preceding the “marathon” reading of “Leaves of Grass” the next day, William T. Walter, president of the board of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, gave a presentation on “Walt Whitman on Long Island.”
I have been to the Walt Whitman Birthplace—indeed years ago, on the first of the “Long Island World” series of programs I hosted on WLIW-TV/21, I began at the birthplace, with shots of its inside and outside, photos of Whitman, words from “Leaves of Grass” read by my late friend Richard Cummings of Bridgehampton, and then jumped to what is now Walt Whitman Mall just a few blocks away. The lilting words of Whitman were replaced by the cacophony of noise emanating from Walt Whitman Mall. This TV program was about change on Long Island.
But until listening to Dr. Walter at Canio’s I really didn’t have a grasp about Whitman on Long Island. Dr. Walter, who since 1980 has been involved with the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, which operates the state-owned official historic site, explained how Whitman was of the fifth generation of his family in the Town of Huntington. Coming to the town just 15 years after it was established in 1653 was Joseph Whitman.
Whitman’s father, Walter — his son was also named Walter but “referred to as Walt to avoid confusion,” said Dr. Walter—“didn’t want to be a farmer” like those in the generations before him. “He wanted to be a carpenter.” But ultimately there was “not much of a market” in then lightly populated Huntington, said Dr. Walter, so the family moved to Brooklyn where
Whitman went to school for a while, then apprenticed as an “office boy” and also in a print shop. And he was back in Suffolk County in 1838 starting “his own newspaper” in Huntington, the Long Islander, which is still published.
This, the beginning of Dr. Walter’s presentation, just skims the surface of Dr. Walter’s fascinating talk. The Wilders (Ian is deputy director of Long Island Housing Services) are right. We should have an annual celebration on Walt Whitman’s birthday and learn more about his colorful life and brilliant, extraordinary poetry, words that changed the world of poetry.
Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.
Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.
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