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bowne & co. stationers

live, from new york…

            Days speed by, tasks and pleasures come and go, events and appointments and happenings happen— all is flashes and specks, as Whitman writes– but time must slow down to accommodate my deliberations over these weekly entries.   It’s simultaneously frustrating and freeing to give this ongoing adventure a sense of order and development…  always and ever the question, where to begin?  How far back do I need to go, patient reader, to make this narrative understandable and interesting to you? 

            Last week, I got stuck on the technicalities of setting up my first blog.  It is time to explain myself… let us stand up, Walt!  We’ll go back to the place we first met, and explain our blog title (or the first half, at least).

            New York City is my hometown, and the absolute center of my heart’s geography.   My love for Whitman and his work comes from many places, but most directly from our shared love of this one place (or several places, depending upon how you feel about Brooklyn’s “big mistake” to become a borough of NYC in 1898).  Both of us were “born” here (in the literary sense for Walt; in the literal sense of the word for myself), first sang on the (omni)buses and swam in its waters (no kidding); we both find the best of what civilization can accomplish on its streets—always and ever new identities meanings signs curiosities faces pageants smells visions fears hopes love.   Both of us, I think, found something spiritual in its raw and undeniable physicality.  And so when I teach a class on Whitman, I find that I must take my students out of the classroom and into New York to answer the big question:  how did Walter Whitman—second son of a carpenter, grammar school dropout and sometime penny daily hack writer—become Walt Whitman?   It’s my belief that “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son” was indeed the product of his immediate environment and experience; and it is my aim to introduce my students to a real New Yorker in his beloved Brooklyn and Manhattan, and to have them see, hear, and sense the urban setting that transformed a sensitive young man into America’s greatest poet.  The open road of his poetry is, in fact, the city street—and we explore this idea through texts as well as walking tours.

            Consider, for example, some of the out-of-doors learning experiences shared by us in “American Literature and Culture: Whitman and New York”, a Columbia University summer class that I’ve taught for nine years running.  Summer ’09 in NYC has been blissfully cooler and less humid than we’re used to in the Big Apple, which may help account for how relaxed and comfortable we look here (at a good two hours into a three-hour tour).  After visiting the site of the Rome brothers’ printing shop (where Walt helped set up the type for the groundbreaking first edition of Leaves of Grass), we visited the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, the First Unitarian Church, and the Brooklyn Historical Society before taking in the spectacular view of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

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            “There may be finer views in the world, but I don’t believe it,” Abraham Lincoln said of this spot in 1864—and here’s my hearty second to this beloved scene!  It’s the best not just because these are my Whitmaniacs (and yes, you guys know that I think you’re the best), not just because of the view of Whitman’s Mannahatta, East River, Governor’s Island (Nutten Island to him), the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge, but because this view is enabled and empowered by the community spirit Whitman himself represented here in Brooklyn.  In the 1940s, when Robert Moses proposed running the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through this very spot, Brooklyn Heights residents opposed him… and won!  The highway now roars below the cantilevered promenade, while walkers, rollerbladers, and bikers take in this magnificent, car-free cityscape.  What’s more, the Brooklyn Ice Cream factory (another New York “best”) is a ten-minute stroll away, and thanks to the generosity of Columbia’s summer session staff (yo Richard!), we’re all about to be treated to a free cone.

            On another fine July afternoon, we ventured down to Manhattan’s Newspaper Row area, where Walt earned his chops as an editor and reporter in the 1840s and ‘50s.  This walk begins at City Hall Park, where the Croton Fountain still dances 167 years after Walt and his brother watched water leap from it for the first time (thus inaugurating the city’s Croton water supply, and its first taste of running water).  We meander down Fulton Street—still a busy commercial drag, as it was in Whitman’s time—and knock on the quaint wooden door of 211 Water Street.  The man who opens it may strike you as a beardless version of Walt in his prime—and, in fact, his hands were indeed featured as Whitman’s in the recent PBS broadcast, “The American Experience: Walt Whitman.”  I’m pleased to introduce a dear friend Robert Warner, Master Printer of Bowne & Co. Stationers (a working letterpress printing office that has been skillfully outfitted and designed to resemble a job shop of Walt’s day).   A prolific and ingenious artist in his own right, Robert also creates and prints chapbooks, broadsides, and cards using period equipment, imagery and type.  He graciously provides my students with a hands-on introduction to letterpress printing; they thus have the opportunity to try their hands at the task that inspired the young Walter to first fall in love with language.  Jose is a far cry from the grammar school dropout that Whitman was, when he began his printing apprenticeship, but he can get a real sense of what the 13-year old Walt did each day—and  where the poet may have first fallen in love with language, from the letter on up.


We also went on a special strike mission to get into Pfaff’s Cellar, or as close as we can get to the real thing, in any case.  “Pfaff’s Lager Bier Saloon”—America’s first Bohemian hangout, and Whitman’s first real room of his own– was originally located on the basement level of 647 Broadway, three doors north of Bleecker Street.  Though 647 (and its twin tenement at 645) still stand, the basement of 647 no longer includes access to the vaulted space beneath its sidewalk.  These spaces were always prone to cave-ins and, according to the Zigi’s Shoes staff who now rent the space, the vault was dangerous and had to be closed off. 

            Quite wonderfully, though, we were granted access to the twin basement at 645.  Though the friendly staff at Han’s Deli hesitated at first in granting us access to their working space in the basement, we were graciously invited downstairs—and the obliging manager even took a photo of my intrepid Whitmaniacs (note the vaulting above their heads!).  Did Walt first have sex with Fred Vaughn only steps away, in the mirror image of this space?  We may never know, though all of us felt an electricity and sense of connectiveness in this space (some of us—no names, Alicia!—even claimed to see an apparition of our Walt)


Back on the Brooklyn side, we were treated to a “performance lecture tour” of Whitman’s Fort Greene Park by none other than Greg Trupiano, legendary Director of the Whitman Project and perhaps the best living representative I know of Walt’s generous spirit and “urban affection.”  Greg is here joined by Charles Jarden, the Director of the Fort Greene Park Conservancy, as they discuss the history and recent 100-year anniversary celebration of the Revolutionary War Martyr’s Monument and Tomb—projects that were dear to Walt’s heart, though these magnificent structures were completed 16 years after his death.


Especially for our enjoyment, Greg arranged for an outdoor performance of Whitman’s “Ode” by the divine mezzo soprano Nicole Mitchell.  As Walt instructed, Nicole sung the lines to the tune of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”   Standing on Brooklyn’s highest point (right at the base of the monument), Nicole’s resonant voice seemed to carry from here to old Wallabout Bay itself.  Whitman’s adoration of opera (particularly the mezzo soprano Marietta Alboni), his dedicated campaign for a green “lung” in Brooklyn, his desire to see the erection of a monument to the martyrs of the British prison ships, and his fierce love of comrades all come together in this photo.


The last place we looked for Walt this summer was in the Bowery Poetry Club, a storied venue for the spoken arts that has hosted voices known (think Amiri Baraka, Eric Bogosian, Anne Waldman) and soon-to-be recognized.  Thanks to the generosity of Managing Director Gary Glazner, we were given the legendary stage for our own whitmanic grand finale.  Because I want my students to consider the oral component of Whitman’s verse, and because I believe in the positive ramifications of memorizing poetry, I oblige all of them to recite ten or more lines by memory during the term.  Adam chose to give his presentation on the last day, and he remained fearless, confident, and composed though he knew he’d be on public view.  And so here is a final image of “WW&NY” 2009:  Adam’s moving delivery of Whitman’s “Whispers of Heavenly Death”, overseen and seemingly approved of by the Bowery Poetry Club’s neon Walt. 


As you too can see even from an armchair, looking for Whitman in New York is an endlessly unfolding, extending, and rewarding mission.  He seems to be everywhere in the city these days—from bus stops (with the new Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign emblazoned with his exclamations), to t-shirts (check out Bowery’s own Barking Irons’ design for the perfect “Rural New Yorker”!, from balustrades (“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” at the Fulton Ferry Landing; “City of Ships” surrounding the marina at the Wintergarden), to beer (okay, Waltwit ale is brewed in Phillie, but we fully support you guys over here! ). 


So then, what’s up with the change in venue from New York… to Novi Sad???

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