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ryerson street house

My avatar.

August 3, 2009:  “Change Avatar”, suggests the even-toned, congenial facilitator of “My Profile” right here on my very first blog.  Avatar?  This graceful and exotic word had recently caught my attention in “So Long!”, Whitman’s  farewell poem to readers of Leaves of Grass.  The poem first appeared (appropriately) as the last poem in the third edition of 1860; its final stanza supplies a startling moment of intimacy and attempts to break down, once and for all, the literary ‘fourth wall’: the page between writer and reader.

Dear friend, whoever you are, take this kiss,

I give it especially to you—Do not forget me,

I feel like one who has done his work—I progress on,

The unknown sphere, more real than I dreamed, more direct, darts awakening rays about me—So Long!

Remember my words—I love you—I depart from materials,

I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.

It’s a memorable goodbye, full of passion and demonstrations of genuine affection.  And Whitman comes as close as he ever did, to manifesting his love—to touching us physically, to breaking down old, assumed boundaries of time and place.  As we run our fingers over the lines of the third edition, the “kiss” of letter-pressed page 456 provides proof of the printer’s bodily contact (hey Walt, weren’t you overseeing the printing up there in Boston?  Might you have pressed those letters into the page, to reach us on the ‘other side’?).  And as we flip the last page, close the back cover, and take our hand off the book, Whitman comes as close as he ever will to being disembodied and dead to us.

These lines received only minor revisions through the next twenty years.  But in the 1881-82 edition of the Leaves—the sixth edition—Whitman added a completely new fourth line: 

I receive now again of my many translations, from my avataras ascending, while others doubtless await me

Like many of Whitman’s late poems and revisions, this line adds a new spiritual dimension to the raw bigness of his exaltations and exhortations.  Though he might be changing the spelling (and gender?) of the original Hindu word, Whitman does seem to be thinking of avatar(a) as the incarnate, earthbound form of a deity.  Death is the only thing that’ll get this kosmos off the streets!  So then, Whitman’s avatar is holiness at street level, a manifestation of the divine that can be seen and touched by anybody.

Now (yikes), back to “Change Avatar.”  And I’m sure experienced bloggers and gamers are rolling their eyes at my complication of a simple idea:  a “graphic representation of a person or character in a computer-generated environment, esp. one which represents a user in an interactive game or setting, and which can move about in its surroundings and interact with other characters” (Oxford English Dictionary, Online Edition).  But for folks like me who actively love the poet right back, celebrate the revolution of his art and receive joy and satisfaction from teaching his message, choosing an avatar is a daunting task.

Too easy, I think, to put Whitman’s own beloved visage in the clipboard square.   Instead, I recall a favorite line from the first poem of the first edition, later entitled “Song of Myself”:

            In all people I see myself—none more, and not one a barleycorn less

So, patient reader, I give you… me. 



But this is me at what might have been my most Whitmanic moment yet—this is me standing within the front hallway of 99 Ryerson Street in Brooklyn, where America’s greatest poet completed America’s greatest book of poetry.



Ryerson Street was described as a “street of mechanics’ homes” during Whitman’s day, and it still is home to an assortment of hardworking Brooklynites.  The mechanics, students, and local shop owners who dwell here now, live with the constant roar of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (elevated across Ryerson, just a few blocks away)… and the ghost of America’s greatest poet.

As a Whitman scholar, I am fascinated by the relationship between his poetry and his own interest in physical space and place—specifically, in the connection between the growth of the Leaves and the spectacular rise of New York City as the world’s center for culture, communication, and commerce.  Indeed, the book I’m currently completing is titled Walt Whitman and New York: The Urban Roots of Leaves of Grass.  So when I teach my Whitman courses at NYU or Columbia, I make a point of not just telling them about Whitman’s beloved Brooklyn or Mannahatta, but showing them what Whitman saw, experienced, predicated, and celebrated.  We follow Whitman’s footsteps around Brooklyn Heights, where the 1855 edition was printed; around Newspaper Row, where the young journalist got his start; down to what remains of Pfaff’s Cellar, America’s first Bohemian hotspot and Whitman’s hangout in the late 1850s; on the Staten Island Ferry,  in an effort to simulate those countless rides on the Fulton Ferry.

My favorite tour is our perambulation around Fort Greene Park (established as Brooklyn’s first official park in 1847, because of Whitman’s almost-daily newspaper editorials calling for the need for green space in his neighborhood), then down the now omnibus-less Myrtle Avenue (passing the site of the offices of Whitman’s Brooklyn Freeman) on our way home to Walt’s house at 99 Ryerson.  I want students to experience how Whitman’s daily walks here in 1855 fed the developing project of the Leaves.  Myrtle Avenue is still a lively commercial thoroughfare; and just as Whitman enjoyed window-shopping at Joseph Muchmore’s china shop  (at #37), we take in the diverse goods and products on display at Kiini Ubura Jewelry or, well, Karen’s Body Beautiful (J). 

In the summer of 2008, I took my Columbia students of “Walt Whitman and New York” on this pilgrimage route.  As we approached the three-story, yellow-sided building on the east side of Ryerson, I could feel their surprise at the unassuming modesty of Walt’s house.   Is this where Whitman dreamed up lines like: “this is the city… and I am one of the citizens”?  Or “the mother quietly at home placing the dishes on the suppertable”?  Or “Walt Whitman, A Brooklyn Boy”?   Had Emerson and Thoreau really ascended this plain and solid stoop, to search for the author of Leaves of Grass?  If Walt is really the poet of place, then this is the Whitmanic Navel.  I ask them to take time to absorb and translate the magic of ‘being here.’

“Who are you looking for?”  came a voice from a big brown car parked out front of the house.  It didn’t take long for me to answer.

“Walt Whitman.”

“Well, he lived here, you know.”  The congenial Brooklynite turned out to be the owner of the building.  After hearing about our pilgrimage, and seeing the interest and enthusiasm on our faces, he opened up his heart—and his home to us.  And without further ado, he welcomed all 26 of us through the ground floor entrance and up the staircases that Walt daily ascended and descended in 1855.



Though the house is now divided up into smaller apartments (Pratt students and recent immigrants now live in closer quarters than the Whitman family did), the spirit of the house still felt broad, muscular— “braced in the beams.”  I felt the solidness and soundess of the construction as I grasped the generous wooden banister and climbed the good-sized stairs.  Walt is here.  In the floorboards, the doorknobs, the old float-glass window panes.  And in our faces as we passed through this magical place. 

My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs, I whisper.  On every step bunches o fages, and larger bunches between the steps; all below duly travel’d, and still I mount  and mount



That’s me and my student Billie Eddington (an accomplished singer who set several of Whitman’s poems to music, for her final project) standing on Walt’s front landing. 

“Closer yet, I approach you,” I tease him.  “What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance.”


And that’s Ira Stup and me, absolutely beaming with Whitmanic enthusiasm just inside Walt’s threshold.

“Who was to know what should come home to me?  Who knows but I am enjoying this?  Who knows, Walt, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?”

And that’s the story of my avatar.  Phew.  If you’re still there, you might just have the patience to follow the narrative of the much longer and more complicated story to come… which brings me next to the title of this blog…M

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