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walking tours

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???

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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